HARRY MILLER’S ISIPINGO

Which Way Now
Cuneiform Records Rune 233

By Ken Waxman

Free Bop with a touch with kwela is probably the best way to describe this CD of never-before-released tracks from bassist Harry Miller’s 1975 Isipingo sextet. But this high quality session consisting of four of Miller’s compositions is more than that. It adds another document to the underrepresented story of South African/British improv.

Starting in the 1960s, usually fed up or fleeing apartheid, a variety of South African musicians abandoned their homeland and set up shop in the United Kingdom. Soon they interacted with some of the more advanced British players to develop a variant of Hard Bop mixed with transformed homeland melodies and touches of Free Jazz. Most – including trumpeter Mongezi Feza and drummer Louis Moholo featured here – were graduates of Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes combo.

Leader Harry Miller (1941-1983) however, arrived on his own in 1961 and quickly hooked up with British players. This band was named after a vacation spot in Miller homeland, and is the only recording featuring the band with Feza, who died shortly afterwards. Miller’s life too was cut short. He was killed in an auto accident in the Netherlands, having moved there in the late 1970s to maintain his playing situations with questing Continental improvisers like Dutch pianist Leo Cuypers and German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann.

Although the recording is a little rough – both the trumpeter and Osborne start solos off mic during one track, WHICH WAY NOW is valuable in capturing the band at the height of its power. In the intervening years since, Tippett has occupied himself with most experimental bands like Mujician; Moholo has returned to South Africa; Evans gigs occasionally, though is mostly employed as a math teacher; while personal problems caused Osborne to abandon music in the early 1980s.

There are few hints of an erratic course in his soloing here, which ranges from wispy, bucolic obliggatos to sharp tempered steel-like asides. At this point he seems to be modulating his attack from one initially informed by Jackie McLean Hard Bop toughness to a more dissonant approach with definite echoes of Eric Dolphy. On the title track, which sounds both Free and Basie-ish, he switches among standard R&B style riffs, reverberating Dolphyesque side-slipping and a series of quotes that reference operatic airs as much as jazz. Meanwhile Feza contributes blustery grace notes, Evans speedy boppish runs, and Tippett mainstream comping. Miller’s walking bass line decelerates to a hesitant, half-speed for the finale as the brass dissolve into a buzzing valve showpiece.

Before that, Moholo shows off ratcheting flams and bull’s eye cymbal vibrations and Miller modernized slap bass, as the altoist’s Dolphy-out-of-(Charlie) Parker irregularly vibrated lines and foghorn honks overblow in false registers. Faced with this, the pianist’s key sweeping seems almost like a series of etudes before it hardens into a steady flow of dynamic notes from one side of the piano to another.

Earlier still in the program, Osborne splits the melody into adjacent tones in his solo, following blowsy, double-tongued power shouts and chromatic near-tailgate bluster from Evans. The trombonist’s notes almost seem to be playing call-and-response with themselves. Feza is just as impressive, beginning with a heraldic flourish at the top of his range and concluding with deeply buried grace notes liberated from the recesses of his bell.

“Children at Play” is the defining track, a slinky groove fest that hurtles by so quickly that you hardly notice its more than 20½-minute length. What could be standard Bop changes and variations are reconstituted by the six. Osborne tempers his Jackie Mac-attack with a more sophisticated Free Bop flair; Evans blasts smeary cross tones northward almost into flute territory and Moholo underlines everything with hard, blunt slaps. Tippett’s backing mixes the solid pianism of Hard Boppers like Cedar Walton with the sliding modalism of a McCoy Tyner. Finally Miller’s double-stopping ringing timbres recaps the theme and concludes the piece.

Despite the sometimes informal – at times slapdash – mic placement and head arrangements, WHICH WAY NOW is musically as well as historically important. It also proves that at that junction Miller certainly knew the way.

Unfortunately for him, after 1983 there would be no longer be a “now”.

Track Listing: 1. Family Affair 2. Children at Play 3. Eli’s Song 4. Which Way Now

Personnel: Mongezi Feza (trumpet); Nick Evans (trombone); Mike Osborne (alto saxophone); Keith Tippett (piano); Harry Miller (bass); Louis Moholo (drums)