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A meeting of hearts and minds

Hawkins-MoholoIt’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.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. geoffnoble #

    Thanks for this link Richard, very rewarding. Hawkins is clearly a name to watch.

    Forty years ago Louis Moholo played a similarly loose-limbed gig at the Newcastle Guildhall on the Quayside, a short hop from today’s Gateshead Sage. On that occasion Louis’ rather unlikely partners were Stan Tracey and Lol Coxhill but against the odds, it worked.

    The South African musicians made such a great contribution to British jazz in the sixties and seventies. Also among those we miss is Harry Miller, a fine bass player and a very warm individual.

    May 28, 2013
    • Couldn’t agree more about the late Harry Miller. (His widow Hazel runs the Ogun label, of course.) Another reader tweeted a suggestion that I’d missed out Ronnie Beer, the tenorist who played on the Polydor album and then went off to Ibiza to build boats. I didn’t mention him because I never considered him to be a “core” member of the UK-based Blue Notes. Maybe that’s unfair.

      May 28, 2013
  2. Mick Steels #

    Still berating myself for not making the Sage gig, but it is a great set that demands repeated listening. Now he is based back in SA every chance should be taken to hear Louis play, he is a master percussionist, up there with Blackwell & Cyrille. He is particularly good with pianists,but also small groups, remember Harry Miller’s great little band Isipingo? Worth a mention is Assagai with Mongezi & Dudu who with a bit of luck could have matched Osibisa’s success in the 70s.
    The last sentence sums up the playing of Alexander Hawkins very well, definitely a musician worth watching.

    May 28, 2013
  3. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    I went to a lovely gig at the Vortex a few weeks ago to see a band led by Louis Moholo-Moholo, and featuring (amongst others) Alexander Hawkins and Henry Lowther. I bought the ‘Keep Your Heart Straight’ album the same evening and it’s a treat. I have always regretted never having the chance to see the great South Africans – Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, Harry Miller, Chris McGregor – in their prime but it’s wonderful to see young musicians like Alexander Hawkins teaming up with Louis and helping to keep the spirit alive. And it’s always nice to add another Ogun release to the collection.

    May 28, 2013
  4. Great post – thank you Richard.

    I’m lucky enough (old enough?) to have seen the Blue Notes/Brotherhood of Breath/Isipingo extended family a lot in the 70s. The first time I heard Louis with Harry Miller, Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor and I think Marc Charig at the 100 Club was a real turning point for me. Through a strange set of circumstances I got to see Cecil Taylor at Ronnie Scotts in 1969 (I was 15) for a BBC TV recording and whilst I enjoyed a lot of British Jazz of the time I was craving the kind of power+passion I experienced then. Well, I certainly got it when the South Africans came to town. So many memorable moments: BoB playing n the courtyard of the V&A; an almost unbearably intense Mike Osborne Trio gig with Louis and Harry at the 100 Club; the mesmeric Isipingo; all kinds of interesting ad hoc line-ups at the Country Club…. In 1979, the Spirits Rejoice octet played a wonderful concert to close a festival I programmed in Brighton and much later in 2004 Louis and Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer played in Cape Town (to a polite but slightly baffled audience) as part of another season I put together.

    Memories aside, the duo with Alex Hawkins is as good as anything Louis has ever done. Two fabulous musicians.

    May 28, 2013

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