Some music makes a lifelong
impression, you remember where
you first heard it, who else was around and what impact it had on you. The
Brotherhood of Breath occupy that kind of place. I bought their Live At
Willisau in 1974 from the old
Virgin shop in Liverpool and picked up their eponymous debut album for Neon,
minus a cover, for 99p at the same time. I was secretly hoping they would
sound a bit like the Keith Tippett Group on Dedicated To You But You
Werenis't Ltening since several
of the players occupied space in both bands. What I wasnÕt prepared for was
the presence of Dudu Pukwana, Mongesi Feza and Louis Moholo, who provided that
extra injection of high octane that fuelled and helped create a sound
separate from the equally exciting Tippett line-up. They, with McGregor and
Harry Miller, were often behind the drive into those thrilling uncertainties
frequently presented by the Brotherhood. Many modern big bands, whether Globe
Unity, Keith Tippett'sTapestry, Peter Brotzmann's Tentet or the Dedication
Orchestra have their own identities and so it is with the Brotherhood, it's
where kwela meets Ellington via
Mingus and free jazz, where Europe collides with South Africa and the
result is unique.
There have been many recorded highlights in the careers of McGregor and his compatriots, such as the
Brotherhood's Procession, the
various Blue Notes recordings like the 1964 Legacy live in South Africa
and McGregor's own solo In
His Good Time, all recorded for
Ogun. But it has been thanks to Cuneiform Records that two vital 'live' cds
have been made available to keep the flame alive in more recent times. First
there was Travelling Somewhere
(Rune 152) now we have a double cd featuring three concerts which capture the
essence of this collective.
In 1971 when most of the first CD was taped in Germany the band was at one
of itÕs creative peaks with an explosive mixture in which Anglo-American, Gary
Windo met the aforementioned South Africans. They were ostensibly using the
of arranged pieces, mostly from McGregor's pen, but already
the leanings towards free improvisation were becoming prevalent. At times
they sound like a huge uncertain wave being borne along wildly under its own
unstoppable momentum. There was never any way that arranged charts could contain the irrepressible energies
of Pukwana, for example. So this set finds them, to some extent, in
transition, somewhere between their studio releases and the first Ogun album.
Arranged and blowing.
However free the playing, drummer Louis Moholo kept them moving in the same
direction, as may be witnessed by his tight marching percussion on 'Kongi's
Theme' where the entire ensemble struts to his whiplash drumming. The horn
voicings allow us to hear McGregor's powerful arrangement, trombones and
saxes eloquently unified, before the dynamo that was Feza cuts white-hot
through them. It is a noteworthy example of the balance they could often
attain, somewhere between chaos and beauty, as Val Wilmer has remarked.
Another staple of the band, and The Blue Notes too, Now' (or 'Manje'), shows
that they could swing with the best of them and that the leader's Ellingtonian
inclinations were frequently to be observed amidst the pyrotechnics of very
individual soloists, like Marc Charig. His slurred,
sensuous trumpet style graces this track, as does Alan Skidmore's Coltrane-influenced
tenor which again benefits from the urgent propulsion of Moholo's cymbal rhythms. Of
course, Pukwana injects his tumultuous alto into the brew on a tune he had
been playing for years.
They end their first set with a couple of short versions of McGregor tunes,
'Andromeda' and 'Do It' .The first, accompanied by the audience's ecstatic
clapping, is a further example of a Basie and kwela fusion that joyfully
combines McGregor's love of the colour and energy of big-band material with high-energy soloing. 'Do It' has
a monstrous riff that underpins the raucous blast of Windo's tenor and, like
'Kong's Theme' is a powerhouse of forward motion.
This concert alone would be worth the price of the set but there are also two
chunks from 1975 recorded in the UK. The Brotherhood had altered a little by
now, though the South African core of the band remained in place. Their
extended version of 'The Serpent's Kindly Eye' gives everyone more space to
stretch the riffs and generally explore the collectives' sense of invention.
Interestingly, the drummer who is keeping them together is not Moholo this
time but Keith Bailey and he acquits himself well in the seat which the great
African had made his own since first playing with McGregor back in the early
It is a fitting tribute to the sadly dormant Mike Osborne that they include
an untitled composition of his which features him blowing trademark alto,
alternately squalling and unreeling long floods of melodic phrases.
Similarly, the late Feza's tune 'Sonia' is given an airing and, of course,
he was still around at this point to contribute one of those effervescent solos
that are still much missed. Consolation may be found in the fact that this
is one of the most exciting treatments I've heard, with Moholo in top gear
inspiring Pukwana, Feza and Evan Parker to tear off incandescent solos. Again
the whole band are firing on all cylinders at once, something which continues
through the second version of 'Now' with Osborne in uniquely fluent flight.
Radu Malfatti was to become an integral member for a while and though his
individual trombone isn't heard in a solo context he does provide a
composition, 'Yes Please', that suggests a slight shift away from
free-blowing to a more formal style of arrangement. For further evidence of
this try to find the 1981 French release of the same title where the piece surfaces in a non-live
context. Here though, it is notable for the alto sax trio of Elton Dean,
Pukwana and Osborne, three very
individual voices sharing a rare spotlight together.
Osborne also crops up as the perpetrator of a torrential clarinet solo on
Pukwana's 'Kwhalo' a track which features several themes which are broken
down and mutated before the final track, one by McGregor that I don't recognise,
called 'Untitled Original' It's horn voicings sound somewhat
hymnal or choral as they repeat the main theme throughout and various
soloists, like Nick Evans, come briefly to the fore only to retreat again.
It is curious piece, with a devotional aspect that is very uplifting though
perhaps not in the usual Brotherhood way.
There have been other recordings of different incarnations of this
life-enhancing band such as the French one mentioned above and their last one
Country Cooking in 1988 and they
are each worth hearing Š if you can get hold of them. But to my ears there is
something missing, namely Pukwana, Feza, Moholo and Harry Miller. They more
than anyone else brought that unmistakable beauty and chaos to the
As Moholo has said the spirit of 'Wah Hey!' was their guide when they got
together and if that translates as joy with a 'balls to the walls' attitude
then that's what is captured here. They were an irreplaceable team and one
whose legacy deserves to be preserved and widely heard.
© Paul Donnelly 2004