Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath (1971) RCA Neon

Straying over the boundaries of 50s/60s jazz, putting a toe into the early ’70s, turning the focus back home to Britain, and the influence of expatriate African jazz musicians on the evolving British jazz scene. Think: Londonjazzcollector.

British jazz started out with the ’50s message to America “we can play as good as you guys!” In most cases patently untrue, but we tried. But Tubby!!! Many players from the Caribbean joined us, with stand-out qualities. Harriott!  However the bonds to the USS Bebop loosened further as jazz composers in the British and European tradition emerge (Garrick!!), and influences from diverse sources pulled us in different directions.

Not to say we are not grateful, fellas, it’s just that we’ve grown up, and it’s time to leave home, make our own mistakes. Don’t worry, we will still send postcards. From wherever the hell we end up!


Selection: Mra (Dudu Pukwana)

.  .  .

Artists

Save me typing:

Sound engineer Roger Mayer, best known as designer of guitar effects pedals for all the great guitar heroes of the ’60s:Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, and his Octavia unit help drive the sound of Jimmy Hendrix’s Purple Haze.

Through the late ’60s/ early’70s, American jazz musicians were moving to Europe, mainly in the direction of France and Denmark, while South African musicians followed their West Indies predecessors – Dizzy Reece, Joe Harriott, Harold McNair, Wilton Gaynair, Shake Keane  – moving to London, helping to shape the emerging  direction of British jazz.

South African pianist, Chris McGregor arrived in London in 1965, with a band The Blue Notes, going on to form The Brotherhood of Breath, a loose collective of South African expats and a changing roster of artists from the British scene including Elton Dean, Lol Coxhill, Marc Charig, John Surman, and whoever else was in town. Over a couple of decades the group recorded ten albums, the last in Paris, En Concert a Banlieues Bleues with Archie Shepp (1989)

Led by McGregor’s piano, the huge brass assemblage of The Brotherhood on this first (?) album brought together many lions of the British Jazz scene: Alan Skidmore (tenor) Harry Beckett (trumpeter originally from Barbados), Mike Osborne (clarinet and soprano) and John Surman (mostly baritone).

Composer, pianist and altoist  Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana hailed from the townships of South Africa, and had a long musical association with other players in the McGregor band, Mongezi Feza and Louis Moholo.Tenor player Ronnie Beer was another from the Capetown South African scene, from McGregor’s Jazz Disciples band.

Shortly after leaving McGregor, Dudu went on to form the afro-rock  group Assegai, the main competition to “Osibisa” , all of whom were big on the ’70s London scene: a fusion of African, Caribbean, jazz, funk, rock, Latin, and R&B, but strictly no Morris-dancing. Well, may be just a little… Mongezi Feza went on to appear in another band, Centipede – RCA Neon NE9 – “Septober Energy”.

This musical direction veered further an further into Afro-beat territory, notably with Nigerian music and politics in the form of Fela Kuti. I have a few reissues of Fela’s domestic albums, however the vinyl audio quality is, well, shocking, unlistenable. My only remaining Afrobeat connection is the drummer Tony Allen, on CD, whose playing leaves me, simply, in awe. However this is no longer, jazz territory, I digress…

Music:

Brotherhood of Breath has been described as “combining the hard-driving blues of Charles Mingus with the wild experimentalism of Sun Ra, but retaining a unique feel due to the South African influences and the intelligent arrangements” (Wiki).

The selection Mra, or MRA, by Pukwana,  is a boisterous high-energy repeating riff, propulsive, determinedly forward direction, with a masterful piece of arranging, instruments, with varying figures in each repetition. Could McGregor have become the British Sun Ra? Space may be The Place, but in London, there is the congestion charge, and it’s difficult for even parking space, prohibited on double yellow lines except Sundays. In my opinion, Saturn remains space-travellers’ planet of choice. Runs rings around… 

A professional insight into the Pukwana track is offered by music writer Bill Shoemaker, who provides this excellent encyclopaedic of overview of McGregor’s musical contribution in the remarkable  online jazz journal “Point of Departure“, extract here:

“…Pukwana’s “MRA,” whose title is often misinterpreted as initials instead of an exclamation of the lesser-known synonym of the more familiar “bra,” South African shorthand for “brother.” The piece has an all-caps intensity that immediately distinguishes it from boilerplate kwela, as riveting rhythmic figures are layered by bass, piano, and trombones, the see-sawing harmonic movement between chords a major second apart buttressed by saxophone voicings. The ascending long notes at the front end of the trumpets-introduced theme have the rallying quality of a bugle call; but the resolving phrase squarely locates the composition in the mid ‘60s, particularly when echoed by the saxophones.

In the hands of a contemporary commercially-motivated composer, “MRA” could be fodder for a ‘60s TV action series. However, McGregor sustains the pneumatic attack as he creates tight-fitting call-and-response interplay between brass and woodwinds, giving “MRA” a cutting edge from beginning to end.”

The album as a whole is happy melange of American-influenced British jazz with African township-jazz influences, a touch of progressive rock and a little free jazz, rolled into one  high-energy big band. Despite the lure of Afrobeat that some artists went on to follow, The Brotherhood keep both feet firmly in the jazz idiom.It is well worth seeking out.

Gatefold

So 1970s. Inside the gatefold,  Chris McGregor is shot cross-legged on a British garden lawn (Simple. Just mow for three hundred years). He  sports the essential ethno-headgear and beaded poncho.  I guess it is Dudu captured out of focus in the background, in broad-brimmed flowerpot hat and quilted poncho.

The typesetting is the usual ’70s almost-illegible coloured text out of black. However it preserves those all-important details of musicians, instruments, and engineer. Before long, information was to be excluded altogether. After all, who needs information? Especially when to-day the band is often just one guy and his laptop.

Vinyl: RCA Neon NE2

According to RareRecordCollector (no relation) Neon was “a short-lived ‘specialist’ UK label from RCA, which issued only 11 albums, a varied mix of folk, jazz and prog rock, released in 1971-2″.  Cover designs include work by Marcus Keef. (“Keef” – real name Keith Stuart MacMillan). Keef was the photographer behind some of the most iconic albums of 70’s heavy/underground rock including  covers for Black Sabbath, Colosseum, Manfred Mann, David Bowie and Uriah Heep. A selection of Keef gatefolds for Vertigo and RCA Neon labels catapults you back over forty years into British prog rock . Below, contrast surreal or mysterious models posed in pastoral and menacing landscapes with washed out colours: strong concept photography rather than the  earlier oeuvre of artist portrait and typographic design . So Seventies.

Keef’s contribution to Chris McGregor’s cover, carved African figures, is a simple but memorable design. I can still remember seeing it nearly fifty years ago, and that is memorable. Mind you, it never convinced me to buy it at the time, so no cigar.

Pressing is a mystery. The matrix stamp does not conform to the usual Decca/EMI/Philips formats. Perhaps a rock-collector knows…

Thankfully, in the interest of gender balance, we have female carvings on the gatefold front cover, and a chap on the back. Heinz 57 other varieties await discovery.

Collector’s Corner

One of my London record stores acquired a British jazz collectors stash which included a number of iconic late 60s/70s prog jazz rock albums. Many went too far into the fusion era for my taste (Ian Carr’s Belladonna, Sold quickly £250! ), but this title caught my eye, and I’m glad it did.

1970’s I was up to different things, missed it first time around, glad to play catch up. Better sound system today, fewer distractions from attention, and this music has aged well.

 

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12 thoughts on “Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath (1971) RCA Neon

  1. Amazing album — one of my favorites. Yes, the first side is incredible, but the second side has grown on me. Aesthetically this sidelong cut fits more with McGregor and the Blue Notes’ early forays into free music upon their arrival in London (see the unfinished albums on Polydor, later released by — I think — Fledg’ling, for comparative starters) than what the Brotherhood would eventually seize on.

  2. A terrific first side, but the second side — atmospheric though it is — always leaves me with the impression that the band perhaps lacked sufficient material for a full album. I try to resist that view but never can. The whole thing — cover, label, artwork (and in my copy the contemporary reviews clipped out and inserted) — is tremendously evocative of a vanished age…

    And while on the subject, I am astonished at what has happened to record prices just in the past ten or a dozen years. My original of BELLADONNA (Ian Carr + Nucleus), which I think I bought ten or perhaps twelve years ago (I’ll try and remember to check tonight and see if I recorded the date) I’m sure cost less than £20. It’s doubtful that I would have paid more than that. But £250.00? I suppose records can only get rarer, but even so…

  3. You are usually always flying the flag for American jazz LJC, but this is one of hundreds if not thousands of examples where the music of Africa, West Indies and Europe beats the pants off yet another organ date, or blowing session on Blue note or Prestige. So glad to see you dipping your toes slightly in to these adventurous waters. The reality is that there is probably just as much jazz from the above as the US, and I found out at an early age that much of it tends to be a more satisfying experience. Parker Ellington, Rollins & Coltrane are at the core of my collection, but the second rank stuff is long bypassed in preference for the best European/African sessions.

  4. This was the first BOB album, but prior to this McGregor released “Very Urgent” on Polydor in 1968. A pretty fiery sextet date with Feza,Pukwana,Beer & Moholo with original bassist Johnny Dyani. Well worth a listen

  5. I remember seeing Dudu Pukwana’s last band, Zila on a number of occasions in London in the 1980’s, before his sad passing in 1990. I’m struggling to remember where exactly (it was 30 year’s ago). Probably pub venues, although perhaps Peter Ind’s excellent and much lamented Bass Clef in Hoxton may have been where I saw one gig (and also a few at The Pegasus in Stoke Newington, where the brilliant Dick Heckstall-Smith and Big Chief also used to play regularly). Great, joyous township jazz!

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