Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath

Eclipse At Dawn
Cuneiform Rune 262

The Chris McGregor Group

Very Urgent

Fledg'ling Records FD-3059

Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath

Brotherhood

Fledg'ling Records FD-3063

Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath

Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath

Fledg'ling Records FD-3062

Nearly 20 years after his death the musical importance of South African-born, pianist Chris McGregor and his pioneering multi-cultural big band Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) that operated both in the United Kingdom and the Continent is being repeatedly reconfirmed.

As these four recent CDs demonstrate, McGregor and his constantly shifting cast of musical characters were, especially during the early 1970s, involved in creating a third synthesis of sound. Newly arrived from South Africa, the sextet featured on Very Urgent – actually the inter-racial Blue Notes band that was forced to leave its Apartheid-ridden homeland a couple of years earlier – began by mixing a variant of Freebop with its native Kwela Township rhythms. A further sonic variant is more prominent on the other three CDs however – including the somewhat lo-fi, newly discovered live session, Eclipse at Dawn.

Expanding the Blue Notes to big band status – the pianist recruited most of the section men from the more raucous ranks of Britain’s burgeoning Free Jazz movement – BOB’s soloists’ frame of reference became Energy Music and Free Improv. This modulation was then was grafted onto the big band styling and Africanized beats that the band already projected. Finally with BOB introducing African instruments as well as themes to its program, a unique improv variant of so-called World Music was slouching towards birth with the group’s CDs.

There is impressive work throughout this series of discs, which can be divided chronologically and almost geographically. The 1968 combo work is separate from the big band(s) on the other CDs, while Eclipse at Dawn, recorded live in Berlin, allows the listener to compare extended live versions of some of the tunes recorded in the studio sessions that make up Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and Brotherhood.

By 1968, another South African exile, tenor saxophonist Ronnie Beer had joined the original Blue Notes – trumpeter Mongezi Feza, alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo, plus McGregor. But the added horn only intensified the band’s resemblance to such Hard Bop combs of the day as The Jazz Messengers. As a matter of fact, with McGregor’s key splintering in a Monkish fashion throughout, Very Urgent could be a Mod-Era British younger cousin to Atlantic’s Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk.

On these tunes, Dyani is still walking, McGregor outputs off-side fills, when he isn’t pounding on the keys, while on “Marie My Dear” – note the Monk homage in the title– Moholo’s regulation pops and scuffs derive from Blakey’s style, while Feza’s brassy asides and rasping triplets relate to the work of Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan.

Unlike the Messengers, the combo does play around with more abrupt tempo changes, not to mention polyphonic harmonies on “Don’t Stir the Beehive”. Plus the compositions curiously wavering, almost off-key heads often reflect McGregor’s background in Methodist hymns and Africa chants more than Afro-American Baptist church music. But when the soloists open up, as Feza does with bugle calls and rooster crows on “Heart’s Vibrations” and Pukwana does throughout with Tranesque, contrapuntal trilling, the parallel are still bop – admittedly Free Bop not Hard Bop – but at the same place in history as their American cousins. While the strength of the sounds isn’t compromised, the compositions of McGregor and others get a more notable showcase on the BOB CDs.

Minus Feza, the band on Eclipse numbers 11, but with Barbados-born trumpeter Harry Beckett added, and another South African-in-exile, Harry Miller in the bass chair. Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, with Beer still on board, adds John Surman on soprano and baritone saxophone, Mike Osborne on alto saxophone and Beckett among others. Brotherhood is by a 12-piece group, including tenor saxophonist Gary Windo, who with trombonist Nick Evans contributed the “Funky Boots March”, which closes both that session and the live date from Berlin.

Slightly shorter than one minute with a parade-ground beat from Moholo, slide- whistle shrills from the reeds and a brassy fortissimo lead from that sounds like a piccolo trumpet, both performances are pretty much the same. Elsewhere however, the live situation allows BOB to stretch out on a couple of Pukwana lines “Nick Tete” and “Do It” which are also on Brotherhood; as well as on “The Bride”, which is poked and prodded for more than twice the length of time than the version on Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath.

In Berlin, the sound is also slightly distant – especially when it comes to Miller’s bass part – although there’s plenty of room for Pukwana’s improvisations. Moving from spetrofluctuation and glossolalia with emphasized squeaks, spikes and multiphonics on “The Bride”, the altoist demonstrates that his time-sense was sufficiently “free” to break apart a theme that was brand-new at the time. Expanding and inflating the melody, Pukwana soon has trombonist Malcolm Griffin double-tonguing and fluttering, with fellow bone man Nick Evans adding pointed fills behind both. Soon enough the tempo turns staccato and more intense without losing traditional big band-styled call-and-response from the individual sections, only to be nearly blown apart to fragments by Windo’s Aylerian screeching and hocketing lines.

The brassy postlude, encompassing contrapuntal vamps from the horns plus Moholo’s smashes and rough ruffs are present in the studio version as well. But this “Bride” is betrothed to Surman and McGregor. Both more African-sounding as well as more closely wedded to jazz, this variation includes the pianist’s fantasia of circular contrasting lines, as well as Surman’s piercing and breathy soprano saxophone augmentations. The British saxophonist, who would eventually drift away from such forceful soloing, reed-bites, tongue-stops and centres himself with straining altissimo as he plays. Yet as opposed to more original ideas from Windo and Pukwana on the live version, he appears very much in thrall to John Coltrane’s and Eric Dolphy’s influences.

On the different, earlier CD, the studio version of “Nick Tete” also seems to relate more closely to expected big-band sounds – as well as adding Calypso and Kwela echoes – than it does in Berlin. McGregor fans the keys; Pukwana adds honks and slides to his solo, but despite double-tonguing, Feza’s lead theme variation is only slightly left of centre.

Live however, “Nick Tete” climaxes with mass cacophony that bleeds right into the following track – McGregor’s appropriately title “Restless”. This postlude is carried along on a series of glissandi, then staccato pops from the composer, coupled with spectacular triple-stopping pulses from Miller. That tune ends with contrapuntal and antiphonal screams, peeps and sighs from the horns, although the scene had been set by “Nick Tete”. Its finale involves alternating ascending and descending harsh cross cries from the band as Moholo ruffs and bounces, and Beckett and Pukwana gradually shred the theme with vamping counterpoint. This follows section work that manages to keep the theme danceable while expressing it in adjacent keys and pitches, begins with Pukwana again showing his command of the material which he dissolves into split tones.

As for “Do It”, BOB does it live with a nearly symphonic overture of cross timbres from the brass and reeds. However the tune becomes even freer and more agitated during Alan Skidmore’s tenor saxophone solo that encompasses double, triple and flutter-tonguing and finger vibrato. Downside is the muddy recording which makes it sound as if McGregor is playing a tinny electric piano.

High frequency piano chording on the studio version of “Do It” – which is actually longer than the live version – confirms that McGregor’s piano is acoustic. Here the composition is layered with portamento high brass, mid-range trombone spurts, higher-pitched reeds and basso reeds lines. Together these sound tiers provide the tonal coloration upon which Feza’s improvisation depends as he uses lip flutters and percussive spits to limn the melody. When the theme shifts to piano comping, additional tinctures appear as Miller takes a contrapuntal bass solo.

Eclipse at Dawn’s other surprise is its title track, composed by Abdullah Ibrahim, anther South African exile who followed a parallel, but completely separate musical route to McGregor’s. On this nocturne, the Ellingtonian echoes which are mostly masked in McGregor’s own writing for the band come to the fore. Atmospheric in execution, Evans’ Lawrence Brown-like theme statement is in this context almost excessively formalist, with only sul ponticello asides from Miller keeping it from sounding overtly legato. Osborne’s split-tone response to Evans’ theme elaboration is abrasive, yet definitely Free Bop rather than Free Jazz. Still in context it sounds wildly “outside”, even though his cries ornament and color rather than reconstitute the melody.

Overall, the most memorable track on these BOB CDs is Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath’s “Night Poem”. A rare excursion into program music by McGregor, the nearly 21½-minute track is a definite funky precursor to World Music exoticism, since the composer plays African xylophone – which at points sounds like a kalimba – as much as piano, with Beer and Feza both featured on Indian flutes. Moholo adds some bell shaking, but happily the African echoes are soon subsumed by a steady andante pulse, curvaceously toughened by Miller four-square plucks. Pushing the fragile flute sound aside, plunger trombone lines and sandpaper-rough tenor saxophone spews – probably from Skidmore – move the theme to the horns and penultimately to a brass choir. With trumpets and trombones adding contrapuntal ornamentation and Moholo a discontinuous beat, the theme becomes tough enough to end with drum top smacks that aurally overshadow a final flute peep.

Introducing a tough Africanized sensibility to big band music and mixing it with the solo strengths of emerging Free Jazz is McGregor and the BOB’s lasting legacy. The value of these CDs is that on any of them you can experience these qualities expressed in high-class music and sound.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Urgent: 1. Marie My Dear/Travelling Somewhere 2. Heart’s Vibration 3. The Sound's Begin Again/White Lies 4. Don't Stir the Beehive

Personnel: Urgent: Mongezi Feza (pocket trumpet); Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone); Ronnie Beer (tenor saxophone); Chris McGregor (piano); Johnny Dyani (bass) and Louis Moholo (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Brotherhood: 1. Nick Tete 2. Joyful Noise 3. Think of Something 4. Do It 5. Funky Boots March

Personnel: Brotherhood: Mongezi Feza (pocket trumpet and Indian flute); Mark Charig (cornet); Harry Beckett (trumpet); Malcolm Griffiths and Nick Evans (trombones); Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone); Mike Osborne (alto saxophone and clarinet); Gary Windo (tenor saxophone); Alan Skidmore (tenor and soprano saxophone); Chris McGregor (piano); Harry Miller (bass) and Louis Moholo (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Breath: 1. MRA 2. Davashe's Dream 3. Bride 4. Andromeda 5. Night Poem 6. Union Special

Personnel: Breath: Mongezi Feza (pocket trumpet and Indian flute); Mark Charig (cornet); Harry Beckett (trumpet); Malcolm Griffiths and Nick Evans (trombones); Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone); Mike Osborne (alto saxophone and clarinet); John Surman (soprano and baritone saxophones); Ronnie Beer (tenor saxophone and Indian flute); Alan Skidmore (tenor and soprano saxophone); Chris McGregor (piano and African xylophone); Harry Miller (bass) and Louis Moholo (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Eclipse: 1. Introduction by Ronnie Scott 2. Nick Tete 3. Restless 4. Do It 5. Eclipse at Dawn 6. The Bride 7. Now 8. Funky Boots March 9. Ronnie Scott and Chris McGregor Sendoff and Applause

Personnel: Eclipse: Mark Charig (cornet); Harry Beckett (trumpet); Malcolm Griffiths and Nick Evans (trombones); Dudu Pukwana and Mike Osborne (alto saxophones); Gary Windo (tenor saxophone); Alan Skidmore (tenor saxophone); Chris McGregor (piano); Harry Miller (bass) and Louis Moholo (drums)