Louis Moholo-Moholo arrived in London from South Africa in 1964, age 25, as a member of The Blue Notes. He made England his home for four decades before returning to South Africa in 2005, and it’s impossible to imagine how British jazz would have developed otherwise.
The Blue Notes’ presence dynamised the London improv scene, and from the 60s and into the 70s, Moholo-Moholo and his fellow Blue Notes extended their influence with such groups as Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, Harry Miller’s Isipingo, and Moholo-Moholo’s early 70s Afro-rocker group Asagai.
In recent years, Moholo-Moholo, now in his seventh decade, remains the rhythmic heart of the celebratory Dedication Orchestra, and continues to explore free music, notably in association with Evan Parker (cf. Foxes Fox; past collaborators include Peter Brötzmann, Derek Bailey and Cecil Taylor). He’s also developed a wonderfully simpatico working relationship with Alexander Hawkins, an English pianist four decades his junior: their duo album Keep Your Heart Straight (Ogun) was one of the highlights of last year.
Hawkins is one of the three ‘blokes’ accompanying Moholo-Moholo on the present album. Their companions are saxophonist Jason Yarde and bassist John Edwards. The setting brings out the best in the under-documented Yarde, an erstwhile Jazz Warrior. Edwards, a bassist capable of insinuating a powerful rhythmic impetus into the freest of free music, is perhaps Moholo-Moholo’s ideal complement.
4 Blokes is the second Moholo-Moholo album of 2014, following For the Blue Notes (Ogun). That’s a live recording by a ‘Unit’ (octet) that comprises the ‘blokes’ quartet plus saxophonist Ntshuks Bongs, trumpeter Henry Lowther, trombonist Alan Tomlinson, and vocalist Francine Luce. While the Unit date is uplifting and celebratory, perfectly suited to a festival stage, the 4 Blokes splinter group is altogether more fiery and assertive, built to thrill in the highly-charged confines of a club.
“For the Blue Notes” is a chewy, free jazz deconstruction of Moholo’s ‘Blue Notes’ sound, the leader’s roiling rhythm in free time carrying Hawkins’ insistent keyboard arpeggios into discursive, percussive soloing as Yarde first essays then deconstructs a knotty, cyclical, Ornette Coleman-like motif. After that bracing start, the quartet relax just a little on the first of two takes on Yarde’s “Something Gentle”. This composition has a hint of Blue Notes-style South African melodiousness, but there’s a riveting tension in the music too, as all four players tug the composition’s outline in different directions.
With Moholo-Moholo playing rolling polyrhythms bolstered by Edward’s muscular bass thump, Hawkins and Yarde are free to develop thematic solos. Hawkins is the more aggressively insistent, hewing new contours with block chords and controlling tension and release. Yarde is more pliable and expressively loquacious, slipping into anguished-sounding flurries of circular breathing that prompt bowed bass response from Edwards, and a general easing back in the home straight.
“All of Us/Khwalo” begins with bluesy abstractions. Hawkins outlines then develops a melody into a theme reminiscent of a ring of church bells, prompting a renewed focus and vigorous interplay led by an impassioned Yarde. Also with a churchy feel, “Mark of Respect” is a succinct, solemn hymnal with only Moholo-Moholo irruptive, while Hawkins and Yarde play concise variations on the head and Edwards once again holds the whole thing together with bowed bass.
“Tears for Steve Biko”, by far the album’s longest cut at 16:28, is contrastingly discursive, and the closest this studio session gets to the free-wheeling divination of live free jazz. Hawkins plays energetically, always responsive to Moholo-Moholo, freeing Yarde toto range freely or extrapolate commentary, as he does when Hawkins plays complex clusters a la Cecil Taylor. Edwards studs painterly abstraction with vital rhythmic pinpoint, his expressive sensitivity spotlighted during a hushed passage in which he plays a subtly-textured solo, setting the tone for a thoughtful collective rumination as the quartet effectively disassemble their performance.
The ‘rhythm’ section play a rubato intro to “Blokes”, but Yarde’s serpentine solo exploits circular-breathing techniques, prompting a likewise fluent response from Hawkins, and the performance snowballs from there. It eventually comes to rest only to release a busy exchange between sax and piano, which prompts a heated full-group debate yielding another ear-worm hook motif. A quiet segue leads straight into the brief, disputative and ultimately open-ended “Yes Baby, No Baby”.
The last two pieces are different in feel, effectively a coda. Yarde is superb on “Angel_Nomali”, a composition by the late Blue Note saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, soloing loquaciously as his bandmates comp in warm, freewheeling style. Their restraint allows Yarde to invest his reading with deep feeling, briefly shading into sadness on the introduction to “Something Gentle (Reprise)”, a poignant conclusion to an album that re-affirms the irrepressible spirit of Moholo-Moholo’s music.
Both 4 Blokes and For the Blue Notes are ‘anniversary releases’ marking Ogun Recording’s 40 years as an independent label. Ogun was created by Hazel Miller and her husband Harry, a South Africa-born bassist, peer and close associate of Moholo-Moholo. It was Ogun that 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—also reissued the Blue Notes’ key albums as The Ogun Collection in 2008.
4 Blokes is as vital as anything in the catalogue. On one hand it seems less invested with the jouissance of the Blue Notes’ South African musical roots than many older titles in the Ogun catalogue, closer in spirit to European free jazz in the FMP vein; on the other, that’s a reminder of how much of the former has leached into the latter. And it takes the story forward.
Jason Yarde saxophones; Alexander Hawkins piano; John Edwards bass; Louis Moholo-Moholo drums.
Wadada Leo Smith & Louis Moholo-Moholo – Ancestors
Alexander Hawkins & Louis Moholo-Moholo – Keep Your Heart Straight
Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath – Procession
Alexander Hawkins Ensemble – All There, Ever Out