Album reviews

OGUN ‘Blue Notes reissue series 2022’

OGUN ‘Blue Notes reissue series 2022

  • Legacy – Live in South Afrika 1964. OGCD024
  • Blue Notes for Mongezi. OGCD025/026
  • Blue Notes in Concert. OGCD027
  • Blue Notes for Johnny. OGCD028

Album reviews by Jon Turney

Here be treasure. And a timely opportunity to revisit the story – important, compelling, and ineffably sad – of British jazz’s bracing encounter with South Africa half a century ago. Let’s take these marvellous CDs in chronological order – the release schedule(*) is a little different – to give it a slightly clearer outline.

Blue Notes Legacy – Live in South Afrika 1964 captures the definitive line-up of a remarkably talented sextet: Nick Moyake on tenor saxophone, altoist Dudu Pukwana, drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and pianist Chris McGregor – the only white player – were all in their twenties. Astonishingly, bassist Johnny Dyani and trumpeter Mongezi Feza were just 19 when they played this university date in Durban.

It reveals a tight, inventive band – recently energised anew by the arrival of Moholo – playing exciting music rooted firmly in hard bop. The new compositions (four from Pukwana, two by McGregor) are in the same style – bluesy riffs that launch a round of solos while the rhythm section keeps solid time. The audience are noisily enthused and excitement builds until the final 14 minutes of Dorkay House, named for one of the few hang-outs for black musicians in Johannesburg.

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The existence of a multi-racial band, let alone actual public performance, was a challenge to the appalling regulatory apparatus of apartheid. The six were already preparing to take up an invitation from that year’s Antibes jazz festival, and to leave the country – for who knew how long?

They duly departed, making the date in France, performing in Switzerland, and flying into London in the Spring of 1965 for an engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, after which all but Moyake, who died in 1966, stayed on in the UK.

= = = = = = = = = =

Play Blue Notes for Mongezi and you skip a decade. Years in which the Blue Notes struggled with a London scene that, on the whole, preferred visitors to bring exciting new music, then move on. They performed less and less as a unit, and recorded hardly at all (Very Urgent from “The Chris McGregor Group” in 1968 was in effect a Blue Notes recording). Johnny Dyani settled in Copenhagen in the early ‘70s. Mongezi Feza’s health declined, and he died in exile in London in December 1975.

For Mongezi is the record of the four remaining members marking that occasion. They came together in a rehearsal room after Feza’s memorial service, and just played. The results appeared as a double LP the following year. This double CD reissues the full session, originally released by Ogun in 2008.

Nothing on Legacy will really prepare you for Blue Notes for Mongezi. There are no named tunes. The four dive in headfirst, piano, bass and drums playing free. Then keening, volcanic alto sax comes in over the top, speaking in tongues, seeking catharsis. This is worlds away from the routines of hard bop, music where the saxophone calls to mind Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman – although the players attest that the resemblance stems from reaching similar conclusions from a different starting point, not direct influence. There are other elements as well, especially vocal incantation later in the set, and a way of blending together that somehow has more life than hard bop unison. The tireless chronicler of South African jazz Gwen Ansell suggests these come from Xhosa music, and that “what is still the sound of family ceremonies, even in the cities, fostered ways of hearing music – not as one straight line, but rather as a collection of braided paths”.

Even in the lulls, this is intense music. All four are equally adept at free playing, McGregor now exploring the links between Ellington and Cecil Taylor. But there are firm anchors, from Dyani’s majestic bass – his simultaneous mastery of free flurries and deep groove a match for William Parker – and Moholo-Moholo, then as now as compelling in free time as when laying down a whipcrack beat. When they lock together they generate a forward motion that could demolish a blockhouse without losing impetus.

The set gains power in the expanded version, which allows everything to unfold at its own unhurried pace. It is both celebration and lament, ringing with shouts of pain and cries of resistance. Impossible to hear it without thinking of the political horrors the group had left behind, or marvelling at their ability to sound exultant in spite of everything.

There’s a passage that begins around ten minutes into the third movement when the drums drop out to leave Dyani and Pukwana exchanging the simplest of phrases, with a little prodding from the piano, each repetition unearthing darker griefs. Time feels suspended. There’s a near Beckettian quality – “I can’t go on; I will go on” – prolonged for minutes. Then the cymbal picks up the beat again and the four slowly re-emerge into the sunlight.

It’s one of many goosebump moments in an entirely remarkable set. The Blue Notes’ music will be, must be, forever associated with the politics of liberation. But it also transcends politics, conveying other timeless truths. In this case: the more you have to celebrate when someone dies, the more also you have lost. On that December day in 1975 they gave us a recording that speaks with rare eloquence of music as an inescapable human necessity.

That quality was one they could reproduce apparently at will. In Concert, recorded at a rare London gig at the 100 Club in 1977 certainly does. It’s another incandescent collective display, the group tearing into ten named tunes. Again, the habits of hard bop are mostly left behind: the last half hour sees them draw on South African music more directly with four traditional anthems arranged by the band.

= = = = = = = =

And so to 1987, and Blue Notes for Johnny, the remnant trio’s tribute to Dyani, who died in 1986 having achieved a worldwide reputation before he turned forty. Impossible not to miss his colossal sound and irreplaceable spirit, but the three surviving members still make a formidable ensemble. McGregor, pounding the keyboard, strives mightily to fill in some of the lower end where the bass would have been and Pukwana, in particular, seems able to enrich his sound endlessly. The hour of impassioned music here has some of his best playing on record. This was a more planned affair than the Mongezi tribute, and there are alternate takes on the CD of some of the finest tunes in the Blue Notes repertoire.

It is all, of course, poignant – the more so now we know that McGregor and Pukwana also passed not many years later, with Louis Moholo-Moholo left to carry the flame the Blue Notes lit, and to witness the end of apartheid.

That flame still spreads. The influence of the group is incalculable. This is almost all we now have of their music – McGregor’s subsequent work with the Brotherhood of Breath and Dyani’s groups who recorded for Steeplechase in Copenhagen are better documented. Their immediate influence was felt most strongly among a select band of their more adventurous British contemporaries – the likes of John Surman, Keith Tippett, Evan Parker and John Stevens – but many later players picked up on these South African vibrations. Even if you have never heard the Blue Notes, there’s a good chance that your favourite British players, from the Loose Tubes generation onward, loved them dearly.

There is yet more reason to revisit these recordings thanks to a new flowering of South African jazz.

A few weeks before these CDs arrived, news came that Blue Note records is launching an African imprint. That recognises the strength of jazz across the continent – and especially in post-Apartheid South Africa, with the first release coming from the storied label’s charismatic recent signing pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. Meanwhile, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt, who put together the Blue Notes Tribute Orchestra to introduce their compositions to a new generation of South African players a decade ago, has a date at this year’s BBC Proms.

All of which makes it an excellent time for Ogun Records to make these priceless recordings available again. If you’ve already lived with the UK-made sessions, in one form or another, for decades, as I have, it is immeasurably satisfying to see them once again on CD. If you sense the lasting influence of this group on the music being made now and want to dig deeper, they are the best possible place to start. If you just want to hear some of the most vibrant music made in this country in the last 50 years, then dig in.

* Blue Notes in Concert and Legacy were released in April; Blue Notes for Mongezi and Blue Notes for Johnny on 10 June.

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol.   Twitter @jonwturney



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