Jumpin’ In

a column by
Greg Buium


4 Blokes                                                                                                           ©2015 Laurence Svirchev

Long ago Louis Moholo-Moholo ceased to be simply a drummer, a jazz musician from South Africa. He was born in 1940, and it seems that he’s been a historical figure – a part of living history – for most of his adult life. Meeting him is a little like meeting Baryshnikov or Kundera or (from an earlier era) Balanchine or Billy Wilder – artists who’ve come to embody the modern exile, the refugees and the defectors, the unflinching expatriates from the tortured regimes of the last century.

But the asterisk next to South Africa’s exiled artists is gone. Apartheid is long buried. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported back more than a dozen years ago. The 2010 World Cup marked a first, fully realized moment on the international stage. In 2013, at the age of 95, Nelson Mandela died.

And so Louis Moholo-Moholo’s story recedes further into the distant past. As an émigré to Switzerland in 1964, then to England the following year, he fled South Africa with a sextet of his countrymen, the Blue Notes. Immediately, five of the six joined other African expats and the British musicians on London’s emerging creative music scene. (Tenor saxophonist Nick Moyake returned to South Africa in 1965; he died soon after that.) The collision was extraordinary – this intermingling of jazz, the avant-garde, and the language of the South African townships. European music had never heard anything like it before. Then, in 15 cruel years, things turned. Between 1975 and 1990, the core of London’s South African jazz community – bassist Harry Miller, along with four of the Blue Notes – had died. In 2004, Moholo-Moholo, the last living member of the original sextet, moved back to Cape Town.

Now, more than a decade later, Moholo-Moholo is deep into his South African coda. He wouldn’t quite say it, but sitting in an empty hotel dining room, over tea, late one morning in the middle of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, it feels like a looking-glass moment in his musical life. There is time for pause. Still, he remains focused on the kind of music-making that has preoccupied him for years.

“I don’t work in Cape Town,” he said, point-blank, disabusing me of the idea that his schedule is filled. “It’s like I’m semi-retired in a way, if you don’t know. I’m semi-retired, but then sometimes I take offers that I cannot refuse ...”

Moholo-Moholo began to smile, and as he looked away, a sly, deep crest of laughter filled the table. His English bandmates, saxophonist Jason Yarde and pianist Alexander Hawkins, were here with us, too.

One of the first irresistible offers might have come from Vancouver, back in 2005. To mark the festival’s 20th anniversary, artistic director Ken Pickering put Moholo-Moholo’s Dedication Orchestra at the center of a sprawling program: the 25-piece ensemble played two nights (at two major concert halls) plus a week’s worth of spin-offs, duos, trios, workshops, and other assorted chamber groups all over town (see PoD, Issue 1). It remains the group’s only North American engagement.

There have been other excellent invitations since – in 2007, an appearance at the Vision Festival and a Baltimore duet with Marilyn Crispell (Intakt 145), semi-regular trips to Italy and England and last November, at the London Jazz Festival, the Dedication Orchestra performed for the first time since its Vancouver gigs.

Now this summer, in the VIJF’s 30th year, another offer. Moholo-Moholo’s London-based quartet, the 4 Blokes, was here as part of a more modest series, South Africa Now! – two pop acts (Freshly Ground, Zaki Ibrahim), pianist Kyle Shepherd’s trio, and the most famous of all onetime exiles, 80-year-old Abdullah Ibrahim, with his Mukashi Trio.

That’s why Vancouver feels like an instructive place to take stock. Spending much of the day with Moholo-Moholo – in conversation near his hotel downtown, at an early-afternoon workshop, then at a performance later that night – he seems to be a man barely diminished. He’s 75. His moods still sway. He can be charming and open and filled with wonderful anecdotes; then, in the same five-minute spell, he’ll be mildly combative, intense, rash. Moholo-Moholo’s affection for his younger colleagues is palpable, on the bandstand and off. Our four-way conversation set a laser beam to his legacy. Yarde and Hawkins spoke at length; Moholo-Moholo, listened intently, pressing them to go on, interjecting (“Yes ... Yes,” “Yeah, man”), adding onomatopoetic effects, and, when necessary, exclamation marks (“Kenny Wheeler!” “Marshall Allen!”). By the end, it felt as if Yarde and Hawkins had articulated certain things in front of him for the first time – about his work, about the South African imprint on jazz. Moholo-Moholo was grateful for their candor; their voices seemed to deepen his own reckoning of the past. This quartet (which also includes bassist John Edwards) has, in many ways, become his primary late-career vehicle. They’ve been together since October 2013. Their method – these long, largely open sets of improvisation – reimagines his body of work every time they play.

“We have this band with my friends here,” he explained, gesturing across the table. “We’ve been working at it for a long time. It’s paying back for the hard work that everybody has put in. We don’t work much, we work maybe two times, maybe three times a year. That’s fine by me. I’m relaxed with these guys. It seems like I have the right thing happening now. These guys who remind me of my friends who passed away ... Yes, I’m having fun with my friends.”

Even after all these years, the late Blue Notes – trumpeter Mongezi Feza, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, pianist Chris McGregor, bassist Johnny Dyani – never seem far from the conversation. Harry Miller’s widow, Hazel, still maintains Ogun, the label that documented so much of the South African diaspora’s work. Her house has been Moholo-Moholo’s London pied-à-terre. The past and the present blur, side by side, in his life and in his art.

Last year, on the label’s 40th anniversary, Ogun released two discs: the quartet’s self-titled debut, 4 Blokes, and the Louis Moholo-Moholo Unit’s For the Blues Notes, where the four-piece expanded into an octet. Hawkins and Moholo-Moholo continue to perform in duo as well. Their 2012 Ogun album, Keep Your Heart Straight, was widely praised, the latest in Moholo-Moholo’s estimable catalog of drum-piano recordings – including collaborations with Keith Tippett, Irène Schweizer, Cecil Taylor, and Stan Tracey.

Having Hawkins at the heart of his recent work is telling. There is a sense, in the U.K. and in certain circles abroad, that the 34-year-old is among the very few players ready to push the music forward. He first worked with the South African in May 2009 in the quartet Foxes Fox, as a sub for Steve Beresford. Hawkins grew up listening to this music. He’s thought a great deal about the South African presence in British jazz, its musical and its social significance. He considers these worlds inseparable.

“One of the things that’s really important about the Blue Notes is that they show the value of long-standing – long-standing – musical relationships and empathy,” he said, adding the Schlippenbach Trio as another instance of this. The free-improv era, Hawkins explained, gave musicians a lingua franca, an ability to make music in impromptu, one-off meetings. The Blue Notes, however, pointed to another way of working. “They really show the power, that where there’s long-standing relationships and understanding, then that’s really a deeply productive way to create new music. I think lesser musicians are worried that long-standing relationships create something predictable. The great musicians, the history of the group – the Ellington band, the Basie bands, the Blue Notes – shows that long-standing understanding probably creates the deepest freedom.”

Moholo-Moholo agreed. “It pays out. It pays out. It makes sense ... I don’t tell Jason how to” – motioning towards the saxophonist – “You know, we can practice a song. But on the bandstand it’s not going to be the same. And it’s allowed. It’s fantastic to be able to do that. Some of the groups that you play in, if it’s not what you did at the practice then it’s confusing and everything. With this band it’s OK. Typical, like the Blue Notes.”

But I wondered: was this something that developed over time, as Hawkins suggested, or was it always there right from the start? Moholo-Moholo became frustrated; for him, the answer is obvious. “It just comes to you automatically, man. You don’t have to sit down and decide. It kicks your ass, man. You know, sometimes you don’t decide, really, you just” – he knocks the table twice with his knuckle – “It’s like things are made in heaven sometimes. Not every time things are made in hell.”

We all began to laugh. Even after all these years, Hawkins and Yarde still relish Moholo-Moholo’s stories, his various pronouncements. They, too, anticipate the fresh detail, the incisive remark, the long-held memory of a legendary figure.

Yarde, 44, remembered hearing Moholo-Moholo with Dudu Pukwana and Chris McGregor at the 100 Club on Oxford Street when he was a kid. He joined Moholo-Moholo’s Viva-La-Black in late 1992; he’d just returned from a year at William Patterson College in New Jersey. Soon, he would join the Dedication Orchestra as well. That winter Viva-La-Black spent six weeks in South Africa. Apartheid had just ended. For Yarde, it was an experience both searing and spectacular – to recognize first-hand how the musical and the extramusical aspects of Moholo-Moholo’s art were forever linked.

“The election date had been set,” Yarde recalled. “Signs of the old regime were still up on the wall. You’d go to the toilet and, depending where you were, there’d still be very clear signs that it was a very transitional period. The reception of the group at that time was fantastic. Even just socially, us walking down the street. I remember taking walks with Sean [Bergin]. You’d see this young black guy – me – walking next to this big old Dutch guy who, for want of a better description, could easily pass for a South African or a policeman. People would just be questioning. They’d ask, ‘Why are these guys hanging out?’ Just to look at us was quite a thing. [Bergin was, in fact, born and raised in South Africa; he lived in the Netherlands from 1975 until his death, at age 64, in 2012.]

“I think that group made so many statements, both on and off the stage, that were very important. It really set things in my mind about not only what I wanted to do with music but just the importance of making connections musically and on a personal level as well.”

As a teacher at London’s Trinity College of Music, Yarde has made it his mission to bring Moholo-Moholo’s repertoire into the student ensemble. “A lot of those compositions, although they have a historic importance, it’s equally about what they can spark in the moment, right now,” he said, referring, as an example, to the writing of Mongezi Feza and Harry Miller. “I think that’s why they’re often just used as a vehicle – just to get people to communicate musically in a different way, that they may not do if they’re playing a standard. It’s just to get a different perspective.”

* * * *

The band’s repertoire became a topic at Hawkins and Moholo-Moholo’s public workshop later that afternoon. Hawkins talked about the quartet’s book – a substantial series of songs, he noted, that spanned the drummer’s entire career. When they were performed, very few – if any – were called in advance; the sets were never plotted out.

This made the audience curious. Would the songs be recognizable? How structured would they be? One person wondered if was there any advice Hawkins and Moholo-Moholo might give to a listener, something to help them “get a better grip on what the musicians were doing.”

Moholo, polite and generous during the hour-long event, wasn’t ready to provide listening tips. “One thing with this music: we don’t know, too, man. We don’t really know; it’s all spontaneous. We keep it that way. It’s spontaneous: what’s going to happen in there, it’s like, God help us. It’s very difficult to kind of ... in our situation, before, like maybe in the sixties, when we were playing straight music, you might know you were going to play ‘So What,’ so you were thinking about ‘So What.’ But in this kind of music, we don’t know, really, we’re just going to go there and kick ass, that’s all that we’re going to go there and do.” The audience broke into laughter; Moholo-Moholo remained serious. “No, really, man ... no, really.”

Among the small crowd were a number of older aficionados, some of whom you could hear recounting Brotherhood of Breath gigs from the early seventies. Hawkins cued up excerpts – from Moholo-Moholo’s “Amaxesha Osizi (Times of Sorrow)” (to hear Kenny Wheeler), Steve Lacy’s The Forest and the Zoo, and the Brotherhood’s “MRA.” Then he and Moholo-Moholo just talked.

Hawkins was especially eloquent on Moholo-Moholo’s importance as a drummer. In his early work, the maestro (as Hawkins called him) “was laying several blueprints for drummers to come”; his concept of “time and groove within an open space” foretold the early work of, say, Hamid Drake and Ronald Shannon Jackson. Hawkins pointed to Moholo-Moholo’s extraordinary ability to play around the rhythm – “where the time is so implicit, what Louis is spinning around the time is so powerful.” The sheer power of his approach, Hawkins said, “threatens to overwhelm you, it’s the most powerful thing possible. It’s a kick up the backside at all times ... But there’s this really magical thing: at the one time, you’re being pushed – pushed, pushed, pushed – but at the same time you know that he’s right there, and the most supportive. I think that’s quite a remarkable thing.”

* * * *

Throughout the day, the concept of musical freedom came up again and again: it is at the heart of all of Moholo-Moholo’s work. It is also, as Hawkins explained to me before the workshop, a fundamental force for someone like Moholo-Moholo, “musicians for whom freedom is a deeply significant social thing.” Again, the line blurs – between the art and the life.

Hawkins now took this idea a step further. “A group like the Blue Notes really shows you that freedom is probably freedom to, rather than freedom from. In the U.K. there’s a strand of this dogmatic understanding, which has been more or less prominent at different times since the sixties, that free music is not playing chord changes, not playing tunes, not playing grooves. I think one of the things that’s so strong about the influence of the Blue Notes, of the Brotherhood – also, it’s an idea you get in the AACM as well – is that freedom musically is probably freedom to. So why not play a tune? If you’re exercising your choice to do that, that’s also fine. Diatonic harmony sounds great, so let’s not throw it out.”

This is how the quartet works, I said.

“Yes, absolutely,” Hawkins said. “There are lots of these musical lessons. One that I think about a lot these days – and I was thinking about it a lot in the wake of losing Ornette – is: what does it mean for a musical group to be together? You listen to some of those so-called unison heads on Ornette records. Togetherness is not a kind of literal nail – it can be in certain musical settings – but, really, togetherness musically is more to do with an empathy and an idea of shared enterprise and making something happen together.”

Yeah,” Moholo-Moholo quietly added.

Hawkins continued. “In our music that bears itself out. So, for example, this evening on stage we may agree on the first tune, but there’ll be nothing else and it’ll just flow from there. And there’s a kind of mutual trust that if one of us starts another tune in the middle of something else that’s OK, you know. And that’s real togetherness. It’s not that idea of us perfectly executing a series of literal musical unisons; although, again, that could be fantastic in certain musical settings and we all love to do it. I think that’s one of the important lessons I’ve taken from the music of Louis – that empathy and shared enterprise is a really significant thing in making music.”

Jason Yarde re-entered the conversation. “The only thing I’d add, to echo what Alex has said, is that idea of everything being on the table. Why wouldn’t you want to have access to all your experiences – musically and otherwise – and at a moment’s notice be able to access them if it feels appropriate? Why would you close yourself off? This group just allows you to do that. Often you tell students you’re doing a ‘free-jazz’ gig and they’re like, ‘Oh, oh.’ But I say to them, ‘I play more tunes – or I have to have more tunes ready to be played with this group – than I do in any other musical setting.’ ”

Moholo-Moholo smiled, then nodded. “It’s true, you know, what these guys are saying. It’s very inspiring what can happen. The music itself just inspires you. You know it’s fantastic to be able to throw anything to these guys. They welcome that with ease and then, back and forth, everybody’s allowed to do whatever within the framework of what we normally do.”

* * * *

That framework was there, in full view, at the Ironworks. It was among the festival’s few inevitable sellouts – their performance at this small, converted 19th-century warehouse near the city’s original town site. After shows earlier in the month in London and Amsterdam, they flew from Vancouver to Ottawa for their only other North American date. The scarcity of stops added to the buzz. (Other Canadian festivals simply wouldn’t book them, Ken Pickering told me; travel grants from the South African government made it happen.)

It was an extraordinary night – a single, soaring 80-minute set that touched down only at the end, after a raucous curtain call and a rapid-fire encore. They had alluded to their methods all day. The first 65 minutes was a staggering suite – songs morphing into the next, a circling, seamless stretch of a very specific kind of improvisation, where echoes and motifs tug and tear and set out new paths to explore; by my count, they put 14 songs into play. Few bands operate like this. Moholo-Moholo’s black Bimhuis shirt – a souvenir, I suspect from their recent Amsterdam gig – highlighted a longtime continental connection. The Dutch work this way, too.

Things began with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” (We knew this in advance; Moholo-Moholo told Hawkins he’d like to open with it at the workshop.) It became the spine and the inspiration – a yearning, fraught, rubato reading of Coleman’s line, slowly raising the intensity, Moholo-Moholo pushing, building to an incredible boil, as the band’s signatures are cued – Yarde’s “The Tag,” a rugged vamp, then the leader’s “For the Blue Notes,” a fiery swinger. “For the Blue Notes” was an axis-point all night: it might appear as a segue, fully reborn, or bobbing behind another line. “Lonely Woman” was there throughout the night, too: its phrases, its melancholy shading Pule Pheto’s near-gospel “Mark of Respect,” its majesty standing alongside Dudu Pukwana’s gorgeous “B My Dear.”

Melodies, rhythmic gestures: cues came from all directions. Hawkins dropped the “For the Blue Notes” theme (at a wicked speed) into another number’s coda; into a moment’s silence, he patched a grand chordal gesture (“Mark of Respect”). Moholo-Moholo signaled Johnny Dyani’s “Wish You Sunshine” on his snare drum (with a terrific mid-tempo march); he slowly chanted “Woza” (in the middle of a light-speed “Lonely Woman” reference). Anyone might jump-start the next sequence. In came Pheto’s wonderful “Zanele,” its sunny 3/4-time cycling – Yarde blowing, the others chanting (“Za-nel-e, Za-nel-e, Za-nel-e”) – and now, nearly half an hour into the night, the voices grew, the motif broadened, over and over again, Moholo-Moholo shouting over top (“Jason Yarde, Jason Yarde, Jason Yarde, Jason Yarde”), more chanting, the line builds, and each of the three Englishmen are announced in turn, a glorious, prolonged introduction, before another stage begins.

It wasn’t, by any strict definition, free improvisation; to my mind, however, it was the height of musical freedom. You might call it long-form improvisation. There was space to solo; each of the members did. But you begin to realize early on: the collective gestures were everything. As ideas echoed back and forth across the set, as the four voices flowed in and out, then merged into one, the cumulative effect was overwhelming. The set’s design, created on the spot, in real time, was immensely beautiful.

And that was a testament to this repertoire. These songs, woven together as they were, created an incredible blur: of the past and present, of the present and past, turned around and around in the act of improvisation. The musicians attended to these songs with incredible care. In their hands, it became an assembly of masterworks alive in an eternal present – an ode to Ornette Coleman, Johnny Dyani, Pule Pheto, Dudu Pukwana, Sean Bergin, Harry Miller (“Lost Opportunities”), Mongezi Feza (“You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cause You Think You Know Me”), Chris McGregor (“Ismite Is Might”), Mackay Davashe (“Lakutshon’Ilanga”), Gibson Kente (“Ngwoele, Ngwoele”), and South Africa itself (the national anthem “Nikosi Sikelele).”

* * * *

Earlier in the day, I asked Hawkins and Yarde about their ongoing connection to the South African songbook. It has always occupied a unique spot in jazz history. As time passes, however, they must recognize their own role in this story. They are its natural heirs.

“I think that sort of thing doesn’t weigh as heavily as you might think,” Hawkins answered. “Once you’ve been involved in this way of making music, it’s very liberating and in fact the real legacy is: do what you want to do with complete commitment. I don’t feel a weight on my shoulders of playing this songbook, because that’ll happen. The legacy, the real gift that Louis and those guys gave to us, is to express ourselves how we want, to be free in that way, to make music with total sincerity in an era in which even people who are at a gig are actually watching it through their mobile phone.

“So, actually, it’s not a legacy that weighs heavily because the message is liberating: do what you’re gonna do. I think it’s definitely true. We could do what the hell we liked on stage, so as long we meant it, that would be the important thing. It’s that message that taking the 50 percent chance of making magic happen ...”

Yes,” Moholo-Moholo said.

“Is better than taking 100 percent chance of making good music ...”

Yes.”

“You know what I mean? We’re all technically accomplished musicians. We can deliver a kind of a thing and be sure of what is going to happen. But I think one of the lessons is: take the chance, because taking a chance that something really magic and unique will happen is more rewarding than going for the certainty that you’ll produce an OK performance.”

Performance.” Moholo-Moholo is pleased with the final word. It is, in his lovely lilt, a sweet declaration.

© 2015 Greg Buium


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