Spirits Rejoice ‘African Spaces’ 180g Vinyl (Matsuli Music) 5/5

Matsuli Music dig into South Africa’s rich jazz heritage and have unearthed some real gems, lovingly re-released with added extensive and informative notes. The latest release to get the treatment is 1977’s “African Spaces”, the debut album from funky fusion merchants, Spirits Rejoice.

By the time African Spaces was originally released, after various personnel changes (including Bheki Mseleku), Spirits Rejoice was a 7-piece featuring Mervyn Africa on keyboards, guitarist Russell Herman, Sipho Gumede on electric bass, drummer Gilbert Mathews and three-man horn section 0f Duke Makasi on sax, trumpet player George Tyefumaniand and Temba Mehlomakulu on trombone and trumpet.

Although there are some lighter tracks, the music is mostly pretty uncompromising jazz fusion and unsurprisingly wasn’t a massive commercial success at the time. As Africa says in the notes ‘At first it was a bit far-fetched for people, you know, because people were still into the pop, and anything that makes you dance… Myself and Russell, we were listening to other things – we were listening to John McLaughlin, Jean-Luc Ponty. And that wasn’t that popular…’

First track, “Joy” is a rabble-rouser. A statement of intent with trumpet, sax and organ solos interspersed between bursts of the funky horn motif with gooey phaser and wah effects all over the guitar and bass. Toning it down a little, “Standing Here Alone” is a vocal track sung by guitarist, Herman. It’s soulful balladry reminiscent of mid-70s War’s quieter moments.“Savage Dance and African Spaces” is the stand-out, an epic masterpiece with tricky time changes from intricate, exuberance to sensitive subtlety. It’s a jaw-dropping showcase for the musicians’ techniques. There’s some serious chops on there!

Side two continues where side one finishes, if anything even more intense on the uncompromising funky fusion of “Mulberry Funk”. “Minute Song” is a groovy slab of breezy funk with a 70s movie soundtrack feel. “Sugar Pie” is the most poppy track featuring guest singer, Felecia Marian but even here, the vigour of the performance, particularly the rhythm section, lifts it above confection. “Makes Me Wonder Why” has a loose, laid-back vibe with Herman again, on vocals and sounding on safer ground than he did on “Standing Here Alone”. “Electric Chicken” is slick and strutting jazz-funk goodness with some left-field scratchy wah-wah guitar.

While it’s clear that Spirits Rejoice were taking their cues from what was happening in jazz fusion and funk circles in the States, there’s a distinctive flavour to their version, particularly on “Savage Dance and African Spaces”. The musicianship’s great all-around but especially pleasing for me is the rhythm section and particularly Gumede’s bass playing. It’s a really exciting and joyous record and captures that exuberance and virtuosity like other early fusion releases by the masters. A year later, Spirits Rejoice brought out an eponymous second album. Any chance of a re-release for that too, Matsuli?

Kevin Ward