The latest Jazzman reissue is Jazz – The African Sound performed by Chris McGregor and the Castle Lager Big Band. This is the first recording of McGregor as a bandleader and one of his few recordings before he left South Africa in 1964. Having won the 1963 Cold Castle National Jazz Festival with his group The Blue Notes, Chris McGregor used the prize money and recording opportunity offered by the sponsors to bring together the best jazz musicians from the festival.
However, this was South Africa in the midst of its most intensive phase of repression under Apartheid and therefore opportunities for a multi-racial group were limited. This album was recorded over two days in September 1963; a year later McGregor and his Blue Notes had left to play in Europe before eventually settling in London.
The original album, recorded on Gallo, the oldest independent record label in South Africa, is difficult to come by, as is a 1990’s re-issue.
The 17-member big band included fellow Blue Notes Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza and Nikele Moyake, alongside other influential musicians such as Kippie Moeketsi.
The 6 songs on the album are all written by South Africans (McGregor himself, Kippie Moeketsi and Dollar Brand). These are musicians influenced by Ellington, Strayhorn and Monk and interpreting American jazz within their own socio-cultural context.
What of the music? Well, it’s just as you would imagine a jazz Big Band from the 1960’s would be. And this is my problem with the album. It’s not that the music is poorly played, uninviting in its tone or difficult to interpret, far from it, it just that it is very much of its time.
The first track, ‘Switch’, is a good example. An up-tempo tune that swings along, showcasing Kippie Moeketsi’s fine sax playing, but when the brass comes in I hear easy listening, or the sounds of earlier, mainstream big bands. It’s similar with ‘Early Bird’, the track named after the drummer Early Mabusa.
For me, where this release does deliver is as an archive piece, an insight in to the early work of a talented group of musicians, whose subsequent careers flourished primarily because they left behind a political system that constrained their freedom of musical expression.