THESE days you can go to a gig and, by the time you get home, it’s up on YouTube. Indeed, in some cities, if you know where to look, you might be able to get hold of a CD copy, with artwork and all, within a day or two. It wasn’t always so.
One day in October 1987, I received a phone call asking me whether I’d like to attend a concert at the music department of the then University of Natal. Chris McGregor would be performing solo and it was free, but by invitation only. Chris McGregor in Durban? Blimey! So I went, naturally, and it was fantastic, naturally, and that was apparently that, so much so that I have found myself half wondering in subsequent years whether I had imagined the whole thing.
To say that his live appearance was unexpected would be an understatement.
Sure, McGregor was South African, but there was a cultural boycott, and hadn’t he left the country with his fellow Blue Notes in 1964 precisely because the political situation would not accommodate a multiracial jazz group?
Of course, he would, presumably, return from time to time to visit family that he would probably still have here. In fact, as a young student in Port Elizabeth, I had heard a rumour some time in the early 1970s that McGregor and a couple of the former Blue Notes would be playing in a local township. A friend and I resolved to go, if we could find out where, when and how, but we heard no more. It was probably a rumour anyway, though not an outrageous one given the fact that Blue Notes Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani and Dudu Pukwana all hailed from the Eastern Cape and McGregor grew up there, which informed his music to a considerable degree.
But McGregor in Durban still seemed unlikely.
Then, last year, perhaps even more unexpectedly, Fledg’ling, the UK label that has augmented its primarily folk output in recent years with a number of McGregor-related reissues, including the first two Brotherhood of Breath albums, released an album by McGregor titled Sea Breezes — and not only was it not a reissue, but the CD cover also announced that it was a solo piano concert recorded live in Durban in 1987. Memory has a tendency to exaggerate reality, but this time the recorded evidence even surpasses my imperfect recollection of a concert that seemed to fly past in a blur of gratitude, goodwill, brilliant piano playing and a certain amount of awe generated by the fact that, despite never having been overseas, I was actually seeing this iconic musician in person.
The album reveals that the performance started, appropriately, in South African exile, with You and Me, co-written with Brotherhood of Breath trumpeter Peter Segona, before moving through the quirkily Monkish Sweet as Honey to the lovely, Ellington-saturated Maxine, a favourite McGregor piece written for his wife.
The elegance of its construction displays a romantic delicacy on solo piano that the mighty Brotherhood’s recording just hints at. McGregor later returns more directly to the Duke by closing with Prelude to a Kiss, into which he weaves township jazz interludes that have the heretofore polite audience whooping with delight.
The various repetitions of Mongezi Feza’s fabulous Sonia’s marabi-esque figure dance quite differently when shorn of their big-band arrangement, of course, yet McGregor’s solo reading loses none of the excitement of the original as it effortlessly keeps up both the rhythmic propulsion and the melodic interest for a full eight-and-a-half minutes, and the other Brotherhood pieces here are equally successful.
Kwa Tebugo name-checks drummer Louis Moholo, who would bring out his Viva-La-Black band for the Freedom Tour nearly six years later. Sadly, by then he was the last Blue Note standing.Chris