1993 it was, I remember the year well. There was so much creativity around the UK with the music, the richness and birth of so much new music and artists were bubbling away; many of whom we are still fortunate to be listening to today. June 28 on a Monday evening to be precise. The name Bheki Mseleku had been thrown in to just about every conversation with his CD/Cassette releases ’Meditations’ and ‘Celebration’ on the shelves, not to mention appearing on Courtney Pine’s “The Holy Grail” beside Keith Waite, and he was performing not but a stone’s throw away from home. The British music magazines had already picked up on him as far back as 1987 with The Wire featuring him not only on the cover but an extensive story therein with yet another profile in 1994, whilst Melvyn Bragg was to feature Bheki on his ‘The South Bank Show’. There was even mention of Bheki being “frustrated” with record companies in Straight No Chaser magazine, offering subscribers a free copy of ‘Meditations’ and suggesting “his audience must have walked away with goosebumps” after visiting the Bath Festival. There was much love for Bheki on his arrival to England with hope of him signing to Talkin’ Load records after the Mercury Award ceremony. Yes, those with the ears to the ground knew all too well how proficient this man was. Bheki was finding himself on stage at venues like The Oval House, for whom he worked, 100 Club, Club 606, Bass Clef, The Orange, Ronnie Scott’s (Ronnie himself was to help promote the name was such his personal enthusiasm), Warwick Arts Centre, and so on. His collaborations with Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, Ernest Mothle, Steve Argüelles, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Pharaoh Sanders, Steve Williamson and Abbey Lincoln are widely noted and the gift from Alice Coltrane of her husband’s mouthpiece (which he was devastated in having stolen from home), used in the recording of ‘A Love Supreme’ is all anyone needs to read to acknowledge his standing, and respect by many, within the jazz community, then and now.
‘Celebration’ was Bheki’s first British recording (having worked in South Africa with bands like The Drive), on Nick Gold’s World Circuit label. Recorded during ’91 and ’92, it brought together Thebe Lipere, Courtney Pine, Michael Bowie, Jean Toussaint, Steve Williamson, Eddie Parker and Marvin “Smitty” Smith, “I’ve done a lot of records” Marvin said, “maybe 350 recordings in my career and I’m telling you there’s only really a handful that, personally for me, where I felt like there was a real spirit in the room, and that was one of them.” A truly wonderful band, and what was to be the album, has never been anything less than remarkable. Ten pieces all shining brightly, with the title track opening proceedings; a spiritual absorbance lifted by the warmth of South African heritage, saxophone, piano and subtly vocals by Bheki set the ground and attentive ears dismissing distractions. John Fordham was to recall Bheki saying “I feel if I evolve spiritually, the music will have more depth. Maybe even from one note, like Pharoah [Sanders] does.” A dedication to both Bud Powell and John Coltrane build the bigger picture with “Supreme Love’ slightly edging over the other nine tracks in preference. The beautiful ‘One For All – All For One’ piano work by Bheki is adorably South African in sound, and such a delight to hear time and time again. Each composition differs greatly to each other, the impact on its first release was a landmark moment and so timely this reissue, as the tenth anniversary of his death in September 2008 passes. His leaving this world lead Tiiseto Makube to call him the “Intergalactic Genius of Jazz”. To have a masterpiece pressed in this deluxe format comes as a statement to the longevity of his music, the overwhelming admiration for Bheki and the current lust for carefully reproduced albums, so grateful for the opportunity to hear this monumental album on vinyl, for it be be ‘regenerated’, and Mseleku’s legacy to once more attract new ears, becomes somewhat emotional. So much so that Nduduzo Makhathini, who has been carrying the Bheki torch alongside Eugene Skeef, with various concerts and a recent talk at Stellenbosch’s Fismer Hall, as partial fulfilment of the degree in Masters of Music, has written ‘Encountering Bheki Mseleku: A Biographical-Analytical Consideration of his Life and Music’. Afrika Mkhize arranged a big band tribute to Bheki Mseleku back in 2015, Sibusiso Mashiloane has delved into the repertoires of Bheki Mseleku this year alongside Andile Yenana and Moses Molelekwa during his performance at the Cape Town Jazz Festival and there has even been a Bheki Mseleku tribute band.
Over the past 25 years of listening to Bheki Mseleku’s music, reading and researching, I cannot recall a year where these ears have not been engaged in ‘Celebration’. I am encouraged to hear new musicians embracing the sound and the wider public embracing the music, now on vinyl, for it rarely gets any better than this.