Album reviews

Allen Kwela – ‘Black Beauty’

Allen Kwela – Black Beauty
(Matsuli. Album review by Phil Johnson)

Recorded in one day in 1975 in Johannesburg’s Satbel Studios and released that year on the Soweto label, guitarist and composer Allen Kwela’s ‘Black Beauty’ is a thrillingly accomplished album that more than testifies to the assuredness of African jazz from that era and beyond.

Although exact recording details are sketchy, four extremely strong original tunes are played by an octet of musicians said to include the legendary alto sax player – and Abdullah Ibrahim collaborator – Kippie Moeketsi, alongside fellow saxophonist Barney Rachabane, trumpeter Dennis Mpale and drummer Gilbert Matthews, among others

While Kwela – who, born in 1939, hailed from Natal, made his name in Durban and died of an apparent asthma attack in 2003 – has been described as the Wes Montgomery of South African jazz, there’s more kinship with George Benson here, especially on the opening track of Side 2, Quaphela, whose chiming, bell-like tone in the solo anticipates the iconic smooth-strut of Benson’s ‘Breezin’’. The thick, chunky chordal flow, alternating rhythm and lead, can also call to mind the Jamaican master Ernest Ranglin, and the percussive effects of the late great South African guitarist-in-exile Lucky Madumetja Ranku.

But what is most impressive about Black Beauty is how fully-rounded the whole album is. There’s the hard-won grace of the very separate and distinctive tunes, where a funky and sometimes danceable township style shares space with memorable jazz themes, spirited ensemble playing and – as if he’s conducting from the back – the chugging guitar of Allen Kwela, keeping everything bubbling along and imposing itself only when necessary. It’s all good, but the title track has it all: a delicate solo guitar intro on a catchy folk melody that then provides a call and response for the band, with Kwela playing clustered repetitions of the theme against trumpet and sax solos before attacking the melody himself in a bluesy showcase of his solo chops. There’s a Hammond organ in there somewhere too.

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It passes the High Fidelity test with flying colours. Hear this in a record shop and you’d definitely ask what was playing. Then buy it.

LINK: Bandcamp

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