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Chris McGregor: Travelling Somewhere

Val Wilmer was right on when she called Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath “a band for an era and a metaphor for freedom.” Leading a contingent of his fellow exiles with London’s cutting-edge improvisers, the late South African pianist created a singular body of big-band music in the 1970s, blending the hymns and Kwela and Marabi music that permeated his youth with an Ellington-inspired sense of swing and deference to his soloists. A previously unreleased Radio Bremen performance from 1973, Travelling Somewhere conveys the jubilant, occasionally cyclonic energy that epitomized the Brotherhood of Breath’s radical cultural positivism.

Though it was recorded only eight days before the concert issued on Live in Willisau (Ogun), only five tunes appear on both discs, and the Bremen gig benefits from the presence of trombonist Malcolm Griffiths and alto saxophonist Mike Osborne in the 12-man contingent. Additionally, McGregor’s practice of stringing two to four tunes together is better represented here than even the CD version of the Willisau concert, which pasted in pieces cut for the original LP. Though McGregor is often submerged in the mix and is saddled with what sounds like the infamous Five Spot piano that plagued Eric Dolphy’s live dates, the overall sound is on par with the Willisau recording.

The first set of four Brotherhood of Breath staples establishes the range of the band (to call BoB an orchestra somehow deprives it of its spunk). The tightly coiled call and response horn parts of altoist Dudu Pukwana’s romping “MRA” unravel into a trenchant collective improvisation that segues into McGregor’s sleekly swinging “Restless,” a fine vehicle for the leader, trumpeter Harry Beckett and Pukwana. The pianist’s “Ismite Is Might” melds dirge with hymn, highlighted by screaming horns and the groundswells of drummer Louis Moholo, before giving way to Wole Soyinka’s “Kongi’s Theme.” This jaunty march sets up some lively banter between Beckett and trombonist Nick Evans that takes the sequence to a satisfying conclusion.

The other two sets mix Brotherhood of Breath chestnuts like McGregor’s “Do It,” a cauldron of driving rhythms, layered riffs and improvised polyphony triggered by Evan Parker’s squalling tenor, and lesser known pieces like Osborne’s “Think of Someone,” a briskly paced, Ornette-flavored workout for the altoist and Griffiths. Particularly on these two tunes, which comprise the last set of the program, the propulsion provided by McGregor, Moholo and bassist Harry Miller is exhilarating: they made the Brotherhood fly.

Travelling Somewhere is an important addition to the rich legacy of the South African exiles. Theirs is a story that should be known by heart by all those claiming a scholarly interest in jazz, as it exemplifies the pain and grace that give voice to the music. For those who don’t know their story, take this disc to the shed.

Originally Published