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Chris McGregor: Eclipse at Dawn and Very Urgent


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In the spoken introduction to the latest archival recording from pianist Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath, emcee Ronnie Scott quips that "South Africa is a wonderful place...to come from." The audience at the 1971 Berlin Jazztage responds with uneasy laughter at Scott's thinly-veiled politics, then cheers as Dudu Pukwana tartly comments with his horn.

Improvised musics, and especially jazz, are itinerant musics borne out of difficult social and political situations, and the audacity of a racially-mixed band in Cape Town playing both township and conservatory- ready avant-garde created a stir and little work, resulting in expatriation for McGregor, alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, drummer Louis Moholo, bassist Johnny Dyani and trumpeter Mongezi Feza.

Their harrowing story has been well-told elsewhere, and two recent releases from the Blue Notes/Brotherhood of Breath catalog affirm not only the status of the musicians' presence, but also the great degree of evolution that occurred far from home.

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath
Eclipse at Dawn

Eclipse at Dawn is a prime concert recording of the Brotherhood of Breath, despite an oddly Feza- less line-up. Sure, one might miss his metallic skittering atop the ensemble, but it gives trumpeters Harry Beckett and Marc Charig a little more room to stretch out. Unlike some archival recordings that have appeared in recent years (and which may eclipse the band's scant studio output), this Berlin performance is in excellent fidelity, leaving no audio stone unturned.

If there is a "benchmark" Brotherhood performance this might be it, bookended by the coagulation of slick dance band saxophone lines, brilliant trumpet call and gooey, plastic rhythm of "Nick Tete" and the ubiquitous rejoinder of "Funky Boots March." The Brotherhood is known for seamless, lengthy performances and singular mixture of township music and large ensemble free improvisation, caterwauling cacophony with an underpinning of swinging, cross-rhythmic pulse. Yet going back to the work of saxophonist Gwigwi Mrwebi and other South African jazz players, there's always been a dance element to their mettle, and on "Nick Tete" the Brotherhood is firmly "township bop."

There's a multipart and liquid front line twirl on the floor as Moholo's pummeling accents both counteract and carry the music forward. Beckett's half-valve chortling runs are bell-clear in dialogue with Pukwana's bent shouts as the principal soloists. As the ensemble closes out the theme, Moholo has summarily slowed down the tempo while adding other rhythms to his template, a perfect example of his subtly pliable take.

English firebrand saxophonist Gary Windo is given a chance to peel the paint on "The Bride," his gruff split- toned tenor picking apart the theme, itself a ridiculously up-tempo territory call-and-response and one of the classics in their repertoire. Windo's extrapolation breaks apart cadences into buzzing neighs and units of noise, isolated post-Albert Ayler brays that somehow still come from the tune's origin (though it takes a few listens to hear from where). As summarily outside as the Brotherhood's music gets, their roots are always clear—a facet that has always made their music extremely valuable.

Chris McGregor Group
Very Urgent

Recorded in 1968, Very Urgent is a different bird entirely, presenting the core Blue Notes lineup with fellow expat countryman Ronnie Beer on tenor. Originally issued on Polydor, it marks the recording debut outside South Africa of McGregor, Feza, Pukwana and Beer. Beer is decidedly less well-known than the rest of the group; he worked in Paris with Sunny Murray, Alan Silva, Francois Tusques and Kenneth Terroade in the late 1960s and early 1970s, eventually leaving music for sailing.

Though clearly derived from the same set of influences and experiences that inspired the Brotherhood of Breath, Very Urgent is less riff- and head-oriented, using simple motifs as springboards for improvisation in modes that wouldn't be out of place in the New York free milieu or early European free jazz. McGregor's warhorse "Traveling Somewhere" makes an appearance segued from Pukwana's "Marie My Dear," the most inside portion of the date and, ironically, in some ways closer to their eventual direction than the O.C.T. (Ornette/Cecil/Trane, credit due Joe McPhee) explorations elsewhere.

The three-horn front line fleshes out Pukwana's ballad, slow and easy kindling for the fire to come, McGregor's background of seeming hunt-and-peck and fragmentary runs creating tension with the thematic material. A brief solo statement from the altoist signals the township soul of the next piece, a ragged comment on Art Blakey/Horace Silver that quickly leads into Feza's brittle runs, seemingly undecided of whether he wants facility or pure force of air/sound and settling on both. McGregor's arpeggios and clusters are fully apparent in both a pared-down unit and clean recording; his affinity, whether considered or chance, with early Cecil Taylor, is in focus. Moholo's drum-circle architecture in tandem with Dyani's relentless swing is perfect driving support for Pukwana's keening flight, while piano and tenor come to near blows.

"The Sounds Begin Again" has more in common with pieces like Alexander von Schlippenbach's "Rhythm Change" and other early Euro-freedom, a quick tenor-and-trumpet line that erupts into shards, smears and squawks as the rhythm section paints a canvas of pounding gesture and suspended time. Beer's bent honks and heel-digging screams find Ayler as their jumping-off point, though Moholo's continual bomb-drops ring like chimes in opposition to Sunny Murray's cracking of glass.

The rhythmic approach is why this music, as much as it offers alms to American free jazz, will never sound Americanized (or even Afro-Americanized)— the steady breathing of active yet suspended time and contrast of both circular and field-like motifs is African, and entirely Louis Moholo. As much as the music of Chris McGregor and his cohorts are township bop and in the tradition, they equally upend it in ways we're still dealing with.

Tracks and Personnel

Eclipse at Dawn

Tracks: Introduction by Ronnie Scott; Nick Tete; Restless; Do It; Eclipse at Dawn; The Bride; Now; Funky Boots March; Ronnie Scott and Chris McGregor sendoff and applause.

Personnel: Chris McGregor: piano; Harry Miller: bass; Louis Moholo: drums; Harry Beckett, Marc Charig: trumpet and flugelhorn; Nick Evans, Malcolm Griffiths: trombone; Mike Osborne, Dudu Pukwana: alto saxophone; Gary Windo, Alan Skidmore: tenor saxophone.

Very Urgent

Tracks: Marie My Dear/Travelling Somewhere; Heart's Vibrations; The Sounds Begin Again/White Lies; Don't Stir the Beehive.

Personnel: Chris McGregor: piano; Johnny Dyani: bass; Louis Moholo: drums; Mongezi Feza: pocket trumpet; Dudu Pukwana: alto saxophone; Ronnie Beer: tenor saxophone.

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