CHRIS MCGREGOR’S BROTHERHOOD OF BREATH

Bremen To Bridgwater
Cuneiform Records Rune 182/183

Count Basie of the Townships could have been the late South African pianist Chris McGregor’s nickname. That is, if his Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) big band, featured on this two-CD set of 1970s performances, didn’t add the colorations of Charles Mingus’ bigger groups and suggestions of Hank Crawford’s arrangements for Ray Charles to its unique mix of modern jazz and South African jive.

Earlier, apartheid era officials went out of their way to discourage the white pianist from mixing with black musicians. Which is why Capetown’s McGregor (1936-1990) and his black fellow players in the Blue Notes sextet ended up living permanently in Europe after 1964.

Mixing with British free improvisers such as saxophonists Elton Dean and Evan Parker, trumpeters Marc Charig and trombonist Radu Malfatti — all of whom are represented on the over 2½ hours of previously unreleased music here — the combo gradually expanded to big band size. That didn’t happen all at once, or stay permanent, as personnel shifts during the concerts captured on this set, one from 1971 in Germany and two from 1975 in England, reflect this.

At the same time BREMEN TO BRIDGWATER has to be recognized for what it is and what it isn’t. As a live record of a touring band it offers some exceptional swinging music enlivened by valuable solos from many musicians, including some who unfortunately are no longer around due to death or illness. But road conditions also mean that the performances aren’t as tight as they would be in a studio environment, and the recording is sometimes muffled and tubby. Many of the pieces rely on constantly repeated riffs and blaring dynamics. In fact, a few tunes and some of the solos could have been excised.

That said, BOB’s unique mixture of free jazz, kwela, swing blues and hard bop — performed at jet plane-like speeds — meant that roistering, hard bodied pieces that never seem to let up are its stock in trade. Especially interesting are the adaptations the Blue Notes’ star soloists made to this new environment.

Although McGregor’s approach was always pretty basic, tunes like “Now” on CD1, “Union Special” and “Sonia” features the kind of bluesy interchange you would expect to more readily find on Chicago’s Southside. Plus, notably on the first tune, the pianist’s comping and offbeat interjections feed the soloists in such a way that their thought process become more expansive — sort of what Basie did for his band members as well. Many of McGregor’s compositions somehow have that American Southwest Territory band feel — complete with call and response from the horn and brass sections.

Alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana (died-1990) is thoroughly his own man, and maintains his unique repertoire of sax squeaks and disco whistle tweets when he plays. There are times, such as on “Sonia”, where his full-blown multiphonics seem to be as much East St. Louis R&B as East London Township jive. Trombonist Nick Evans’ gutbucket blasts help maintain the mood, as does the polyrhythmic drumming of Louis Moholo, the only Blue Note still living in 2004.

In his solos, trumpeter Mongezi Feza (died-1975) shows that by this juncture he was listening to Don Cherry and other advanced brassman as well as high note specialists like Dizzy Gillespie. On Pukwana’s “The Birds”, for instance, he constantly slithers up the chromatic scale, constructing his solo out of high-pitched triplets smeared over the sonic surface. Besides bashing his snares, Moholo sounds as if he’s contributing Africanized whirl drum textures and tenor saxophonist Gary Windo, who spent time in Carla Bley big band, snorts split tones before trading licks with Feza.

Another South African, bassist Harry Miller (died-1983), who didn’t join the others until all immigrated to Europe, fuses impressively with Moholo’s backbeat and McGregor’s fills to provide the powerful spine underneath all 16 tracks. The few times he introduces a number or takes a couple of bars solo he proves that he could hold his own with the best timekeepers as well.

It’s also interesting to see which future BritImprov types were doing in the band, since BOB’s compositions usually meanders through echoes of down-to-earth swing, focused hard bop with echoes of “Bags Groove” and Mingus-like blow outs.

Mike Osborne, whose career as a freebopper was unfortunately curtailed by metal illness, acquits himself well with some characteristic glossolalia intersecting with smoother lines on, for instance, his own untitled original. He does strain to be heard over over-recorded drums though. Similar miasmic sound hampers him on “Kwhalo”. Unexpectedly, some of his best work comes on the clarinet. His fluid, double-tongued lines are as unique as his choice of axes.

Altoist Dean, who still moves between free music and jazz rock, doesn’t really surprise in his straightahead solos, neither do the few asides by future London Jazz Composers Orchestra stalwarts trumpeter Charig and trombonist Malcolm Griffith. But unless there’s a discographical mistake, that’s BritImprov exemplar Parker slurring and honking his way through the finger snapping second version of “Now” in a way never heard before or since.

As an aside, when BOB expresses its most freeform piece, “Restless”, it’s the South Africans — McGregor double-timing, Moholo vibrating all parts of his kit, Miller double stopping, Feza producing brass flurries and Pukwana squeaking in irregular vibratos — who are most far out.

Should your tastes run to kwela, Southwestern swing riffs, ceremonial music, hard bop, free jazz and/or rhythmic abandon you’ll find much to like here. Putting aside the occasional slipshod sound, this is another two-platter helping of BOB in its prime for its fans and for those who deserve to discover this fine band.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Funky Boots March 2. Kongi’s Theme 3. Now 4. The Bride 5. Think of Something 6. Union Special 7. Andromeda 8. Do It 9. The Serpent’s Kindly Eye 10. Untitled Original CD2: 1. Sonia 2. Now 3. Yes, please 4. Restless 5. Kwhalo 6. Untitled Original

Personnel: Marc Charig, Harry Beckett, Mongezi Feza (trumpets); Nick Evans, Malcolm Griffin, Radu Malfatti (trombones); Mike Osborne (alto saxophone and clarinet); Evan Parker (soprano saxophone and tenor saxophone); Dudu Pukwana, Elton Dean (alto saxophone); Gary Windo, Alan Skidmore (tenor saxophone); Bruce Grant (baritone saxophone); Chris McGregor (piano); Harry Miller (bass); Keith Bailey or Louis Moholo (drums)