The story of pianist Chris McGregor's life and music is like that of many creative South African musicians: a tale of trial and redemption. McGregor trained classically in South Africa, playing jazz on the side. After finishing school, he joined with mixed-race bands that prevented him from surviving in the racist South African climate. Soon after forming his working sextet in 1962, McGregor and the Blue Notes fled to Europe, where they met an enthusiastic reception. In 1970, McGregor (then in England) expanded his group to a big band. Thus the inspiration and formation of the Brotherhood of Breath, an international conglomerate with nine horns atop a rhythm section consisting of pianist McGregor, bassist Harry Miller, and drummer Louis Moholo.
Traveling Somewhere documents a live performance recorded in 1973 for Radio Bremen. It's the band's first live recording after two studio dates, and the playing on the record reflects a raucous celebration of life. Unreleased until Cuneiform dug it out of the vaults, the record reveals a group which teetered betweeen compositional structure and free improvisation. The sound quality is not great (and, to boot, the piano is slightly out of tune), but it's a thrilling ride nonetheless.
McGregor's group demonstrates considerable restraint during introductions and codas, and when elaborating upon themes. But each tune evolves into and out of a loosely-organized democracy of sound. In moments where the group lets go, it reaches its highest peaks of musical expression. Even when instrumentalists solo, the accompaniment often remains fluid and loose. This feel camouflages some of the compositional constraints placed on the music, for example the marching-band rhythms on Wole Soyinka's Kongi's Theme. Drummer Louis Moholo and bassist Harry Miller bear much of the load, since they're often the principal timekeepers; and their playing reflects an unusual fusion of styles.
Since the rhythms indigenous to South and West Africa often emphasize primary beats or an unstated meter beneath textured layers, their adaptation to the downbeat deserves close attention. But with nine horns on top (including an unusual appearance by Evan Parker on tenor saxophone), the musical mesh is thick indeed. When Moholo breaks free, he's an unstoppable force.
As a document of discovery and a fundamental expression of joy, the Brotherhood of Breath performance on Traveling Somewhere deserves the spotlight it has belatedly received. Nestling in between the big band tradition, South and West African traditions, and the huge emerging free improvisation sound in Britain, the record refuses to be classified. And the beauty of it is that McGregor, who nominally led the band and composed half the pieces on the record, seems quite content to play the role of catalyst to the free expression of his giant family of creative musicians. It works. Great.
Personnel: Harry Beckett: trumpet; Marc Charig: trumpet; Nick Evans: trombone; Mongezi Feza: trumpet; Malcolm Griffiths: trombone; Chris McGregor: piano; Harry Miller: bass; Louis Moholo: drums; Mike Osborne: alto sax; Evan Parker: tenor sax; Dudu Pukwana: alto sax; Gary Windo: tenor sax.