Blue Notes

The Ogun Collection
Ogun OGCD 024, 025, 026, 027 & 028

What regretfully could be subtitled Tale of the Incredible Shrinking Band, this box set collects five CDs by the Blue Notes, arguable the best jazz band to emerge fully formed from Apartheid-era South Africa.

Consisting of sessions recorded from 1964 to 1987, the set traces the band’s evolution from a six-man boppish combo to a smaller group, which energized European – especially British – jazz by intermixing African rhythms and melodies, Hard Bop styling plus emerging Free Music. Leaving aside the first disc, Legacy: live in South Afrika 1964, the other CDs are necessarily reductive. That’s because after pianist and Blue Note leader Chris McGregor organized the Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) big band in 1970, other original Blue Notes left the enlarged group for their own projects for greater or lesser periods. Subsequently the remaining originals only regrouped for one/off gigs such as 1977’s Blue Notes in Concert, or sadly to honor deceased comrades. Blue Notes for Mongezi dates from 1975, and captures most of the 3½ hour improvised threnody the others played to honor trumpeter Mongezi Feza who died suddenly at 30. Finally Blue Notes for Johnny dates from 1987, following a similar post-funeral session by the remaining trio marking bassist Johnny Dyani’s death at 40.

During 1990 McGregor died at 53, as did alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana at 41. Now 69, drummer Louis Moholo returned to post-Apartheid South Africa in1995 and works from there in Europe and elsewhere.

While the seven tracks on Legacy chug along nicely with foot-tapping rhythms and expose a series of high class solos from the original five plus tenor saxophonist Nick Moyake, its paramount interest is historical. To put it bluntly, the band recorded in Durban in 1964 was then merely a high-quality Hard Bop combo. The entire set is firmly anchored in the school of players being recorded by the band’s namesake record company – Blue Note – and almost completely beholden to the genre’s defining ensemble: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Although McGregor and Moholo were respectively a little smoother or more constrained in their playing then their American opposite numbers – Bobby Timmons and Blakey himself – the front line was fully in Messengers thrall. Feza, who was only 19 at the time, moved between Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard; Pukwana referenced Jackie McLean and Cannonball Adderley; while Beer’s playing – featured on “I Cover the Waterfront” – harkened back to Dexter Gordon and Illinois Jacquet – when he wasn’t being Hank Mobley.

There was nothing wrong with copying the best. But there were already numberless groups playing the same way in Paris, in Toronto, in Montreal, in Berlin, in London and in every city in the United States. Frankly, the most impressive part of the CD is that most of the material is original, composed either by McGregor or Pukwana. But even here, echoes of the original American themes and solos peek through the melodies. As a matter of fact, the altoist’s “Dorkay House” sounds more like one of those Lionel Hampton-styled pre-R&B numbers from the late 1940s than anything more recent.

Relocation in the United Kingdom and prolonged exposure to new music of the free improvisers was, paradoxically, one of the best things that could have happened to these exiled players. Not only did they mix with the very best British and Continental players, but the subsequent groups they were involved with – very definitely including McGregor’s BOB – intermingled Township and kwela pulses and measures in a way that gained wide acceptance on the jazz scene. However the Blue Note’s core band members also became involved in other projects, with the bassist especially moving away from the others.

Feza’s unexpected death in 1975 brought the original Blue Notes together for the two-CD Blue Notes for Mongezi session. Despite its initial rehearsal room sound, it’s instructive to note how the subsequent decade of playing has redefined every musician as his own man. Like Dave Burrell, McGregor evidently internalized the stabbing feints and contrasting dynamics of Cecil Taylor, while maintaining the long-lined comping, architectural cadenzas and high frequency runs of earlier stylists such as Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.

Moholo is now more overtly rhythmic and aggressive, and has added blunt backbeat strokes, cymbal scrapes, bell-tree rattles plus abrasive friction and vibrations from miscellaneous percussion to his playing stance. Also energized is Dyani, who was more-or-less simply a timekeeper in Durban. He has developed a slippery, upfront style which moves in-and-out of tempo as he walks, slaps and vibrates his strings. Furthermore the mixture of English, Xhosa, Zulu and nonsense syllables he vocalizes during the four long selections occupies an uneasy position between call-and-response Baptist preaching, psychedelic scat singing and prototype Rap.

Pukwana occasionally joins in vocally as well, but his mature style is more notable for the slide-whistle shrills he uses to punctuate the numbers. Now completely divorced from his earlier influences, the alto man now combines, moderato flutter-tonguing and peeping altissimo cries as well as thematic quotes, melody integration and chalumeau reed bites and slurs. His alto saxophone precedent isn’t Ornette Coleman’s breakthroughs, but the tradition extension of someone like Eric Dolphy.

There are even points such as his wriggling obbligato response to Dyani’s preaching on “Blue Notes for Mongezi: third movement” that Pukwana’s horn takes the place of an entire testifying congregation. Additionally, because the session was organized as an ad hoc memorial to Feza, the four go through the equivalent of stream-of-consciousness playing, moving from theme to theme, melody to melody and phrase to phrase. Into the mix they toss everything from suggestions of Church of England hymns, kwela dance rhythms, refined, Ellington-reflecting tone poems – heavy on piano chording – and out-and-out primitivist R&B. McGregor’s hard chordal runs, Moholo’s bounces and flams, Dyani’s consistent pulse and Pukwana’s slide-slipping split tones and cries share the upfront space.

Less than two years later, Blue Notes in Concert – a quartet reunion at London’s 100 Club – finds the rhythm section fading into the background and Pukwana and McGregor more upfront. At certain junctures the back-and-forth teamwork suggests earlier simpatico pairing such as Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond or Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse, but the suspicion remains that the four are beginning to feel the pressure of trying to replicate with one horn arrangements created for two, three or more. There’s also certain listlessness to the rhythm, a perception fed by the fact that Dyani had moved to the Continent, and had been operating more-or-less separately from the others since 1971.

McGregor relies more on cyclical swirls and patterning than formerly. He’s also comping as much as possible with connective fills, intent to plug the many holes which are evident throughout and avoid the awkwardness of uncoordinated silences. Pukwana’s pitch too may have become more astringent and irregular, but he never abandons his Hard Bop underpinnings so that variations on the heads seem nearly endless.

The proceedings pick up considerably when the traditional “Kudala” is played. Given a foot tapping beat from Moholo’s cow bell strokes and Dyani’s thumps, tension is brought to a boil and pushed into bravado shape with ornamental vamps from the front line. Eventually the interpolation of Gary Windo’s “Funky Boots”, a BOB staple, rouses the playing enough so that the quartet draws audience applause.

Oddly – but more hopefully – a reunion of the remaining trio of Blue Notes a decade later signals a return to bravura form and commitment, which might result from McGregor, Pukwana and Moholo’s realization that with Dyani’s death, the band was more history than promise. Within the confines of the broken octave expositions, the harmonization and rhythmic thrust belie the combo’s size.

Playing soprano as well as alto saxophone – simultaneously at points, it seems – Pukwana works up a full head of steam, often getting distinct, overlapping timbres from each horn. McGregor contributes fast-paced glissandi and intermezzo patterns, while Moholo’s percussion implements extend to slide whistle, kazoo, ocarina – the better to interact with the saxophonist’s sandpaper rough tone.

Celebratory rather than dirge-like, the results seem to reference more than the Blue Notes’ past, especially when “Monks & Mbizo” and “Ithi GTqi/Nkosi Sikelee” – the penultimate and final track of the original session appear. Added to the expected African, gospel and Bop references are those from earlier jazz. At least McGregor’s arm-extended, pre-modern syncopation starts to resemble Pete Johnson and Meade Lox Lewis’ stylings and Pukwana’s nagging vibrato is almost as wide as Sidney Bechet’s.

Moholo may be channeling Baby Dodds at this point, and is soon mumbling invective or regret as well as well as whacking cymbals and small bells with a wire whisk, bouncing his snare and thumping the bass drum. Ostensibly wrapping up with a Dyani composition and a traditional song, the three bring the verisimilitude of wide intervals and crying cross tones they’ve been exploring earlier forward.

This old timey-modern exposition which mixes cries of pain with harsh intensity seems to bring Pukwana back to the Jackie McLean echoes he expressed on Legacy and similarly reintroduce the high frequency cadenzas related to Bobby Timmons McGregor exhibited at that time. Luckily Moholo’s powerful opposite sticking keeps the backbeat groove on track. The finale blends piano fills, reed brays and percussion kerplunk into an anthemic conclusion and proper celebration for a comrade.

Confirming the Blue Notes absolute and irrefutable dissolution, this boxed set still leaves us with many examples of the skill and excitement the band exhibited in its time.

— Ken Waxman

OGCD 024: Blue Notes - Legacy: live in South Afrika 1964

Track Listing: Legacy: 1. Now 2. Coming home 3. I Cover the Waterfront 4. Two for Sandl 5. Vortex Special 6. B My Dear 7. Dorkay House

Personnel: Legacy: Mongezi Feza (trumpet); Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone); Nick Moyake (tenor saxophone); Chris McGregor (piano); Johnny Dyani (bass) and Louis Moholo (drums)

OGCD 025/026: Blue Notes for Mongezi

Track Listing: Blue: 1. Blue Notes for Mongezi: first movement 2. Blue Notes for Mongezi: second movement 3. Blue Notes for Mongezi: third movement 4. Blue Notes for Mongezi: fourth movement

Personnel: Blue: Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone, whistle, percussion and voice); Chris McGregor (piano and percussion); Johnny Dyani (bass, bell and voice) and Louis Moholo (drums, percussion and voice)

OGCD 027: Blue Notes in Concert

Track Listing: Concert: 1. Iizwi/Msenge Mabelelo 2. Nqamakwe 3. Manje/Funky Boots 4.We Nduna 5. Kudala [Long ago]/Funky boots 6. Mama Ndoluse/Abalimanga

Personnel: Concert: Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone); Chris McGregor (piano); Johnny Dyani (bass) and Louis Moholo (drums and percussion)

OGCD 028: Blue Notes for Johnny

Track Listing: Johnny: 1. Funk Dem Dudu/To Erico 2. Eyomzi 3. Ntyilo Ntyilo 4. Blues for Nick 5. Monks & Mbizo 6. Ithi GTqi/Nkosi Sikelee L'Afrika 7. Funk Dem Dudu 8. Eyomzi 9. Funk Dem Dudu/To Erico

Personnel: Johnny: Dudu Pukwana (alto and soprano saxophones); Chris McGregor (piano) and Louis Moholo (drums and percussion)