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Brotherhood of Breath - Brotherhood of Breath / Brotherhood

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Artist: Brotherhood of Breath

Album: Brotherhood of Breath / Brotherhood

Label: Fledg'ling

Review date: Apr. 23, 2007

Hats off to the UK’s Fledgling Records, who have now reissued the first two Brotherhood of Breath albums. Anyone waiting, as I was, for these seminal records to be available, well-packaged and in pristine sound, will have already stopped reading and thrown the ducats down. Those interested in late-'60s European improv or adventurous big band music but unfamiliar with Brotherhood have hours of listening pleasure ahead.

Brotherhood of Breath formed out of the Blue Notes, an expatriate and interracial South African quintet that settled in England in 1966, involving themselves heavily in the burgeoning London improv scene. Blue Notes membership included trumpeter Mongezi Feza, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, bassist Johnny Dyani, drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and pianist/composer Chris McGregor, whose vision birthed and guided the Brotherhood big band.

The first BoB album was released in 1971 by RCA, the second the following year, with very few personnel changes. To say that the discs are of a piece musically and conceptually is not in any way to deny the originality of each. As with the first two King Crimson albums, the band found satisfactory tropes and reused them, wisely and creatively. Their music is some of the most transcendentally joyous to emerge from that disparate and often violently experimental era.

The first album might be the thornier of the two in terms of overall sonic density, but intuition and accessibility lurks just below the rough surfaces. There’s just something so optimistic about the multi-layered head of “MRA,” built of miniature exhortations, fleeting but forceful cries of celebratory resistance over a frantic but infectious two-chord vamp. “Night Poem,” ostensibly an epic foray into free jazz, does eventually come around to another modal exploration, veering away almost as quickly into more uncharted territory; the amusing “Union Special” provides seriocomic relief after all the happy din.

If Brotherhood boasts more complex arrangements, triads often giving way to more tensioned sonorities, as on the lush and abstract “Joyful Noises,” there are always moments of good old-fashioned uplift, like “Nick Tete.” “Union Special” has its counterpart here in the boisterous “Funky Boots March,” and the highly syncopated “Think of Something” bears the marks of Mingus and Ellington as much as the signature Brotherhood sound.

That sound, the one I’ve been trying to articulate, was done verbal justice at this year’s Leeds International Jazz Research conference at the Leeds College of Music. I had the opportunity to ask Zimbabwe-born composer Mike Gibbs about Brotherhood and its influence on the British improvisers, and he spoke of happy disorder and of joyful chaos. Stripped of jargon, that’s exactly what’s at the heart of this pangeographical band’s aesthetic. Going out on a limb, I’d posit that such luminaries as trumpeters Mark Charig and Harry Beckett, or saxophonists Mike Osborne and Garry Window, play with a brio, an out-of-tune but absolutely idiomatic vigor, that was never quite matched on succeeding efforts. The whole band float around the notes, swoop up to and over them, blurting them out with an unbridled energy and passion then fairly uncommon to the British scene. McGregor’s piano, sharply attacked and sometimes only barely in tune, sounds just right in context, mirroring sloppy entrances and gorgeously fluffed notes throughout. The group’s live sound, as documented on several indispensable Cuneiform releases, actually translates quite well to the studio.

As with all the greatest records, the first two Brotherhood releases document their epoch while remaining instructive for those that may have forgotten the sheer joy of creation, the celebration and freedom in playing the next note.

By Marc Medwin

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