The most of many salutary things about the Ogun Collection, the new and much awaited 5CD box set retrospective of the Blue Notes, is the accentuation that the accompanying booklet gives to the celebratory nature of their music and the celebratory music of their nature. Previously the accent has tended to be mournful, which, given their story, and also the fact that three of these five CDs are effectively tributes – threnodies - is to be expected (not to mention the fact that another of the CDs features music literally recorded on pain of death).
And yet – as survivor Louis Moholo-Moholo movingly and eloquently states in the poem that he contributed to the sleevenotes of the Legacy – Live In South Afrika (the “k” is deliberate) 1964 album, their song turned out not to be in vain; their song contributed directly to the conditions which allowed Mandela’s reborn SA to flourish, and the memories collected in the excellent booklet from a cross-section of key figures put the emphasis on how utterly joyous their musical rebellion sounded, and still sounds; recasting the Blue Notes as the living, active, eager musicians that they were rather than ciphers.
My relationship with this music is indirect. I was too young and in the wrong place to witness the occurrences of the sixties; by the time I became aware of the Blue Notes and the after-effects of their diaspora – for me it really started with Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, and wondering who that trumpeter flooding the canvas of “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” was. Then I heard (and once, in Bologna , saw) the Brotherhood of Breath, and then Dudu Pukwana’s Spear, and then yet others, and it all gradually became clear and enticing. I think I may have seen the Blue Notes with my father at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in 1977. I certainly saw Pukwana’s Zila in a Sunday open air concert in a rather cloudy and cool Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank in late 1989 about six months before he died.
But in late seventies Glasgow I was pretty much on my own in my love for this music, and for post-Ornette jazz and improvised music in general; the jazz sections of Glasgow record shops were the least visited and most unloved of all the sections, faintly embarrassing to most, particularly the counter clerks who usually made no attempt to hide their disgust at the records I purchased, busily pretending to like punk when secretly worshipping Rod Stewart and Led Zeppelin – and there wasn’t that much call for post-punk in my area either, come to think of it; Bloggs in St Vincent Street wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams with customers of a Saturday lunchtime. As for reggae, or dub, or funk – you guessed it; it seemed that no one in Glasgow was buying this stuff except me (clearly others must have been, but I never came across them in the course of my regular travels). Releases on labels like Ogun or Incus trickled up in minute quantities but usually if I wanted anything remotely interesting or new I had to send away for it to Mole Jazz or Honest Jon’s or the labels’ own mail order services; this was a major factor in my early decision to move to London (there was the James Kerr shop up in Woodlands Road, near Charing Cross, which specialised in jazz, but that seemed to draw an aesthetic line at around 1955).
The Blue Notes were not entirely alone when they settled in London – as Evan Parker’s memoir in particular demonstrates, very far from alone – but they too trod a relatively solitary path and probably paid for it. Nevertheless it would appear that finally, in 2008, this music is getting its proper due; it has been reissued and received warmly, and in the post-Mandela light is at last being seen for the extraordinary thing that it was, and is – angry but never raging, hardcore but mischievous, free but intrinsically swinging, and indomitably passionate.
Possibly the most euphoric and heartrending of these five CDs is the first one; the aforementioned Legacy, recorded in an illegal club in Durban under virtual samizdat conditions (see the very telling note by Tony McGregor, Chris’ brother, in the sleevenote wherein he details the long list of relevant apartheid laws) in 1964, just before the group fled SA. The tension is palpable but the ecstatic reaction is electric. Essentially hard bop/soul jazz with a good deal of township roughage, and accompanied by vibrant whoops zinging between musicians and audience (so that they all fuse into one brotherhood of breath, as such), Legacy plays like a realer deal variant on Cannonball Adderley’s contemporaneous Live At The Club and I’m sure would have found an equally big crossover audience had this music been allowed to travel beyond Jo’burg. McGregor, Dyani and Moholo-Moholo provide the rhythm; Pukwana, Feza and tenorman Nick Moyake form the frontline, but such boundaries quickly dissolve. No one plays “out” as such but it’s clear where they’re heading; in the astonishing, climactic “Two For Sandi” we hear Mongezi’s triple tongue quiver and Dudu’s overblowing, straining at the borders, and Moholo-Moholo is already busy subdividing the beat into a near-free rush (and the audience cheering all of them on, to climax after climax). Moyake, the man who taught Dudu the saxophone and the one who did return home (where he died of cancer in 1969), is a fascinating player; his tenor is sturdy and robust, somewhere between Coleman Hawkins and Gene Ammons, and his feature on “I Cover The Waterfront” demonstrates just how strong an improviser he was (though it remains unclear whether he would have joined the rest of them in their subsequent free zone). This “B My Dear” is one of the loveliest of all recorded interpretations of Pukwana’s ballad; Mingus would have bowed if he’d heard it.
It’s tough to move from the good natured rave-up of “Dorkay House” to the genuine, unhinged rage and sorrow of the music which opens the second CD, music recorded over a decade later, with people missing and Mongezi Feza in particular newly gone. Many neophytes may be right to be puzzled by the passage between what they’ve heard in a remote room in Durban in 1964 and what they’re hearing in a remote room somewhere in north London in 1975, and to wonder what happened in the intervening span of time.
For the answer to that it will be necessary to listen to the parallel series of reissues that the Fledgl’ng label has been putting out over the last year or so; 1968’s transitional and transformational Very Urgent (with Ronnie Beer coming in for Moyake on tenor, and controversially credited to the Chris McGregor Group rather than the Blue Notes) which marks the definitive recorded move from post-bop to free; 1969’s very free (but surprisingly also very light) Up To Earth septet session (Evan Parker and John Surman both coming in for Beer, the absent Dyani depped for by Barre Phillips on one session and a surprisingly effective Danny Thompson on the other); the two RCA Brotherhood of Breath studio albums; the historic 1971 Berlin Eclipse At Dawn live set on Cuneiform; the explosive 1972 Live At Willisau; Pukwana’s 1975 album Freedom Express, one of the last studio sessions on which Feza appeared and crucially proving that both retained a keen ear for bop; and the dozens of other records on which various Blue Notes appeared in various roles.
But the Ogun box necessarily cuts straight to Blue Notes For Mongezi, and as the redux version now occupies two full CDs this will be the main attraction for many buyers. Although the Blue Notes had not played together as the Blue Notes for some years, they nevertheless reunited at Feza’s memorial service and without saying much of anything went straight to a rehearsal room directly afterwards, set up their instruments, and played and played and sang and played for something like three and a half hours without a break. Due to the limitations of vinyl, the original double album was necessarily a set of highlights but still made for one of the most harrowing listening experiences I can recall; the passion, the grief, the words, above all Johnny Dyani’s words, seemed almost too painful for public consumption, but as an act of catharsis and reconciliation it was surely needed, and over the course of its four sides the music did seem to reach a point of acknowledgement and resolution. Over two CDs, however, the playing time has effectively doubled in length, and we now have the complete record, or as complete a record as we’re going to get, of everything that was played and taped on that day; according to engineer Keith Beal, the musicians started playing practically the moment they came into the room, while the recording equipment was still being set up, and there is an abrupt but small break in the music between the two CDs which marked the point where the tape reels had to be changed, but otherwise the performance is complete.
The completeness also alters the listener’s perspective on the music radically, such that one is effectively listening to a new extended piece of music altogether; the grief is immediately apparent as the music fades in, Dudu’s alto squealing, Dyani’s bowed bass scribbling, McGregor’s piano an abstracted ghost on the far left, Moholo’s drums busy but strangely subdued. The pace is necessarily slower and more organic than on the original vinyl release but the overall picture is critically more detailed; we have Dyani’s urgent ostinatos and parched Xhosa (and occasional English) cries but they are now set in a more complex landscape where there are long periods of straight swing or Coltrane-type waltz passages. In the “Second Movement” Dyani’s bass solo remains poignant to the point of unlistenable (in terms of unalloyed, bereaved sorrow), though clearly influenced by Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra recording of “Song For Che” with rattling percussion from all direction accompanying his playing and Dudu’s solemn alto succeeding him in the foreground with an eventual martial feel of defiance in the group’s rhythm. This is then succeeded by Dyani and Dudu’s vocal harmonies and chants, again accompanied only by free percussion. From this point of prayer-filled stasis, the music gradually picks up again on the third CD; Pukwana picks up on “Yellow Rose Of Texas” from nowhere in particular (though in the English vocal sections I notice lots of “We love you”s but also Dyani’s ominous “We know your enemies”) and turns that too into an ANC-worthy anthem of hopeful triumph, while the band as a whole suddenly swing through a whole series of Blue Notes/Brotherhood standards, most notably a spirited run through Feza’s “Sonia” with a terrific McGregor/Dyani duet section. Ultimately we arrive, after a lengthy and patient set-up, at the lilting major key tribute to Feza which concluded the original album, where the Blue Notes appear to will their own rebirth and “live” once more. Blue Notes For Mongezi is their “Everything’s Gone Green” and just as devastating a listening experience.
The fourth CD contains Blue Notes In Concert, an expanded version of the album recorded at the 100 Club in April 1977. It is difficult for me not to type the word “1977” and instinctively follow it with the phrase “at the height of punk” but to me it seems increasingly relevant (particularly as it was the 100 Club); this was British jazz’s own punk rock and its equally passionate adherents are easily audible on this fine recording. By now the Blue Notes’ freedom is more readily reconcilable with the roots of their music; freed by the 1975 threnody, they move back and forth between bop, township and free with instinctive ease, and “Manje” (a modification of the tune “Now” which opens Legacy) has a delightful yet forceful decisiveness to its swing, though the album still ends with chants and mass percussion, still yearning for home. There is an ineluctable lightness in this music but also immense depth; everyone is concentrating on the music as well as enjoying it.
The box concludes with Blue Notes For Johnny, recorded a decade later. The approach of the surviving members to this record differed radically from the Mongezi tribute; the recording took place in August 1987, some ten months after Dyani OD’d in Copenhagen , and is largely structured as a series of interpretations of tunes by Dyani and others. As McGregor’s brief note makes clear, Dyani’s place in the group could not be filled; there is no bass on this album, and consequently the trio have to work harder to complete the musical picture. In doing so, though, they appear to complete the circle; much of the music here harks back to their early Jo’burg days, with blues, bop and balladry much in evidence and played relatively straight. Still, Dudu’s grief is especially apparent; he double tracks himself on “Funk Dem Dudu” but his alto cuts to wounds still raw and still explodes regularly. Once more, there are vocal invocations, to Feza as well as to Dyani, and nine or so minutes of cautiously free improvisation in the McGregor/Moholo-Moholo duet “Monks & Mbizo”; I’ve never quite been sure of the meaning of the brief conversation which links this to the closing “Ithi-gqi” except that it’s possible that the improvisation was being recorded before, or as, Pukwana arrived at the studio; Pukwana queries the key and everyone launches into Dyani’s tune, which in turn resolves itself into “Nkosi Sikelele L’Afrika,” the ANC anthem, played plaintively and passionately, framing the story and providing what eventually turned out – even if only Moholo-Moholo would live to see it – to be a happy ending. And it is especially pleasing that despite the sorrow, the Blue Notes’ tale has now been accepted as a cornerstone, not only in the development of jazz and improvised music in Africa and Europe , but also in the reformation of a sick country. This tale takes some telling, but every second is worthwhile and true.