March 4, 2012 8:50 pm

Louis Moholo Moholo, The Vortex, London

The veteran South African drummer and his ensemble captured the rampaging spirit of his old band The Blue Notes

Louis Moholo Moholo is the last surviving member of the multi-racial South African émigré band The Blue Notes, whose freewheeling spirit was such a seismic force in late 1960s London jazz. The Cape Town-born drummer returned to his homeland in 2005, but is currently in London to celebrate the first release of Before the Wind Changes, an excellent live recording from 1979 that catches The Blue Notes in heartwarming form. By that time two of the original Blue Notes had already died, and the anthemic themes and freewheeling improvisations were delivered by a quartet led by the late saxophonist Dudu Pukwana.

This gig expanded the front line to four horns and added a vocalist, the deep-toned, full-vibratoed Francine Luce. The larger line-up fully captured the rampaging spirit and loose sense of structure that made the original Blue Notes such an attractive force. Singalong themes tensed into all-out improv, bish-bash piano developed a township lilt, and two saxes violently locked horns as prelude to a dirge.

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Moholo Moholo, now in his early 70s, conducted from within, his beats a sparse chatter of ebb-and-flow dynamics, evolving textures and raucous thumps on bass drum and tom. There were chants and mysterious shouts, moments of tranquillity and the steady throb of walking bass – John Edwards solid on the one, rumbling freely on a collective shout.

The first set opened with the brittle march, raggedy brass and four-to-the-bar bass of “The Wedding Hymn”, the second with the skitter of cymbals and hymnal brass of “Sohhe”. Both pieces changed texture and time, settled on a mighty pulse and burst into a riotous polyphony. Later in the set, simmering bass and brass were driven by a compelling two-note chant that mixed a battle-cry with the grunt of collective labour; for contrast, there were whisper-quiet endings and quaint village-band harmonies too.

Individuals shone – trumpeter Henry Lowther sailing urbanely out of a polyphonic brass choir; Alexander Hawkins zipping from church-hall piano to a controlled frenzy; vocalist Luce for strength and tone. And Jason Yarde’s edgy alto sax rescued “Wish you Sunshine” from cheesiness. But the highlight was the band, and Moholo Moholo’s coaxing them from within.

4 stars

www.vortexjazz.co.uk

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