Chris McGregor Septet
In his liner notes, producer Joe Boyd almost glibly claims that he doesn't know exactly why this session by pianist Chris McGregor's transnational septet initially went unreleased. He claims he was on poor terms with Polydor at the time, and that Chris Blackwell's Island Records was "not exactly a jazz label." With due respect to Boyd and his many accomplishments, this flimsy excuse is almost tragic considering that among the Blue Notes - the exiled South African jazz pioneers who initially landed on British shores and four of whom appear here - only Louis Moholo is still alive. It's also underscored by the fact that so much of the Blue Notes' and McGregor's music is only making its way onto the shelves in the 21st century. Thankfully, the tiny but important Fled'ling imprint run by David Suff is helping to correct that injustice. These sessions were recorded over two days in 1969 in London with saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, drummer Moholo, and pianist McGregor from the Blue Notes, with then-young Brit saxophonists Evan Parker and John Surman, and either Barre Phillips or Pentangle's Danny Thompson on bass. Like a lot of the McGregor/Blue Notes music, these four tracks certainly walk on the outside edge of jazz and more than flirt with plenty of free playing. That said, there is also great structure to the music found here, inspired arrangements that allow a maximum of freedom without an ounce of self-indulgence. Boyd credits much of this to the authority McGregor commanded as both a pianist and composer. He may well be right given the sheer quality of his posthumously released projects.
All but one of these tracks were composed exclusively by McGregor, and the only one that wasn't, the magnificently constructed "Years Ago Now," was co-written by McGregor and Moholo. His piano work on his pieces creates not only themes, but vast colorful scales and extended chord reaches - sometimes eight or ten notes - for the soloists to work out from; check the opener, "Moonlight Aloe" or "Union Special," which is added as the second part of a medley with "Yickytickee," where Parker and Pukwana play right toward the piano as Moholo creates a specific adrenalized rhythm toward all three players. On "Up to Earth," it's Feza and Surman who respond to McGregor's South African folk themes with something akin to glee. Then there are the joint sections where all the horns, stretched in boundary-breaking harmonics, are paying composed lines as an ensemble and McGregor leads them on like Duke Ellington. (This latter reference is not a metaphor, but a directly studied influence on the composer - check the wild and celebratory opening of "Yickytickee" for concrete evidence.) The stomping piano and horn party that opens the title cut reflects the inspiration and influence of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus in a very direct line to McGregor and the rest of the Blue Notes. The Europeans struggle against this a bit, but the rowdy joyful spirit of the South Africans is infectious; prodded by Thompson's killer bass playing, they respond with gusto. This was a new kind of free jazz - one seldom heard in America - with great humor, warmth, and a genuinely celebratory vibe from the South Africans, who were establishing their own rules; it's a safe wager that Parker and Surman haven't played like this since then either. This session, with excellent sound and presence, is a glorious addition to the continually expanding McGregor canon.
All Music Guide