Various Artists: Archive Africa: From Jazz to Jive (2002)
The striking diversity of today's South African music can mask the essential role of jazz in its development. On this compilation of '50s and '60s music assembled by Afribeat , thirteen different improvising groups celebrate the downbeat. These swinging, bluesy pieces reflect the jazz tradition through a variety of approaches.
What makes this collection especially interesting is that these pieces were culled from the (essentially untapped) SABC archives in Johannesburg, brought to light for the first time. They represent artists both well-known and obscure. Chris MacGregor and the Blue Notes sail gleefully through "Dicks Pick," an up-tempo blues romp that features arranged horns and piano counterpoint. Alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana lends a brief solo before MacGregor takes the helm, and then it's back to the theme. This isn't the kind of bold adventurousness of their later efforts, but the group displays the sort of intuitive cohesion that would come to be their hallmark feature.
For a softer sound, listen to the Cool Cats' version of "Don't Bother," which blends soft lyricism with a light bossa nova groove, lending it just the kind of soft vulnerability that the best Brazillian jazz has to offer. The large-group sound of the Western Cape Big Band moves restlessly through the dirge-like theme of "London's Burning" with just enough spontaneous color around the edges to yield excitement and contrast.
As with any various artist collection, Archive Africa has its high points and its low points. For the most part, these are great tunes. As for the rest, it probably depends on your tastes. The opener, "Umhambi," languishes through honeyed vocals, never really soaring above its foundations. (But then, fans of gushing '50s divas may find it hits the spot.) The closer, "I Want To Be Happy Cha Cha" labors through dated, formulaic arrangements without ever really bringing the listener to his feet. (But I suppose if you prefer swing to bop, you may find this a pleasant little romp.)
The only obvious fault here is the total lack of information on the tracks themselves. The liner notes do not supply personnel or date information, leaving the listener guessing. (Was the info lost down there in the archives?) But maybe that's a blessing. Without expectations, you can explore the music for yourself.
Track Listing: Umhambi; Love for Sale; Them Blues; Walking Bass; The Rock; Dicks Pick; Mister Mecca; Don't Bother; A Prelude to a Kiss; Pinise's Dance; Umthandazo; London's Burning; I Want to Be Happy Cha Cha.
Personnel: Miriams Trio with Theo Bophela; Barney Rachabane Combo; Godron Mfandu Trio; Four Sounds; Les Vbros featuring Francis Kekane; Chris MacGregor and the Blue Notes; Jazz Disciples; Cool Cats; Dollar Brand and Sathima Benjamin; Jazz Dazzlers featuring MacKay Davashe; Pat Matchikiza Trio; Western Cape Big Band; Rhythm Aces led by Michael Mvalase.
Record Label: Afribeat