The Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) is low on the list of visible big bands, rarely mentioned in the same breath as the giants of the genre - Basie, Ellington, Goodman - or its contemporaries - Sun Ra, Globe Unity, London Jazz Composers. This is a strange case since it can be argued that it was the arrival of the Blue Notes - Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo - and their eventual metamorphosis into the core of the Brotherhood that rescued British jazz and gave many young players, bubbling with progressive energy, a forum to make their mark.
Cuneiform, as part of its mission to expand the catalogues of underappreciated British giants, has released Bremen to Bridgwater, its second volume of live unreleased BOB. The first, 2001’s Travelling Somewhere , captured the group in early 1973 in Bremen, from the same tour as an earlier release for its bassist Harry Miller’s Ogun label. This new double CD contains an earlier trip to Bremen and two separate Bridgwater, UK dates from 1975. The earlier disc closely mirrors the lineup for the group’s eponymous debut for RCA Neon recorded six months earlier, Gary Windo singlehandedly replacing John Surman and Ronnie Beer on saxophone. The end of the first disc is close to 30 minutes of music from February 1975, with a group close to that of Travelling Somewhere and the Ogun release, the major change being Moholo’s temporary replacement, minor Brit drummer Keith Bailey, and the addition of Soft Machine alum Elton Dean. The second disc is from November 1975, just over a month before Mongezi Feza’s quite tragic death at age 30. The lineup is again close to the Ogun release, subtracting Windo and featuring Evan Parker in an odd departure from his other projects of the time.
The BOB’s history begins with that of the Blue Notes. Led by McGregor in the peak of South Africa’s Apartheid regime, the group was stymied by the lack of opportunities for a racially mixed band. McGregor recalled having to pose as a foreman with the rest of the group as his construction crew in order to be allowed into segregated townships. Despite obstacles, the group created fresh energetic music that combined American jazz with the rollicking liveliness of “Township Jive”. Other South African musicians - Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand - showed the group that the only way they could achieve success was to leave the oppressive country. They did so, eventually settling in London of the mid ‘60s where they found a welcoming environment. Young British musicians of the time were extremely hospitable, part musical empathy part post-Imperialist gesture. Over the next several years, the most important British musicians of particular circles played with the group.
The BOB was wildly successful in terms of musical accomplishment. Though the big band era had passed by the ‘70s, a new generation of avant-garde musicians needed to make their own experiments, particularly in Europe. Thus groups like Germany’s Globe Unity Orchestra and England’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra (which did have some personnel overlap) presented their own rambunctious, seemingly anarchistic take on what was once a genre firmly rooted in precision and order. The BOB straddled both realms. The charts were simple but they were charts, often based in heavy melodic vamps. The soloing however was not as strictly delineated and had a rough ragged quality. This is not a slight - players like Mike Osborne and Dudu Pukwana always had a fire to their playing that aligned them more with free blowers than they might actually have deserved. What is most remarkable about the group is its energy. A listener can almost discern the joy with which the Africans played, freed of political and social restrictions; the Englishmen were infected by that elation as well as being conscious of their own developing personas. Each BOB recording, and this is no exception, has the feeling of a work in progress; this does not mean a lack of focus or preparation but rather a constant sense of evolution.