A meeting of hearts and minds
It’s almost half a century since Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes arrived in London: five refugees from apartheid South Africa whose impact on the UK jazz scene was so profound that the sound and spirit of their playing continue to echo in the music of succeeding generations. Four of them — the trumpeter Mongesi Feza, the altoist Dudu Pukwana, the pianist Chris McGregor and the bassist Johnny Dyani — are no longer with us. The sole survivor of the classic Blue Notes line-up is Louis Moholo-Moholo, their firestarting drummer, who is now 73 and living back in a very different Cape Town from the one he and his comrades left in 1964.
Louis returns to Britain every now and then, reminding us that he has lost nothing of the spark that ignited a thousand sessions in those early years. One of his current projects is an occasional duo with the young English pianist Alexander Hawkins, and if you have 70 minutes to spare, and you’re in the mood to concentrate, I advise you to click on this link. You’ll find a set played during the Gateshead Jazz Festival a few weeks ago which is a fine testament to the musical relationship developing between two musicians who are four decades apart in age but soul-mates on the stage.
In October 2011 they recorded an album, Keep Your Heart Straight, which has just been released on the Ogun label. It’s a record on which Hawkins reminds his listeners that the piano, too, is a percussion instrument. He and Moholo attack the music with a brusque desire to get to the heart of the matter, even when they’re playing romantic ballads like “If I Should Lose You” and “Prelude to a Kiss”, which both get a good pummelling. It’s an exceptional document.
The Gateshead set is very different in tone: more relaxed and expansive, the 50-minute opening medley beginning with the stately, hymn-like tune of Pule Pheto’s “Dikeledi Tsa Phelo” (which reappears at the very end of the concert) and containing the same two standards, treated more tenderly this time. The medley is succeeded by a heartfelt treatment of Dudu’s “B My Dear”, a staple of the Blue Notes’ repertoire: originally titled “Marie My Dear”, it appeared under that name on Very Urgent, their wonderful 1968 album, and is one of the loveliest ballads ever written by a jazz musician, blending a dollop of Ellingtonian lyricism with a dash of Monkish astringency.
Moholo is magnificently alert and responsive throughout (and occasionally droll), while Hawkins, who continues to impress in all sorts of contexts, shows his ability to play alongside the great drummer without falling for the obvious temptation to imitate the distinctive South African piano styles of McGregor and Abdullah Ibrahim. He can absorb the sounds and syntax of the past while forging a style that is on its way to becoming distinctly his own.
* The photograph of Louis Moholo-Moholo and Alexander Hawkins is from the inner jacket of Keep Your Heart Right, and was taken by Roberto Cifarelli.