Friday 18 December 2009

electricjive: Assagai: Zimbabwe (1971)

electricjive: Assagai: Zimbabwe (1971)

This 1971 prog-rock offering by Assagai includes one of my favourite voices, Martha Mdenge. A follow-up to their self-titled debut album, "Zimbabwe" showcases some of South Africa’s best exile musicians at the time – Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo and the special trumpeter, Mongezi Feza. It also features some cover songs and musical back-up from Vertigo “stable-mates” Jade Warrior,

Sunday 15 November 2009

electricjive: Morris Goldberg's Urban Jazz Band (1975)

electricjive: Morris Goldberg's Urban Jazz Band (1975)
When talking of Cape Jazz pioneers Morris Goldberg’s name is usually mentioned in the same sentence along with Dollar Brand and Chris McGregor. This gem was recorded in 1975 when Goldberg was visiting South Africa from his New York base. Both Goldberg and percussionist Monty Weber were part of the “Manenburg” legend. Goldberg was the third saxophone player whose name does not appear on the cover credits. Read some of the back-story here.

electricjive: The birth of Heshoo Beshoo

electricjive: The birth of Heshoo Beshoo
The band Heshoo Beshoo grew out of a great friendship. formed in the home of jazz promoter and founder of the Johannesburg Jazz Appreciation Society, Ray Nkwe.

Monday 2 November 2009

Top 10 albums of the South African jazz diaspora – Tony's picks

Top 10 albums of the South African jazz diaspora – Tony's picks
Exile was a two-edged sword for the South African musicians who left their homeland for the freedom of Europe and the United States. This is a selection of some of the finest albums to come out of the great South African jazz diaspora

Friday 16 October 2009

Top 10 South African jazz albums – Tony's picks

Top 10 South African jazz albums – Tony's picks
Tony's picks of the top ten South African jazz albums of the post-war years. A look at albums made in South Africa during that time - the apartheid and post-apartheid years.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

A fellow-musician reminisces about Mankunku

Today I had a meeting with my friend, bass player Ernest Mothle, who came to my home for one of our regular talk sessions. I am getting him to talk about his life in music, as he is one of a disappearing group of South African jazz musicians born during, or around, the years of World War Two, with the hope of later publishing the story of his life in some form or other.

Obviously with the death of Mankunku still in our minds, the talk turned to Ernest's meeting with, and learning from, the great tenorman. During our meeting last week Ernest had spoken a bit about Mankunku, but now he wanted to tell the story in more depth, to indicate more fully his sense of indebtedness to Mankunku.

The following is more or less how the conversation went.

“I was playing with a band called the Big 5, with Early Mabuza on drums, Pat Matshikiza on piano, and myself on bass, we were asked by Ray Nkwe, who founded the Johannesburg Jazz Appreciation Society, to back Mankunku for a gig because Mankunku had not brought his band up from Cape Town with him. Ray had brought him up for promotional purposes.”

“Early, Pat and myself rehearsed a song that had no title. Johnny Mekoa (a well-known trumpeter and jazz educator in South Africa) was listening to this. He commented that since Mankunku had hit town, all the tenor players around sounded like cows.

“Mankunku then said he would call the tune 'Yakhal' inKomo'. That's how the song was named.

“The band was also rehearsing for a recording we were going to make for Professor Yvonne Huskisson of the SABC. We were asked to do about 10 songs.

“For me, two of these songs stood out – one was the ballad 'It Might As Well Be Spring' (from the 1945 movie State Fair by Rogers and Hammerstein) and the other was 'Yakhal' inKomo'.

The latter was so good that there was huge public demand for it to be recorded.

At around that time Ernest was arrested on charges for which he was later acquitted. But the result of his being in jail for a while was that when the group went to make the recording of 'Yakhal' inKomo' they thought Ernest was still in jail and got Agrippa Magwaza to play instead. That's how Ernest missed being on the biggest-selling jazz album in South Africa.
“Ray Nkwe had access to lots of jazz records (because of his position as head of the Jazz Appreciation Society) and so a group of us used to spend a lot of time at his place listening to his records – that was myself, Mankunku (who was staying with Ray at the time), guitarist Cyril Magubane and drummer Gilbert Matthews. From those hours of listening emerged a band which eventually became Heshoo Beshoo (this band made the great album Armitage Road, now sadly no longer available).

“I learnt a lot from Mankunku – especially involvement, the use of tonic solfa, and concentration.
“Mankunku was totally involved in his music, totally emotionally there. I liked that even though I was in awe of it.

“Tonic solfa helped us to grasp and understand the music very quickly. We would not have managed to learn so much so fast with staff notation.

“Concentration – Mankunku taught us this by getting us to climb a tree with our shoes on, after a few, actually a lot of, brandies! This led to my riding a motorbike for the first time in my life. It happened like this – we were having a lala-vuka (an all-night drinking session) and in the early hours of the morning ran out of booze. One of the people there had a motorbike ad so I said I would go and buy some more liquor if I could use the bike. So the guy showed me the gears and how they worked and I went off on it.

“The others were very worried, especially Mankunku, as we had been drinking for a long time. But I came back safely with the booze. I managed because of the lesson in concentration that Mankunku had given me.”

“He's always stood by me – we've always been there for each other. I remember once a tenor ploayer called Mike Faure came to play at a club where we were playing. People were drawn to him because he was doing a new thing, a sort of Archie Shepp thing. I noticed Mankunku sitting to one side, feeling left out, so I went and spoke to him and told him I'm with him.

“After the recording of 'Yakhl' inKomo' there was a jam session at Early Mabuza's house in Dube, Soweto. There were a lot of musicians, young and old and at that time I was just a face in the crowd because of the euphoria and excitement around 'Yakhal' inKomo'. I'll never forget Mankunku chose my favourite song on the programme, the ballad 'It Might as well be Spring' and came and asked to take the bass. I was shy and only reluctantly took the bass. We did the song and there was that emotional thing happening again and I could see him crying.

“After the song ended he asked a question to the people in the room: 'Why don't we always play like this?'

“I was a little confused at first but then I realised he was talking about getting emotionally involved when playing – giving it all.

“This is my form of dedication and I want to thank him for his contribution to my career.

“Go well, my dear friend.”

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Tonight - 'A great loss for jazz music'

Tonight - 'A great loss for jazz music'
South African jazz legend Winston Monwabisi Mankunku Ngozi, 66, has died.

His younger brother Thuli said today the saxophonist had been ill for a while. "He was suffering from heart disease and has been in and out of hospital. In the end, his kidneys and liver packed up," he said.

Ngozi died at the Victoria Hospital in Cape Town at around 2am.

Friend and music promoter Rashid Lombard said Ngozi's death was a great loss for jazz music in Cape Town and South Africa.

Friday 9 October 2009

Top 10 Jazz CDs – Tony's Picks

Top 10 Jazz CDs – Tony's Picks
This Top 10 list is going to concentrate on the players from North America that I have found that I enjoy and relate to. I will do a follow-up Hubs on the South African and the European Top 10s in due course. These might entail music that is less familiar to listeners and fans.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Guitar master with fingers like spiders on the strings

Guitar master with fingers like spiders on the strings
Above the guitar his face reflects the agony and the ecstasy of the music while his fingers range up and down the fretboard like some huge and agile spider, creating chords and notes that sing and wail.

South African jazz – a historical introduction to the beautiful music of a beautiful country

South African jazz – a historical introduction to the beautiful music of a beautiful country
South African jazz started not long after the great explosion of the music in New Orleans more than 100 years ago – or it started long before then, depending on how you look at it.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Miles Davis and Gil Evans gestated masterpieces

Miles Davis and Gil Evans gestated masterpieces
In a little basement room behind a Chinese laundry on West 55th Street in New York City was born a musical relationship that would produce some of the greatest music recorded in the 20th Century. It was in that little room that great composer/arranger Gil Evans (whose room it was) and trumpeter Miles Davis explored their ideas about jazz and put together what famous jazz disc-jockey Symphony Sid (real name Sidney Tarnopol) announced as "something new in modern music" - the nonet which produced the music which would give rise to the so-called "cool school" of jazz and the aptly-titled album "Birth of the Cool."

Thursday 23 July 2009

From Antibes to a New York Penthouse with Mingus

From Antibes to a New York Penthouse with Mingus
The year 1960 saw Mingus record five great albums, three released in 1960, one in 1961 and one in 1980. The 1961 release was the result of his collaboration with conductor and musicologist Gunther Schuller and entitled Pre-Bird Mingus. The album released in 1980 was the live set at the Antibes Jazz Festival.

Sunday 19 July 2009

The famous 1959 Mingus albums

The famous 1959 Mingus albums
These are albums which show a musician reaching a pinnacle of creativity, and the wonder is that they are not the final words in this particular musician's career - Mingus went on to make many more superlative albums. Somehow, though, these two are albums that fans and other musicians turn to again and again, they are both treasuries of great music that one can learn from and a great deal of fun to listen to.

Massey Hall to Pithecanthropus

Massey Hall to Pithecanthropus
These three albums represent bassist Charles Mingus growing as both bass player and band leader. On the first album he becomes leader almost by default as the two who were meant to lead the outfit which has come to be known as "The Quintet", Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, were not able to function properly as leaders due to various personal issues. Mingus took over the role and did his best to protect the interests of all the musicians involved.

Tuesday 30 June 2009

What is Jazz? Ain't no other music like it!

What is Jazz? Ain't no other music like it!
According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Revised Edition 2006) jazz is "a type of music of Black American origin characterised by improvisation, syncopation, and a regular rhythm, and typically played on brass and woodwind instruments" and the origin of the word itself is given as "early 20th Century: of unknown origin."
The music commonly referred to as "jazz" has a range and diversity, a richness and beauty, that is totally belied by such a bland definition.
At the same time, I do understand the difficulty faced by the writers of the esteemed dictionary - how on earth does one encompass within a few words, in the form of a lasting definition, a musical tradition and experience that encompasses the sounds of Jelly Roll Morton and Cecil Taylor, Bix Beiderbecke and Don Cherry, Coleman Hawkins and Ornette Coleman, Sidney Bechet and Steve Lacy, Johnny St Cyr and Pat Metheny, and countless others at the various extremes and points in between that constitute the territory of jazz?

Thursday 25 June 2009

The beginning of something new - a portrait in jazz

The beginning of something new - a portrait in jazz
Evans went into a studio on 28 December 1959 under the direction of producer Orrin Keepnews, with young bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian to lay down 11 tracks of a new way for a jazz piano trio to play and sound.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack music

Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack music
One of Duke Ellington's greatest albums, one often overlooked by both the critics and the fans, is the album of music he composed and played for Otto Preminger's court-room feature Anatomy of a Murder

Saturday 6 June 2009

Mingus gets down to the roots of the matter

Mingus gets down to the roots of the matter
On 4 February 1959 bassist Charles Mingus took with a group of top class jazz musicians into the Atlantic Records studio to record a "barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy" to quote his own words, and the result is the magnificent "Blues and Roots", an album which gets me shouting and moaning myself whenever I listen to it (which, I have to admit, is quite often!).

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Mingus magnificus Ah Um

Mingus magnificus Ah um
I wonder how many other jazz musicians would have invited their therapists to write liner notes for their albums? Charles Mingus was a unique and brave jazz musician, and the tribute to his qualities by his therapist is both fitting and insightful.

Thursday 19 March 2009

The Ogun Collection – a celebration of the Blue Notes

Jazz in South Africa has always occupied a somewhat ambiguous space, with many regarding it as the “music of freedom,” an essential part of the culture of a liberated country, and yet in so many ways it does not get the recognition it would seem to deserve from that description.

There is something almost “underground” about jazz in South Africa, something submerged, not with a negative connotation but simply that it isn't out in the open, like something enjoyed but not spoken of.

Yet every once in a while something happens which brings the music into the light of day, and suddenly it is flavour of the month stuff – I think immediately of Manenberg and Yakhal' inKomo, without any denigration of this music at all.

But after these pieces have had their moment in the public spotlight they fall back into the ever-flowing stream of unnoticed creativity that, it seems to me, is always flowing under the surface of South Africa's culture – that stream of improvised and spontaneous music that has nurtured the roots of our freedom since forever.

I have long felt that because of the jazz diaspora caused by the generally unfriendly apartheid regime which worked so hard to crush any real creativity and spontaneity much of the greatest music of this genre has been unavailable to and therefore unappreciated by the South African jazz public.

And so it is with mixed feelings of sadness about lost opportunities and elation about a wonderful tribute to some truly great South African musicians that has recently been issued in the United Kingdom: the Ogun boxed collection of Blue Notes music. This set comprises four albums, one of them a double CD set, of incredibly wonderful music, music with deep South African roots, music that could not have come from anyplace else, music that is not easy to categorise.

I have written before that exile was a two-edged sword for many musicians – on the one hand their absence from South Africa meant that they slowly left the memories of those who stayed at home, on the other hand in exile they had opportunities to meet and work with musicians from many other contexts and traditions which greatly enriched their own music making in so many ways.

When the Blue Notes (Chris McGregor, leader/piano; Mongezi Feza, trumpet; Dudu Pukwana, alto sax; Johnny Mbizo Dyani, bass; and Louis Tebugo Moholo-Moholo, drums) left South Africa in 1964 apartheid was entering its most deadening phase. All of these amazing musicians, except Moholo-Moholo, died in exile, and two of the albums in this set are tributes to the first to die lonely deaths in exile: Mongezi Feza in 1975 (Blue Notes for Mongezi) and Johnny Dyani in 1986 (Blue Notes for Johnny).

Blue Notes for Mongezi is a double-CD, four-movement marathon of music that is “the spontaneous tribute of four musicians who had assembled in London for the Memorial Service for their friend.” (From the liner notes by Keith Beal).

As Beal wrote about the recording: “No discussion took place beforehand and nothing was said during the session, save through the music. As the musicians arrived and set up their instruments they joined in and played without a break for three and a half hours, not even stopping whilst the rolls of tape were changed.”

The result is 156 minutes of emotionally charged music that ranges from passages of very free jazz to intense digging into the traditional roots, and many forays into the Blue Notes' own songbook along the way. It is inventive, sometimes harrowing, and, yes, at times uneven, music that, for all its length, leaves me somehow wishing that it could go on.

The musicians involved in this great “meditation in music” were Dudu, Chris, Johnny and Louis.

Blue Notes for Johnny is a very different sounding album and only the remaining three Blue Notes took part: Chris, Dudu and Louis.

The album is made up of more discrete tracks unlike the free-flowing “movements” of the Mongezi tribute album. The absence of the bass makes the loss of Johnny feel very poignant: as Chris wrote in his tribute to Johnny – “The place you left cannot be filled by any other Our music will no longer sound the same.”

Back in 1964, just before they left South Africa for good, the Blue Notes travelled around the country playing gigs in all the major centres and some pretty minor ones as well. One of these gigs was most fortunately captured on tape and issued in 1995 as Blue Notes – Legacy. Original Blue Notes member Nikele Moyake (tenor sax) was still with the group (he returned to South Africa after the band's appearance at the 1964 Antibes-Juan les Pins Jazz Festival, where he died of a brain tumour not long after).

This is album was originally released in 1995 with the slightly different title The Blue Notes Legacy.

The original CD's release was at the same time as the publication of the book by Chris's widow Maxine Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath (Bamberger Books, 1995).

The music, I wrote at the time, is “swinging, tight and inventive. With those lovely rhythmic and harmonic surprises that seemed to be so natural to these six highly talented guys.”

The track listing includes one standard and six Blue Notes originals, each one a gem. The origianls are four by Dudu and two by Chris. The standard is Green and Hayman's “I Cover the Waterfront,” a favourite at the time of Nikele Moyake's.

In some ways though, the pick for me of this collection of great albums, the one which gives the best feel for the mature sound of the Blue Notes, is Blue Notes in Concert, recorded at the 100 Club in London in 1977.

With all the roughness that inevitably creeps into live performances, especially at clubs rather than concert halls, this is music that is exciting, lively and very present.

It is very difficult to sit still and listen to some of the tracks – see if you can stay in your seat at the opening of track 5, Kudala!

And some of the tracks are so African in sound that it takes a positive act of imagination to recognise that the musicians are playing in Oxford Street, London. The sounds are more of the wide-open African veld shimmering in midday heat or partially hidden under the evening mists tinged with the colours of sunset. Thorn trees and traditional African beer seem more likely than plush seats and whiskeys-and-sodas. Indeed I can imagine that some of those whiskeys must have been spilt when the band launched into songs like “Abalimanga”!

At the same time I think it a tribute to British music lovers that they could appreciate such exotic sounds so enthusiastically.

And the abrupt changes in the music keep one on one's toes, and waiting for the next surprise.

Truly an album which catches some of the spontaneity of which the Blue Notes were famous for producing. Great fun.

This boxed set is a must for anyone interested in South African jazz as the albums which comprise it showcase some wonderfully talented musicians at their creative best producing music which is rich, lively, entertaining and uplifting, as all great music should be.

In September 2007 the Blue Notes as a group were awarded the National Order of Ikhamanga in Silver by then-president Thabo Mbeki. The citation for the honour concluded: “Blue Notes goes back to a golden age in South Africa's musical history. The multiracial band's eclectic and uniquely South African rendition of jazz made them a noteworthy jazz band in the international halls of fame. They were once one of the most popular jazz bands in the country, often defying the tyrannical race laws of the country in order to perform.”

How sad that such recognition came too late for almost all of them.