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Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath - Bremen to Bridgewater

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Artist: Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath

Album: Bremen to Bridgewater

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Mar. 24, 2004

Jazz fans across the globe owe European radio an immeasurable debt. At a time when American stations had all but abandoned live jazz concerts as a viable broadcast source their European counterparts were stepping up efforts to document and disseminate the music. Due to the diligence of Radio Bremen, a small station based in the eponymous German city, there exists a wealth of music that would otherwise have been the province of thin air. Cuneiform gained access to portions of the station’s tape archive and have since been reissuing important recordings by one of the most unsung and under-documented improvising big bands of the 1970s, South African expatriate Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath.

Based in London, McGregor’s band arose out of the remnants of an earlier 60s South African outfit, The Blue Notes, which contained within its ranks some of the most influential South African musicians of the era. Among them were such legendary players as trumpeter Mongezi Feza, alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and drummer Louis Moholo. The Brotherhood combined these fellow expatriates with a handful of delegates from the UK’s own avant-garde. The result was one of the most viscerally pleasing large ensembles to take European concert stages during the decade. McGregor’s close attention to his compadres covered the gamut from custom-tailored composing to leaving his arrangements flexible enough to foster extemporaneous alterations in direction and approach.

Cuneiform’s previous release Traveling Somewhere captured the band at a January 1973 gig in Bremen with Britons Mike Osbourne, Evan Parker and Gary Windo in the ranks. Bremen to Bridgewater does that inaugural release one better by doubling the playing time and drawing on three different gigs from June 1971, February and November 1975 respectively. This means 16 generous tracks and nearly 160 minutes of music. Only the first concert (the initial eight numbers) is a Radio Bremen production. The other two originate from strong showings in Bridgewater, England. The set features three different incarnations of the band, though McGregor, Feza, Pukwana and other principals like bassist Henry Miller are present at each date.

Fidelity falters a bit in places, but all of the unruly energy and spontaneous flavor of the large aggregations comes through in the mix. McGregor serves as chief composer, but pieces by Windo, Pukwana, Feza and Malfatti also crop up in the songbooks of the dates. Stylistic springboards encompass everything from short jubilant street march pieces such as the opening “Funky Boots March,” jointly scripted by Windo and fellow trombonist Nick Evans, to massive sectional riff-driven workouts like McGregor’s nineteen-minute syncopated opus “The Serpents Kindly Eye.” The largest European contingent occupies the final show represented in full on the second disc. Parker and Malfatti join the ranks here, but with the already swollen roster it’s at times difficult to determine their individual contributions.

McGregor pilots each performance like a ship's captain self-assured of both his own talents and those of his mates. His premature death in 1990 to lung cancer seems all the more lamentable given the promise on display in these joyous performances. Other guiding lights in the band like Pukwana, Feza and Miller have also passed on, but drummer Moholo is still going strong. It’s a safe bet that anyone with affection for emotive and expressive modern big band charts ranging from Little Huey to Arkestra in origin will find much to their liking here. With luck there is still more from the archives yet to mined.

By Derek Taylor

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