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Louis Moholo-Moholo Unit
For The Blue Notes Sean Kitching , July 15th, 2014 10:03

As the last surviving member of both the Blue Notes and their big-band sibling, Brotherhood Of Breath, the 74-year-old South African master drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo is the primary flame-keeper of a hugely important body of music that drew its inspiration from a unique integration of progressive jazz and the rich musical heritage of South Africa. Initially inspired to pick up the sticks by the Scout marching bands that passed by his house when he was a child, and then later by the famous American jazz bands that he heard on the radio, Moholo-Moholo had already acquired a strong musical background from working with local groups such as The Chordettes by the time he met Chris McGregor, with whom he formed the Blue Notes alongside Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani and Nick Moyake.

A mixed-race band at that time in history faced severely curtailed possibilities when it came to playing live in South Africa, and the band were often forced to perform with the white McGregor playing piano from behind a curtain. When the opportunity arose for the Blue Notes to play the Juan Les Pins Jazz Festival in 1964, the band effectively absconded from their home country, eventually settling in London where, despite the cold and less visibly appreciative audiences, they found a sense of artistic community and a free-flowing exchange of ideas.

Brotherhood Of Breath, an expansion of the Blue Notes into big-band format, released two studio albums with Moholo-Moholo as well as a number of powerful live recordings. Interested parties should seek out a copy of the recently reissued Procession: Live At Toulouse from 1977, featuring an expanded version of the Brotherhood including Evan Parker and Mike Osborne on additional saxophones for a taste of the full, gloriously melodic yet free jazz-squall of the group in full flight. Moholo-Moholo remained in exile from his homeland, playing with everyone who was anyone on the modern jazz scene but famously turning down both John Lennon and Frank Zappa, until his return in 1993, documented on the live Viva La Black album Freedom Tour Live In South Afrika, and eventual resettlement there in 2005.

Since then, Moholo-Moholo has been a regular visitor to London and Europe, playing a mixture of his own compositions and those of his past bandmates in groups such as The Dedication Orchestra and the Louis Moholo-Moholo Unit. Due both to the extremely high calibre of the musicians in these groups and the fact that the very nature of live free-improvisation demands that the material be constantly recast in the fire of the present moment, these concerts have yielded some incredible performances, as anyone who was present at either the Unit's date at the Vortex in April, or the Quartet's at Cafe Oto in May, will attest.

For The Blue Notes captures a live performance of the octet Unit at the Theatre Manzoni in Milan, Italy, on 4 March 2012. The near-telepathic interplay of the core quartet of Alexander Hawkins on piano, John Edwards on double bass, Moholo-Moholo on drums and Jason Yarde on soprano and alto saxophones, is given a richly expanded sound palette by the addition of Henry Lowther on trumpet, Alan Tomlinson on trombone, Ntshuks Bonga on second soprano and alto sax and Francine Luce providing wordless, ecstatic vocals. Although Moholo-Moholo has worked with a number of uniquely talented piano players during the course of his career (Chris McGregor, Keith Tippett and Steve Beresford, to name but three), there's something really magical about the reciprocity that occurs when he plays with Alexander Hawkins. The way they lock into each other's playing, Hawkins delivering fast, almost percussive keyboard runs describing the melodic line of the tune emerging from the near chaos of group interplay, his attention perfectly attuned to Moholo-Moholo's mesmerisingly fluid drumming, is truly something special. So great are they together (as documented on their duo CD Keep Your Heart Straight), that a lesser bassist might struggle to add much to their sublime synergy - not John Edwards though, who is amazingly inventive here throughout. The twin saxophones of Yarde and Bonga offer rhapsodic lines of melodic improvisation recalling Ornette Coleman at his most spiritually evocative, whilst the trumpet and trombone of Lowther and Tomlinson allow for the kind of woozy big-band swing more usually associated with the likes of the Sun Ra Arkestra or New Orleans Dixieland jazz.

Amongst the many highlights are the perfectly conceived pandemonium of 'For The Blue Notes', which sounds like a big-band falling down a never-ending elevator shaft, a rousing if all-too-brief 'You Ain't Gonna Know Me 'Cos You Think You Know Me', and a surging, hypnotically delivered 'The Tag.' Vocalist Luce is used to great effect on some of the slower numbers, like the mournful but sublime 'Zanele.' If I have one slight reservation about this recording, however, it would be that she's used slightly too much and placed a little too high in the mix. For The Blue Notes is the 42nd release on Ogun, presented as part of the label's 40th birthday celebrations. Their next release will be new studio recordings of the smaller quartet of Yarde, Edwards, Hawkins and Moholo-Moholo. The man himself returns to London from South Africa for more performances later in the year, including an afternoon performance of the Dedication Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Saturday 15 November. Dates at Cafe Oto and the Vortex with the Quartet and the Unit are also likely to follow.