Jazz is, despite unnamed documentaries claiming the contrary, an international art form; A genre that sacrifices egos and politics for a larger purpose. Musicians play together, despite the racial and international conflicts of the time, purely for the experience and joy of creating music. Some of these meetings and collaborations become much more than just sessions. They profoundly influence the participants’ future work as well the larger musical tapestry. Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" is one of these: a synthesis of not only jazz and rock but also an international statement, blacks and whites playing together, Americans, Latinos, Englishmen, Eastern Europeans.
Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath is another. That this group still founders in relative anonymity is one of the travesties of the commercial jazz giant. At one point or another, the group boasted such heavies as Malcolm Griffiths, Nick Evans and Radu Malfatti on trombone; Marc Charig and Harry Beckett on trumpet; sax players Mike Osborne, John Surman, Ronnie Beer, Alan Skidmore, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill and Gary Windo. Their albums range from tricky to impossible to get, leaving many who would appreciate them unaware of their existence.
Cuneiform Records, whose work I am familiar with through their fine releases of Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and of course, Soft Machine itself (another group deserving of much more fame than it got), has done its part to alleviate the group's obscurity. Consider this album in tandem with Ogun's 1994 "Live at Willisau" disk, and the group's recorded output has been doubled in the past several years.
The Brotherhood of Breath started as The Blue Notes in South Africa in the early sixties. The group consisted of McGregor on piano, Dudu Pukwana on alto, Mongezi Feza on trumpet, Johnny Dyani on bass and Louis Moholo on drums. Finding a primarily black group's life quite difficult under the many exclusionary laws of South Africa's Apartheid system, the group left for England after playing at the Antibes Jazz Festival in 1965. Settling on London, the group (with fellow South African Harry Miller taking over the bass duties) made an instant impression on the young jazz musicians working at the time. The Blue Notes became the Brotherhood of Breath, a cooperative big band that fused cultures and styles in a way that was so unique; its presence can be felt in the subsequent work of its members and "world jazz" in general.
"Travelling Somewhere" is recorded 8 days before "Live at Willisau" and uses almost the same personnel. The material on set is culled from their self-titled debut album on RCA Neon (1971), the Willisau album and presumably their second album on RCA "Brotherhood (1972), which I have never seen or heard (anyone owning this album who wishes to sell it or copy it for this well-deserving author would be forever blessed).
The nine tracks are split into three continuous "sets". “MRA” is a collection of several upbeat themes that weave over each other, fighting for prominence. The soloing is very free in nature and the tune fades in and out of a frenzied chaos that makes for an energetic opener. “Restless” by comparison is very restrained and traditional, McGregor, Feza and Pukwana each getting the opportunity for extended solos. “Ismite is Might” explores some very Carla Bley-esque territory before segueing into the rousing, almost United States Marine Band-like “Kongi’s Theme, propelled forward by Louis Moholo’s insistent drumming.
The second set is a little inconsistent. “Wood Fire” is unfocused, with an ineffective lead trumpet. McGregor’s piano is difficult to discern and is thus rendered unnecessary. Any theme is unrecognizable and it certainly goes on too long. “The Bride” takes some of the formlessness of the tune that precedes it but comes together over a nice repeated rhythmic figure by McGregor and Moholo. The improvisation really sparkles, especially in comparison to the opener. The closer and title track of the album incorporates a phenomenal contrast. Pukwana squeaks and honks with abandon while the rest of the group plays a very straight swinging support. This piece is reminiscent of some of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s better work. The blowing session “Think of Something” leads in to “Do It” which appears with equal aplomb on “Live at Willisau”. The theme, while quite simple, leads to great ensemble and individual playing. The intensity keeps building until a fade-out that implies cut material.
This album is a must-have for fans of the Brotherhood of Breath; for those who appreciate the progressive big band of Carla Bley or Keith Tippett’s Centipede; and for anyone who wishes to explore non-American jazz. While a little inconsistent towards the middle, overall it a great addition to the unfortunately little available by this historic ensemble.
Set one: MRA (Pukwana) 12:14); Restless (McGregor) 9:47; Ismite is Might (McGregor) 3:58; Kongi's Theme (Soyinka) 6:44; Set two: Wood Fire (McGregor) 13:41; The Bride (Pukwana) 6:26; Travelling Somewhere (McGregor) 7:21 Set three: Think of Something (Osborne) 9:55; Do It (McGregor) 9:19
Harry Beckett, Marc Charig, Mongezi Feza (tr); Nick Evans, Malcolm Griffiths (trom); Mike Osborne, Dudu Pukwana (as); Evan Parker, Gary Windo (ts); Chris McGregor (ap); Harry Miller (ab); Louis Moholo (drm)