Bremen to Bridgwater

(Cuneiform Records Rune 182/183)

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 'big-band' format 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 1960s.

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 Brotherhood sound.

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