Wednesday, 23 April 2008

THE CHRIS McGREGOR GROUP: Marie My Dear/Travelling Somewhere

I reached for my copy of Mingus At Monterey and reminded myself of Mingus' foreplay tactics in terms of starting his performance softly and gently with a medley of Ellington ballads, slowly and patiently building up to the eventual explosion of the climactic "Take The 'A' Train"; the importance of establishing real love rather than, as Mingus puts it in his sleevenote, "just jumping on the woman." And as soon as he started to strum, quietly, his audience immediately shut up, all the better to hear, and eventually to receive, him.

There is something of that subtle persuasion about the opening track on Very Urgent, the only album recorded by what in all other terms are the Blue Notes - but here credited as the Chris McGregor Group - with their full line-up outside of South Africa. Produced by Joe Boyd in 1968 in the same studio in which Nick Drake had recorded Five Leaves Left - Sound Techniques, halfway down Old Church Street in Chelsea - the album has now reappeared on CD after an absence of forty years from the rack.

Even those long familiar with the tectonic rough and tumble of later Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath may find themselves astounded by Very Urgent - or, if they haven't heard it for decades, a new sensation of shock, although this shock, paradoxically, is preparedf for very methodically and meticulously. "Marie My Dear" has since become rather better known as "B My Dear" - it's a Dudu Pukwana tune, and the three horns play the unison line with great tenderness over slowly turning sands of rhythm; it does feel like the Mingus of "Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress" and is entirely gorgeous, performed with great grace and melodicism and only the hint of a storm to come. The horns briefly intertwine in conversation before, at 5:10, Pukwana takes an unaccompanied cadenza, and it is here that the temperature begins to heat up as we begin to hear the more familiar rapid-fire snarls and squawks from his alto.

The band then segues into McGregor's "Travelling Somewhere" but although they are clearly kicking at the boundaries, they keep their improvising within a more or less solid post-bop framework; everyone except Louis Moholo (caught in a rare between-beards shot in one of the inner sleeve photos) solos - Feza skitters, McGregor begins to poke out of tonality, Pukwana wails characeristically, tenorman Ronnie Beer, slightly off-mike, keeps his reserve, Dyani's solo suggests a strangely bouncing inner darkness. All in all it is a good and cunning introduction - this is where we're coming from, want to know where we're going?

And it's then that the fire really starts. Both of the following two tracks - "Heart's Vibrations" and a medley of "The Sounds Begin Again" and the tellingly-titled "White Lies" (all McGregor tunes) - explode with an incendiary and incisive blast which blows the petrified politesse of most 21st-century jazz clean out of the water. The roar of untrammelled freedom, the bombs of revolt; even those seeking sanctuary in the hope of danceable Brotherhood-style tunes will be slightly wrongfooted since this is the 1968 of Brotzmann's Machine Gun, of Mantler's Communications, of blood mixed with freeform fire; Mongs and Dudu coruscatingly swift and bold, Chris rattling Cecil Taylor's unused pots and pans on his piano, Moholo thrashing out 97 different rhythms with his right arm alone, Dyani, always sombre, mooring the tumult in its still unspeakable roots.

The real revelation, though, is Ronnie Beer, and it's a startling pleasure to hear him again in full cry; he was never one of the more forward voices of the Brotherhood and didn't solo on their first album (though you can hear him tootling on his Indian flute all the way through "Night Poem"), nor is his voice generally definable amidst the massed reed howls of Alan Silva's Celestial Communications Orchestra. While his solo on "Travelling Somewhere" suggested a slightly more open Wayne Shorter, Beer's tenor rumbles and gurgles through the subsequent tracks like a surer-footed Willem Brueker.

The recital ends with McGregor's arrangement of the old Transkei funeral march "Don't Stir The Beehive" (how threatening were those titles alone in 1968, and not just to the overly cosy British jazz establishment who, Ronnie Scott aside, opted to turn their heads and pretend that the Blue Notes didn't exist?), beginning in a suitably mournful tone before again taking off for an ecstatically and curiously danceable riot of sound; Mongs and Dudu's blowing here makes explicit their debt to the Ayler brothers - the same mixture of simple, neo-holy tunes and ultra-complex hyperspeed free blowing - and the general air is not dissimilar to Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner"; the same repeated attempts to play the tune as nobly as possible which are repeatedly subverted and drowned out by the howls of repression, the baton charges of cymbals and snare drum, the ominously booming police boots of the bass. The best moment, however, is left until the end, as the three horns stutter out a quavery rendition of the tune, like three especially ragged old soldiers of Samuel Beckett, before orbiting into a damn you scream of a sign-off. Not at all what the Blue Notes/Brotherhood neophyte will be expecting, but all the better for it; a reminder of just how high music was capable of going in 1968, and how slowly it took for it to help change everything.