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Chris McGregor Brotherhood of Breath: Bremen to Bridgwater

When it comes to the music of late pianist Chris McGregor and his wildly enthusiastic, free-improvising big band, Brotherhood of Breath, fans will likely take anything they can get. McGregor’s band was an assemblage of players from the pianist’s native South Africa and Europe that, after disbanding following McGregor’s death in 1990, left us with only a handful of albums to enjoy-and good luck finding most of them. Recently, the Brotherhood has been brought to wider attention by the efforts of Cuneiform, which released a live, archival Brotherhood recording, Travelling Somewhere, in 2002, and brought forth a double-disc follow-up, Bremen to Bridgwater, early this year.

Collecting tunes from three performances dating from 1971 and 1975, Bremen to Bridgwater gives us a chance to hear three different versions of this superb band. And while it doesn’t deliver the consistency of Travelling Somewhere, it’s still full of worthy jams, and it’s an intriguing history lesson.

In the early and mid-’70s, other pianist-led free bands, like Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the various Cecil Taylor bands, used squawking horns and polyrhythms to explore some mighty dark territory. In contrast, the Brotherhood was more of a good-time party band. The group had its roots, after all, under the sponsorship of the South African Castle Lager Brewery. The music the group made was a strange brew indeed, combining the still relatively new avant-garde jazz sound with distinctly non-American musical styles that came from the group’s South African musicians like altoist Dudu Pukwana and drummer Louis Moholo as well as European improvisers like tenor saxophonists Evan Parker and Gary Windo. I’ve come to call the band’s sound “African Dixieland”-guys blowing like mad with a rousing, uplifting spirit over driving, danceable beats, typified by Moholo’s ring-a-ding-dinging ride cymbal.

To get the bad news out of the way, the middle portion of Bremen to Bridgwater, which occupies the last half hour of disc one, finds the band without Moholo on February 26, 1975, at Bridgwater Arts Centre in England-and these two tracks justify the importance of having him in the band. The band’s drummer that night, Keith Bailey, didn’t have Moholo’s elastic feel for time. The horn section, which that night included saxophonists Pukwana, Elton Dean and Alan Skidmore and trumpeters Mongezi Feza, Harry Beckett and Marc Charig, trudges on with a lot of hooting and hollering, but no feeling of synergy ever emerges, and thus these two extended jams never quite satisfy. It’s possible that better source tapes would communicate more depth in the performances, but, despite Cuneiform’s admirable sonic clean-up job, the recording is distant and muddy, and McGregor’s piano is all but lost in the muck.

Ah, but the good news. Nine months after the February show, the Brotherhood returned to Bridgwater, this time with Moholo in tow, and the six tunes that comprise disc two are raveups-and the sound, though still far from perfect, is better. Moholo simply completes the puzzle, and his pants-on-fire playing seems to engage and enliven the horn players, whose game of call-and-response evokes a childlike joy. It’s also during this performance, on tunes like “Yes, Please” and “Now,” that the Brotherhood hits a swaggering stride that recalls the sophisticated shades of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady Mingus and the perkiness of Far East Suite Ellington.

The Brotherhood of the November 1975 concert sounds worlds more advanced than the June 1971 incarnation of the band heard on the first portion of disc one. But this early material is the most satisfying of the set. This time in concert at Bremen, Germany’s Lila Eule-a performance taped and broadcast live by Radio Bremen, resulting in the best-sounding tracks of the set-everyone in the group sounds happy to be entering unexplored territory with the then relatively new band, curious to hear what sounds they might make together that night. Pukwana’s “The Bride,” heard here with a blistering trumpet intro by Mongezi Feza, comes close to matching the excitement of the Brotherhood’s best song, “MRA,” another Pukwana composition that is, sadly, not represented on either of these two discs (a classic version of “MRA” appears on Travelling Somewhere). If a favorite has to be picked among the tunes from the ’71 show, or the set overall, it’s McGregor’s marching “Kongi’s Theme.” In addition to being a right catchy little groove, with horns moving up, down and sideways, and McGregor’s piano trinkle-tinkling in the upper register, all to the beat of Moholo’s persistent march, the song sums up what the Brotherhood did best: party hard.

Originally Published