Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Letters from friends; that’s how Chris McGregor referred to recordings he heard by American jazz icons like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker during his university years in Cape Town in an article by Bill Smith that ran in the Fall 1967 issue of Coda. The fact that the pianist and composer absorbed American jazz is not surprising; contrary to the stereotypical image of the apartheid regime blocking any and all media construable as subversive, musicians in South Africa during the early 1960s had surprising access to American records. The case in point can be found on The Blue Notes’ Township Bop (Proper), a collection of early 1964 tracks that includes takes on Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane” and “Angelica,” both of which were first recorded for his Impulse album with John Coltrane, released in ‘63. However, these recordings had an almost supplemental role in McGregor’s development, in that “somehow what was on the [Cape Town] scene was always enough to carry you. There was enough inspiration around to make records now very important, at least in the way I find they are in England. In South Africa they are like letters, letters from friends.”

Smith later began using “Letters from Friends” as a header for his reviews. Its quaint tinge aside, the phrase really does get at the crux of the all “com” words brought into discussions of jazz and improvised music like communication and community. In doing so, Smith found a form that short-circuited the conventions of music reviews that often lead to laborious and ultimately unfulfilling reading. Instead of bottom-line consumer guides or ideological edicts, Smith’s reviews were themselves letters to friends. While such letters – be they on disk or in print – can be sustaining and even inspiring, at least an occasional visit is indicated. Since an impressive number of the more engaging letters annually are postmarked in the UK, the EFG London Jazz Festival was the obvious venue for many long-deferred reunions and first meetings.

First and foremost among the former was the performance by The Dedication Orchestra; amazingly, their first since their two concerts at the 2005 Vancouver Jazz Festival. To the credit of the deftly market-angling EFGLJF, The Dedication Orchestra was presented as part of a 20 Years of Freedom series of concerts, commemorating two decades of South African democracy that included Abdullah Ibrahim’s 80th birthday celebration and Gareth Lockrane’s tribute to Bheki Mseleku. But, the anniversaries most pertinent to the South African exiles’ transformation of British jazz were, respectively, either secondary or absent in the PR copy: the 50th anniversary of The Blue Notes leaving South Africa and the 40th anniversary of Ogun, the label founded by South African bassist Harry Miller and his wife Hazel, who still operates the imprint. Throughout the 1970s and thereafter, Ogun documented essential collaborations between the South Africans and the London vanguard that resulted in a jazz community with a unique, deeply rooted relationship with Africa, one that does not route through the United States.

While Queen Elizabeth Hall was an appropriate venue for Dedication Orchestra, its 2pm start time undoubtedly contributed to the marginal sound reinforcement that threatened to muddy the rich details of the orchestrations and dampen the solo contributions of its all-star ranks. While Louis Moholo-Moholo, now in his early 70s, remains a fiery presence, it nevertheless risked a less than tack-sharp performance from him to have his quartet with conductor/pianist Steve Beresford, bassist John Edwards and saxophonist Jason Yarde go on at Ronnie Scott’s near midnight that morning as part of a BBC Jazz on 3 live broadcast, let alone have him participate in an inconsequential panel discussion less than an hour before the beginning of the performance. However, there was such a bracing, once-more-to-the-ramparts buzz among the multi-generational capacity crowd – whose ranks included author/photographer Valerie Wilmer, who chronicled The Blue Notes’ early years in London, “third” Brotherhood of Breath saxophonist Frank Williams, and on-the-rise saxophonist Ntshuks Bonga, a member of Moholo-Moholo’s Unit – that nothing short of the house burning down would derail DO.

The festival’s management, however, did come close by sending out its MC after Moholo-Moholo, Edwards and pianist Keith Tippett began the opening vamp to Dudu Pukwana’s “Mra;” a second longer and the horns would have launched, and disaster would have ensued. Though it was merely an annoyance, the incident nevertheless encapsulated the co-opting of a people’s art by corporations and their presenter handmaidens (EFG is, to put it politely, a private bank; its sponsorship of the festival prompting a scathing editorial in The Wire): though the audience was already ignited, they had to sit through a platitudinous script, sprinkled with sugar plums for the elites.

Whether it was the rumbling cyclic section parts of “Mra,” the heart-peeling lyricism of the saxophonist’s “B My Dear,” or the frolicking swing of McGregor’s “Andromeda,” the 25-strong orchestra maintained an impressive balance, necessary due to the steroidal foregrounding of the rhythm section in the house mix. The QEH’s acoustics compensated pretty well most of the time, particularly on pieces not dependent on solos like Tippett’s evocative orchestration of Miller’s “Traumatic Experience.” While hard-charging blows by Yarde, trumpeter Henry Lowther and Evan Parker had sufficient presence, one had to strain to hear flutist Neil Metcalfe’s gliding, bluesy turn. And, while the massed voices of Maggie Nicols, Julie Tippetts, David Serame and Cleveland Watkins were audible, the lyrics of Pukwana’s lovely “Hug Pine” were muffled and the delicious high notes of Nicols and Tippetts were continually on the verge of being drowned out (their sisterly glee was nevertheless infectious).

The magic of Dedication Orchestra lies in its transformation of the familiar, not in the shock of the new. However, a festival commissioning program gave Moholo-Moholo the opportunity to compose a sequence of pieces that provided an unexpected jolt. Arranged and conducted by pianist Alexander Hawkins, who works with the drummer in duo, quartet and octet configurations, the piece melded the tightly-wound, riff-based “For The Blue Notes” captures the very urgent drive of the legendary band, and “Woza,” which washed the hall with spectral textures. Throughout the piece, the jabbing “Amampondo with Zulu Fists” was dropped in at strategic points with jarring impact. The only thing missing was Hawkins at the piano; evidenced by a sterling solo set several days later at The Vortex, Hawkins combines masterly technique, a panoramic perspective on the jazz piano tradition, and the eminent sense to juke it freely and frequently. With the acclaim for Hawkins now reaching whatever a tipping point now means for jazz musicians in the UK, much will be expected of him; undoubtedly, this will entail, among other agenda items, carrying the torch of the South African exiles, which on this occasion he seems very capable of doing.

In most large-scale festivals, there are musicians that keep popping up on the card in disparate settings, and excelling in each. Drummer Mark Sanders is one, performing in three distinctive projects over five days. Presented at the Purcell Room, John Butcher’s Tarab Cuts triangulated plunderphonics, interactive technology, and acoustic improvisation with startling results. By mashing 78s of Arab music, employing feedback strategies he first devised with Phil Durrant, and distributing cue points throughout the hour-long piece, Butcher found the means as a saxophonist to ricochet off traditional idioms without aping them, to balance structure and spontaneity with freshness, and to give long-time listeners the pleasure of realizing that a project that, on paper, seemed so far out of his lane was, in fact, right up his alley. Throughout the piece, Sanders was an attentive accompanist to the occasionally divergent trajectories of Butcher and the recorded material, using his allotted space to create fully formed statements. Two nights later, at the Mopomoso gathering at The Vortex, Sanders provided pellucid counterpoint to alto saxophonist Martin Speake’s martini-dry phrasing and unruffled rhythmic flow in a vaguely jazzy set whose intensity remain enticingly at a simmer. Sanders’ abilities to stoke a band into high gear almost instantly and to sustain flat-out intensity with chiseled cross-rhythms and exclamatory fills were front and center at The Vortex two nights later in two set-long improvisations with saxophonist Paul Dunmall and pianist Lafayette Gilchrist. The aura of jazz hung over everything Dunmall played, and not just the Coltrane-inspired deluges of sound he regularly unleashes; but, also, in a duo exchange with Gilchrist, an unexpected Hawkish breathiness and adeptness in ending phrases with an ellipsis instead of an exclamation mark. Gilchrist’s dovetailing of Dunmall was seamless, his panoramic take on the jazz piano tradition (which extends well beyond the post-Powell lexicon to stride-informed left hand figures and high-register flourishes with a New Orleans jangle), supporting the saxophonist without limiting his real-time options. When Dunmall would lay out, Gilchrist switched his blender-like sensibility to puree; although his solos had sturdy harmonic girding and his lines unfolded with well-grounded logic, placing any phrase or sequence within a single stylistic or historic context would be a fool’s errand. All the while, Sanders just kept shoveling the coal. This train-like trio could have barreled on till daybreak.

Inevitably, there’s someone who just can’t make the party. On this occasion, it was guitarist John Russell – who writes more rarely than one would like, as his music is always incisive – who was hospitalized with a precarious heart condition, and unable to participate at Mopomoso, the series he founded in 1991. Russell was sorely missed, not only for his music but for his good humor. Since Russell is expected to be sidelined into next year, friends are encouraged to write.

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