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The Dedication Orchestra, QEH, Nov 15th

November 19, 2014

Listen to Township Bop, a CD that emerged a few years ago on Proper of the earliest recordings in South Africa by the Blue Notes, and the rhythmic temperature rises a few degrees after the slightly stolid drumming of the first few numbers. That’s because, back in 1964, Louis Moholo has taken over the drum chair from Early Mabuza, a decent enough player but not quite the man they needed.

Fifty years on, and here he is still, now Louis Moholo-Moholo, driving an astonishing big band that it is hard to believe possible to convene. The history between, both inspiring and almost too sad to relate, is a vital part of the story of jazz in the UK: the Blue Notes settling in London, energising the scene but all but one – Nick Moyake, Mongezi Feza, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani and Chris McGregor – dying young, some very young, from some evil combination or other of the jazz life and the pains of exile.

The Dedication Orchestra were founded in the early ’90s, to keep their music alive, playing tunes previously heard from the Blue Notes and from McGregor’s extraordinary free-leaning large ensemble The Brotherhood of Breath – surely the best name for a band ever coined.

They recorded CDs – Spirits Rejoice in 1992 and Ixesha two years later for Ogun, and played live a few times. The last UK concert, as far as I know, was in 2003 in Birmingham (broadcast on Radio 3, says my old cassette tape), and it seemed that was that. However, the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid prompted a South African strand in this year’s London Jazz Festival, and what better reason could there be to gather the band again?

And what a band! They aren’t quite like the Brotherhood of Breath, which had that irresistible vibe of a very free ensemble in which order kept breaking out. That wouldn’t work – the Dedication Orchestra is much bigger (25 players), and the music a good deal more arranged. But the tunes, by members of the Blue Notes plus another early departee, bass player Harry Miller, are the same wonderful, township-inflected themes, and the arrangements, by the cream of UK writers (Westbrook, Wheeler, Warren, Tippett, Bates, and conductor Steve Beresford), are all superb.

The latest edition is a marvellous study in continuity and renewal. Elton Dean, Harry Beckett, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, and Lol Coxhill have all died since the Orchestra last performed – a generation thinning out. But there are still direct links with the Brotherhood  in the shape of Louis, Dedication co-founder Evan Parker and Marc Charig, who all played in every edition of that band’s shifting personnel, I think. We also get John Edwards (bass), who along with Jason Yarde on alto sax regularly records in Moholo’s current ensembles (check out the  octet on For the Blue Notes, which also features elder statesmen Alan Tomlinson and Henry Lowther who are here tonight too), and sundry Loose Tubes (Chris Batchelor, Mark Lockheart, Julian Arguelles, and Dedication original member Dave Powell, who arranged Dudu Pukwana’s Blues for Nick, a tune that also goes back to 1964…

So much for connections. How about the music? Well, it was glorious from start to finish. I don’t think that was because we knew all but a couple of the tunes (there were some new arrangements by Alex Hawkins, another relative youngster who has done great work with Moholo). The stage was organised with Keith Tippett, Moholo and the equally crucial Edwards on the left side, a little removed from the massed ranks, so we could appreciate a superb rhythm section at work. The four singers – three Dedication regulars, plus Cleveland Watkiss (there’s class) coming in where Phil Minton would normally be, occupied the back row, and in front were an assembly of players to dream about.

Highlights abounded. Evan Parker and Keith Tippett in free duet on Andromeda (if memory serves), the great Ray Warleigh, who I have not heard live for so many years, on his ballad feature, Pukwana’s B, My Dear, great contributions from the voices on Hug PineWoza and elsewhere, and gripping solos from, in particular, Yarde, Arguelles, Lowther, Batchelor, Annie Whitehead, and all.

And always Moholo, supporting, provoking, cajoling, now as gentle as can be, now explosive, and Edwards, the bass sound so strong throughout every piece it was hard to believe he kept it up for ninety minutes.

Flawless? Not quite. The sound was excellent, no mean feat, but Charig played his only extended solo determinedly off-mike, which was a shame. And I did miss Harry Beckett’s bubbling trumpet sound, for which there is simply no substitute. But it was still pretty much the gig of my dreams. As they wound up, I was thinking there was just one real favourite we hadn’t heard, Eddie Parker’s wonderful arrangement, featuring the vocalists, of Mongezi Feza’s Sondela. They saved that for the encore…

Did I mention it was glorious?

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Here’s the full personnel for the occasion, courtesy of the excellent review on LondonJazzNews, because I want to record it here as well. I mean, just look at that saxophone section!

Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums), Keith Tippett (piano), John Edwards (double bass)
Evan Parker (tenor saxophone), Mark Lockheart (tenor saxophone), Ray Warleigh(alto saxophone), Jason Yarde (alto saxophone), Julian Arguelles (soprano saxophone), Chris Biscoe (baritone saxophone), Neil Metcalfe (flute)
Henry Lowther (trumpet), Chris Batchelor (trumpet), Jim Dvorak (trumpet),George Hogg (trumpet), Marc Charig (cornet, tenor horn)
Dave Amis (trombone), Annie Whitehead (trombone), Paul Taylor (trombone),Alan Tomlinson (trombone), Dave Powell (tuba)
Julie Tippetts (vocals), Maggie Nicols (vocals), Cleveland Watkiss (vocals), David Serame (vocals)
Steve Beresford (director).

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