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Back in the times when apartheid was a festering wound in South Africa, several musicians felt the scabrous effects of that putrid policy. Some left their homeland for the opportunity to express their feelings and to expose the instigators of the great divide. Some stayed behind and defied the dictates. Chris McGregor was among the latter, getting together a racially mixed band working with musicians from the townships despite government harassment. McGregor and his band of the time, the Blue Notes, finally got permission to leave South Africa and they came to settle in London after moving through France and Switzerland. McGregor’s ability to look into a wider perspective brought in elements of African music that he merged with jazz. Added to this was the adventure of playing free. In tandem big band jazz was given a vibrant immediacy.
The first of the two CDs on this set has eight performances recorded in Bremen in 1971 and two at the Bridgewater Arts Centre in 1975. The second was recorded nine months later at the same venue but with a different line-up. And as can be seen from the band of musicians, the cast was always stellar
The band whirls in on disparate elements for “Funky Boots March” but the flavour of the tune soon marches to the beat, a happy twirl and the herald for some very spirited and energising music. What is exemplary is the way the course is charted for the musicians. The ensemble is tight and even as the lines flow in smooth unison, there is the open vent for a soloist to slide into and to crag with some free enterprise. “Kongi’s Theme” percolates on the bass of Harry Miller and the drums of Louis Moholo, a funky, body swaying rhythm extended by the symmetrical trumpets. This one kicks out the jams and pulsates!
Perspectives differ and this is brought home by “Now.” The first version has McGregor on a rare turn (he was a generous spirit who gave more solo room to his band members than he cared to take for himself) opening the way for the brass. Marc Charig enunciates cleanly on the trumpet and as the heat under him is propelled and churned by the rhythm section he gets flintier, before Alan Skidmore ignites some fiery ideas on the tenor sax. The second is more restrained. Mike Osborne is snappy on the alto sax, and then pushes the pulse, which is grasped by Evan Parker. This is lighter but it does give the tune another facet. After describing several elliptical orbs, “Kwhalo” gets down to the bit nailed by Moholo on the traps, which he augments with vivid splashes on the cymbals, and by Osborne, whose clarinet sends bolts and beams to dazzle the soundscape.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.