Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath

Procession (Live at Toulouse)
Ogun OGCD 40

By Ken Waxman

The best jazz is often created through the synthesis of conflicting, sometime clashing musical impulses. So it was with the work of South African pianist Chris McGregor (1936-1990), whose all-star Blue Notes band of the ‘60s combined hard bop and (South) African musical influences. McGregor’s references multiplied during his European expatriate years when he created the Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) big band. On these live late ‘70s performances, sinuous kwela melodies and bop’s breakneck speed are part of the band’s disciplined Basie-like swing, yet at the same time sound extensions introduced by affiliated European free players have become more apparent in the writing and playing.

Chris McGregor’s final “Andromeda” includes enough reed bites and shrilling peeps to express the disconnections and deconstructions that characterized contemporary free music; and a give-away title like “Sunrise on the Sun”, labels a tune that could have come from an Arkestra session. That piece’s jerky, slip-sliding exposition featuring chicken cackling vamps from the four saxes and jujitsu tongue fluttering from the brass section is spurred on by Louis Moholo-Moholo straight-forward drumming, lacks only electronically processed wiggles to conjure up Sun Ra.

Still with avant-garde avatars such as Evan Parker and Radu Malfatti, who are both present, keeping their freer impulses in check, it’s British alto saxophonist Mike Osborne and South African alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana free-bop stylings which predominate. Their pliant yet mercurial attack makes tracks like “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me” and “Kwhalo” relentlessly sway. The later is a particular standout as the pianist, drummer, plus bassists Johnny Dyani and Harry Miller – South Africans all – effortlessly induce and maintain the captivating beat. As wedded as the bottom is to distinctively Africanized rhythms, the trumpets high-pitched triplet extensions and the slippery, guttural swops from the saxes produce certified free jazz stimulation.

This fissure-less melding of Africa, Europe and the cosmos is probably the key to what made BOB such a breath-taking experience in its day, and why Procession (Live at Toulouse) is a valuable new addition to the band’s canon.

Tracks: You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me; Sunrise on the Sun; Sonia; Kwhalo; TBS; Andromeda

Personnel: Harry Beckett, Marc Charig: trumpet; Radu Malfatti: trombone; Mike Osborne, Dudu Pukwana: alto saxophone; Evan Parker: tenor saxophone; Bruce Grant: baritone saxophone, flute; Chris McGregor: piano; Johnny Dyani, Harry Miller: bass; Louis Moholo-Moholo: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record July 2014