The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, July 06, 2007

More vital catching up to do. When the Fledgling label reissued the two RCA albums recorded by Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath in the early seventies a few months ago, I assumed that everyone who wanted to know about that would have known about it and not waited for me to herald it; besides, the writing I have done on the group elsewhere – or, indeed, that done on Amazon back in 2000 by a mysterious Oxford-based correspondent named “Mark Carlin” to whom I offer a pre-emptive, lawsuit-avoiding apology – seemed to obviate the need to do any more here.

But no, it, and they, continue to need to be heralded, even though for most of the leading figures involved it’s far too late to do them any practical good. Besides, with the possible exception of a certain group from Manchester who have traded under three different names, and periodic shifts in personnel, since 1977, the Brotherhood of Breath, as they existed throughout the seventies, are my favourite aggregation of musicians ever. The reason? They proved that radical music could happily coexist with catchy melodies and dancing rhythms; they were as tight as fuck yet also as loose as the softest of can(n)ons; their live performances proved that you didn’t have to be the Royal Marines Marching Band, all military precision and correctness, but that creatively could flourish organically and meaningfully in the preciousness of the improvised moment.

And the Brotherhood of Breath flowered in a period when, for one of the surprisingly few brief spells in post-Beatles British-based music, everything literally came together, or at least had the fortune of enterprising people like Robert Wyatt or Joe Boyd to help pull everything, and everyone, together. The comparison with the current Canadian/Arts & Crafts scene is inescapable; once again here was an environment in which everybody played with everybody else, irrespective of genres, where musicians would happily hop from band to band and back again, everyone pushing art in the same direction (from their varying perspectives), important and unbreakable links being forged in the process. Joe Boyd in particular was crucial; straight out of Harvard, mouthy and full of attitude, he sped to London and meticulously built up, and spoke loudly in favour of, musicians who couldn’t or wouldn’t always speak for themselves – the Incredible String Band, the early Pink Floyd, Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan were just a few of the musicians around whom Boyd started to build a microuniverse; interdependent, inter-collaborating, creative, flourishing.

The Brotherhood of Breath were also enticed into this utopia. The background history is well known, but just to recap; the original sextet that was the Blue Notes, nominally led by pianist Chris McGregor and featuring saxophonists Dudu Pukwana and Ronnie Beer, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo, came to London via Johannesburg and Zurich in the mid-sixties, fleeing the apartheid regime which didn’t look kindly on mixed-race collaborations of any kind. The cosy whitened British jazz establishment were generally as sniffy to them as they had been to Joe Harriott, though Ronnie Scott gave them the run of his Old Place in Soho’s Gerrard Street in tandem with the other various factions which were flourishing in British jazz and improv music at the time – the Little Theatre Club nexus of John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Bailey/Parker/Oxley groupings, AMM, Mike Westbrook’s variously-sized and themed ensembles, eventually the very young Keith Tippett – and the South Africans began to be recognised as the link which ran through all of these; in turn, the young British players were thrilled and shocked (in the best of ways) by the naked emotionalism of their playing, the flagrant and fiery disregard for conventions or known structures. When Ayler came to London in 1966 to play his only British concert, he stayed at McGregor’s flat.

The Blue Notes continued to exist on and off – the only album recorded by the sextet, Very Urgent, was released under the name of “The Chris McGregor Group” in 1968, and scandalously still awaits its debut on CD. But McGregor, a lifelong Ellington nut, had a hankering towards building larger bands. His first attempt, also in 1968, was shortlived but those who saw any of the band’s few performances still talk of them today in awe. An album, Earth Music, was cut for Polydor, but exists only on mortgage-your-house-20-times-rare white labels.

Finances and logistics brought McGregor’s first big band to a premature end, but he persevered, and in 1970 the Brotherhood of Breath was established. It was based around a nucleus of the Blue Notes – all of the sextet were present in initial line-ups, with the exception of a highly sceptical Dyani, so a fellow Johannesburg refugee, Harry Miller, was the obvious choice for bassist. Miller’s main gig at the time was with Westbrook, and he brought with him several other Westbrook regulars; on their eponymously-titled 1971 debut album, produced by Boyd, the sax section is augmented by the “S.O.S.” team of John Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore, and Westbrook’s chief trombonist Malcolm Griffiths is also present. From Keith Tippett’s band McGregor borrowed trumpeter Marc Charig and trombonist Nick Evans, and the line-up is completed by the hugely respected West Indian trumpeter, and sometime Mingus collaborator, Harry Beckett.

The first Brotherhood album appeared on CD on a couple of occasions in the nineties, but this new remastering is the clearest cut yet. It still sounds like the answer to most other music. The opening track, Dudu Pukwana’s “MRA,” was for many years used as the signature tune to Radio 3’s Jazz Record Requests, and is a blinding ensemble piece with a rhythm and central riff which is crying out to be sampled by the Dream Warriors, or their 2007 equivalent (K-Os?), the different horn sections playing ping pong with elements of the main tune in an arrangement which owes as much to Tadd Dameron as it does to the Xhosa tribal and kwela melodies from which the tunes themselves arise, with an immaculately thrusting drive from the peerless rhythm team of Miller and Moholo.

But it’s not all straightforward, celebratory pleasure, as the ballad “Davashe’s Dream” painfully demonstrates. A beautifully blossoming theme of, yes, Ellingtonian grandeur does not quite prepare us for the highly troubling solos which follow from Pukwana and Feza. They play as if trying to recall and recapture true beauty, but again and again (see also Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock) they collapse into screams, honks, disconnected atonal flurries – a catalogue of torment, fuelled by the hurting knowledge that this is their culture, but that they can’t return to its home; the midnight raids on the townships, the beatings, the ceaseless racism and unalloyed hatred – none of it can be banished. They try to rise and rise but seem to be cut down by invisible but palpable truncheons every time. Understand our history, they seem to say, and only then can you understand why we are playing as we do, it’s all in our heads, every horrible memory.

“The Bride” is another storming Pukwana riff piece which leads to a searing soprano sax solo feature for Surman, starting off very Coltranesque but nimbly dodging the various rhythmic challenges which McGregor and Moholo seem to put in his way; even so, his solo becomes increasingly more agonised, pushed by Miller and Moholo’s unrelenting rhythmic attack, until it ends up as a hoarse scream over hissing cymbals.

“Andromeda,” written by McGregor and named after his daughter, is the nearest and unlikeliest the album comes to pop, and it should have been and could still be a single with its instantly danceable and addictive theme, moving from percussive kwela rhythms to old-school Basie swing – but still there are bombs going off here, most notably Feza’s outrageous triple-tonguing solo, as askew as his contribution to “Davashe’s Dream,” although here his playing takes on a proto-punk stance of cheerful mischief. After an extremely short and surreal trombone solo from Evans, Pukwana’s bluesy screeches finally bring everyone back to the tune.

But the album’s main event is the marathon, semi-freely improvised onomatopoeic piece “Night Poem,” one of the finest of all large ensemble free jazz pieces which really does demonstrate the immense sonic scope of the group and whose instincts and power seem to defy any sense of rational musical gravity. Throughout Feza and Beer tweet away on their birdsong Indian flutes and McGregor carefully navigates the band from his African xylophone. Other various percussion and musical effects swoon in and out of the foreground focus, as eventually do most of the front line, most prominently an improvising trio of Beckett, Griffiths and Osborne (the latter on a rare clarinet outing). It alternates between apparent serene formlessness and (usually goaded by something that Pukwana does) violently vivid eruptions of glorious post-Ascension noise, all held together by another of McGregor’s catchy riffs which periodically also comes to the fore, the abstractions of the horn players balanced by the earthiness of Miller and Moholo’s grounded rhythms. Newcomers to this music will be astounded at how easily and quickly the players “fall into line” seemingly from nowhere, though repeated listenings do reveal the minute little cues and signals which occur amid the track’s dense but eminently accessible undergrowth. This remarkable performance is capped by a brief 200 mph canter through McGregor’s uproarious “Union Special” which sounds like the Bonzos playing Sousa at 78 rpm. A near-perfect record.

The revelation of these reissues, however, is Brotherhood, the group’s second album from 1972 – Boyd by now having returned to the States, McGregor both “directed” and produced the record himself – and hitherto unavailable in any format for the last 35 years (its value emphasised by the fact that, in over thirty years of browsing record shops around the world, I have never seen a second-hand copy). Noticeably briefer than its predecessors (it clocks in smartly at just under 35 minutes), it acts more as a guide to what they would do with these tunes onstage, since many of them will be familiar to those who know their subsequent quartet of live albums. By now Surman had left to concentrate on his own career and Beer had left music altogether and retreated to a life of boat building in Ibiza; Gary Windo comes in for Beer on tenor but the baritone chair remained unfilled for many years (unsurprisingly, since Surman was an impossible act to follow). “Nick Tete” is another riff-friendly Pukwana composition, easing the listener into the record, with Dudu himself soloing with his own bearing of immaculately ruined nobility.

However, it scarcely prepares the unwary listener for the explosion/meltdown that is “Joyful Noises (Of The Lord),” a completely free piece where McGregor, usually reticent to feature himself in his own band, cuts loose on piano against slow, gargantuan fanfares which sound like one of the Victorian hymns of his Transkei Sunday School youth rearranged and reharmonised by Michael Mantler, Moholo thrashing away at his kit like a rebel repossessed. McGregor’s solo, solidly in the Cecil Taylor percussion-dominant lineage, drums gloriously with sonorous wildness, and the fadeout at eleven minutes suggests that it could indeed go on forever (though it's a pity that Fledgling couldn’t unearth an uncut master of the track).

“Think Of Something” is a Mike Osborne tune, and finally we get to hear his beyond-superlative alto playing in the Brotherhood context, switching from Jackie McLean post-bop to Ornette freedom with absolute confidence and ease (and note how Miller and Moholo move immediately with his changes) and Evans also appears with a rather more generous space for his trombone playing.

“Do It” is another masterpiece; beginning with an anxious drum fade-in, Pukwana and Skidmore engage in a heated sax debate while the theme (Pukwana again) slowly melts into place behind them. It’s not long before Feza breaks free and runs off with one of his utterly inimitable wow-and-flutter solos, as the horns continue to riff enthusiastically underneath him, though Miller’s bass signals a break in action to allow Windo to enter and duet with Feza, snorting and scraping his fulminating tenor, again connecting instantly with the trumpeter’s rhythmic impetus. Eventually the full band re-enters and engages in a free scrum before Moholo’s locomotive engine drums command a slowdown, full of loopy call and response figures, gradually winding down to a halt before McGregor’s bright piano rallies everyone round again for another “That’s All Folks” high speed signoff with the Evans/Windo composition “Funky Boots March.” After the brief blast of the latter, various band members are heard to exclaim “Behold!” and “Wa-hey!” as well they might.

When you’ve bought, absorbed and savoured these, you would do well to proceed to 1973’s Live At Willisau, the debut release on Ogun Records and still available on CD; an hour and a quarter of quasi-berserk genius. By now the improv massive were taking hold; Skidmore and Griffiths are replaced by Evan Parker and Radu Malfatti, and Osborne didn’t make the gig due to illness, so this performance was particularly hardcore. The opening take on “Do It” certainly takes nothing in the way of prisoners; carried by the hearty breeze of the moment, Parker takes the tenor solo here, soon vortexing away into his world of cyclical runs and free howls, and the rest of the band rushes back in for a clamorous mass improvisation (in which, thanks to the placement of the microphones, the trombones are especially prominent). Still Miller and Moholo manage to marshal all of this activity such that it teeters on the brink of total chaos but never quite falls off the edge. “Restless” is a brief snatch of tortured avant bebop, very reminiscent of early Cecil, Pukwana storming away like Jimmy Lyons over McGregor and Moholo thunder. “Camel Dance” is a gorgeous, hypnotic 6/8 groove (this is where post-blues boom late ‘60s burned-out psychedelia comes in) over which Beckett flies with meticulous marvel. The version of “Davashe’s Dream” here is slightly more controlled than the studio recording, Feza keeping himself in check, but Pukwana’s alto still flustered with pain.

“Tungi’s Song” revisits the old Archie Shepp free marching band model (“Portrait Of Robert Thompson” etc.) with a cheekily gurgling trombone proclamation from Malfatti over determined riffs and rock(ist)-solid drumming. “Tungi’s Song,” despite some microphone feedback which sometimes makes him sound as if he’d borrowed Don Ellis’ varitone device, is perhaps Feza’s best recorded solo – rhythmically, harmolodically and emotionally on the absolute mark, his technique, expression and good humour unmatchable and unrepeatable, as Miller and Moholo swing robustly behind him. This slows down and segues into the ballad “Ismite Is Might” which features a beauty of a solo from Evans, testifying passionately over the massed horns like a Welsh Baptist Roswell Rudd (and it’s one of his best recorded solos, too). Then we climax with the explosive kwela kickback of “The Serpent’s Kindly Eye” again featuring Pukwana’s howling alto and a very brief cornet solo from Charig before the rest of the band, led by Parker and Malfatti, conspire to drown him out.

The version of “Andromeda” here is messy – you can feel McGregor’s audibly exasperated piano correcting yet another miscue by the band – though the solos here (Charig, then Evans and Pukwana again) are more straightforwardly boppish than on the original. But the accumulated experience of their performance is overwhelming; you can easily see Mingus, as actually happened, peeking round the back of the curtain at one performance to see where the hidden second drummer was, since he couldn’t believe that it was coming from one man. And the whole thing climaxes with thrilling runs through “Union Special” and a longer and deliberately more shambolic “Funky Boots March,” to which the audience, who have been cheering their approval all the way through, readily clap their hands as the band marches offstage. Value this band; they seared and sunned the skies as few others have done before or since.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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