Brotherhood of Breath
(100 Club, EFG London Jazz Festival, 20 November 2019. Review by Patrick Hadfield)
In his opening comments, Frank Williams pointed out that this year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Brotherhood of Breath, the big band led by pianist Chris McGregor and featuring many exiles of apartheid South Africa who made their home in the UK. McGregor and his compatriots were joined in the band by several luminaries from the UK jazz scene in the 1960s and ’70s. Many of the members of the original Brotherhood of Breath are no longer with us, but the spirit of the band is kept alive by Williams and his colleagues.
Several members of the current incarnation Brotherhood of Breath played with McGregor in the last version of the band he led before his death in 1990, with Steve Williamson and Robert Junitz joining Williams on saxes, Claude Deppa and Dave deFries on trumpets and Annie Whitehead on trombone all having played with McGregor. Their numbers were made up to strength by musicians of the calibre of Chris Batchelor on trumpet, Curtis Ruiz on bass and Steve Argüelles on drums.
The show was a joyous celebration of music McGregor and his fellow exiles brought to the UK. The full house meant it was standing room only, and the rich rhythmic swing had many people dancing, and the rest of us moving too. It just wasn’t possible to stand still.
There were many high points, but it was the orchestra as a whole that really shone. The arrangements had the five-strong saxophone section exchanging phrases with the trumpets and trombones. At other times all the horns were blowing in unison, producing a glorious sound.
It almost seems churlish to highlight individual soloists – all the musicians made strong contributions. Williamson was playing alto, and he soared bird-like on it. Julian Nicholas, on tenor, soprano and clarinet, also excelled, and the two of them battled on Big G. Among the reeds, the bassoon made a rare jazz appearance, wielded with swinging style by Junitz.
DeFries played a beautiful, haunting solo on flugelhorn during an exquisite Ellingtonian ballad dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela. Deppa directed the brass as well as blowing some typically raucous, high notes. Whitehead was as compelling as ever, with some evocative, growling solos.
Much of the repertoire came from the last recording McGregor made with the Brotherhood of Breath, 1988’s Country Cooking. As such it lacked some of the more youthful, anarchic irreverence of earlier versions of the band. But this was more than compensated by the lively township bop they played, bringing a shuffle and a bounce to the audience.
As the concert drew to a close, those in the audience who had been seated rose to join the rest of us standing for a well deserved ovation. A wonderful, celebratory evening.