Alexander Hawkins & Louis Moholo-Moholo – Keep Your Heart Straight (Ogun Records)
Alexander Hawkins – piano.
Louis Moholo-Moholo – drums & percussion.
Louis Moholo-Moholo is one of the great free jazz drummers. Now in his 70s, he was born in Cape Town and migrated to Europe age 24 as a member of The Blue Notes, making England his home for four decades before returning to South Africa in 2005.
In the 60s and into the 70s, Moholo-Moholo and his fellow Blue Notes were key members of such groups as Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, Harry Miller’s Isipingo, and early 70s Afro-rockers Asagai. These bands, all marked by Moholo-Moholo’s ability to emphasise time while playing free, dynamised a London improv scene that also nurtured the more cerebral and more-or-less introspective talents of such souls as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Keith Tippett.
In his notes for Ancestors, American composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith makes an important point: Moholo-Moholo’s style, he says, “does not transfer African drumming on to the drum set but, rather, he has developed a drum tradition that did not exist anywhere in the music before he created his own language” (my italics).
Smith then gives a wonderfully succinct précis of that language. Moholo-Moholo, he says, uses: “space and silence, sonic depth accents and drum rolls that are multi-rhythmical in design, with all of this centered within micro-sonic fields.”
Moholo-Moholo has an insistent awareness of the groove, his cymbals glinting amid syncopated rhythms that are as airy as they are emphatic. He can maintain an irrepressible tumbling momentum, displacing or emphasising beats to simultaneously prick and seduce the listener’s ear.
Smith and Moholo-Moholo in dialogue are wonderfully simpatico, stretching time to accommodate the fire and urgency of their expression with contemplative reflection. Generational peers, they come together as members of an African cultural diaspora, and here they pay explicit testimony to its legacy. Witness, on Moholo-Moholo’s composition “Siholaro”, how his ‘tribal’ insistence (those “sonic depth accents”) fire the burnished clarion of Smith’s testimonial to Moholo-Moholo’s father, who died under the Apartheid regime.
Ancestors has the constant linear focus of musical ritual, the duo maintaining a sow-burn main-stem pulse that they elaborate with rich textures and narrative digressions, all flowing into the concluding five-part, 25-minute suite from which the album takes its name. With Smith now playing percussion, Moholo-Moholo invokes his inspirators: “Cecil Taylor Cecil Taylor Max Roach / We love you Dizzy / Dizzy Gillespie we love you / Miriam Makeba we love you / Dudu Pukwana we love you / Max Roach we love you”.
Smith has long been a vital presence in the music, but he has really hit a peak in form in recent years: witness his continuing international involvement in small group work alongside the realisation of a tremendous lifework, Ten Freedom Summers. At age 33, Moholo-Moholo’s partner on Keep Your Heart Straight, Alexander Hawkins is a comparative neophyte, but the British pianist is on similarly dazzling form.
Consolidating a transatlantic profile in 2010 with his co-led Convergence Quartet’s second album, Hawkins’ All There, Ever Out, recorded by his own Ensemble, went one better the following year as a showcase of conceptual verve. Then, on Spontaneous Combustion, recorded at Cafe Oto in 2012, Hawkins played Hammond organ in a superb heavyweight session with free-jazz power trio Decoy and guest trumpeter Joe McPhee.
Playing alongside Moholo-Moholo on Keep Your Heart Straight, an album adorned with photography of South Africa’s Cape Province that includes two pieces by South African composers, Hawkins’ occasionally tips a nod to pertinent influences, Abdullah Ibrahim and Chris McGregor. But where Smith connects with and points up Moholo-Moholo’s musical heritage, Hawkins channels the drummer as an active avatar of European free jazz traditions that are bound up with western contemporary classical and post-rock sensibilities.
Hawkins doesn’t hold back, whether soloing with explosive power or extrapolating complex compositional structures from Moholo-Moholo’s rhythm metrics, he’s on imperious form. Moholo-Moholo meanwhile carries the rhythm like a burning coal and keeps it smouldering. Between the fireworks, however, Hawkins does find time for close communion with his senior partner, in ruminations of hymn-like solemnity.
A final word for the TUM and Ogun labels, both of which go the extra mile to present this music so beautifully. Ogun was created by Harry Miller, the South Africa-born bassist, peer and close associate of Louis Moholo-Moholo, and his wife Hazel. Ogun released Moholo-Moholo’s first album as leader, Spirits Rejoice, in 1978, and——with Hazel keeping the faith after Harry’s accidental death in 1983—reissued the Blue Notes’ key albums as a 5CD set, The Ogun Collection, in 2008.