5. Celebration or lament?

Magwaza. From Johnny Dyani – Witchdoctor’s Son (1978)

Some things you hear for the first time and think: “where has this music been all my life?”.  South African jazz, Blue Notes style, grabbed me that way, instantly . 

I don’t recall the first example, though surely by the time this one came along I’d heard a fair amount of Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani and co. But for me this is the track that sums up  what their music can do.

Dyani made five albums under his own name for Steeplchase, four of which are indispensible. Pretty sure I heard Song for Biko first, with Dudu and Don Cherry. But I go for this one, recorded a few months before with John Tchicai, for the way the two saxophonists raise each other’s game.

It’s a fine contrast with the tightly disciplined affair that is The New Quartet, the Gary Burton session I pulled to the top of the heap last week. Burton’s approach to recording sounds all well-drilled precision – judging by the end-product at any rate. Dyani’s session is much looser. The familiar song Ntyilo – which everybody from this part of the world seems to play – is taken pretty straight. The rest give you the results of a bunch of players who start into a piece to see if something interesting develops.

In the 13 minutes of Magwaza (there’s an equally brilliant 10 minute alternate take on the CD reissue), interesting doesn’t begin to cover it. It begins with the simple traditional tune being sung against repeated guitar arpeggios from Alfredo Nascimento, Dyani’s marvellous bass sound really kicks in, Tchicai and Pukwana enter on saxes, and the intensity gradually builds as they trade solos. Then a drum interlude and a vocal reprise at the close.

The saxophonists are similar in style, both showing a discenible Ornette Coleman influence here, but Tchicai has a dryer sound and Dudu a more vocalised tone that he deploys to breathtaking effect on a tune that becomes as much lament as celebration. Both come through powerfully, but it’s the conflicted emotion, almost overpowering the musical invention but never quite turning into unadorned screaming, that supercharges this one.

The improvisation is motivic,  the little melody approached from above, below, and sideways, probed, shaken, and worried out of shape, before being allowed to peek through again in its own right. I read recently that Pukwana was frustrated that people often expected him to stick to township style tunes when his heart was really in free playing. No such frustration here, and in company with another great exponent of the idiom he delivers some of his most impassioned playing on record. If you don’t feel either energised or slightly wrung out by the end of this you may not have been giving it full attention.

There’s always a poignant edge to listening again, knowing that this great bassist was in his early 30s when he laid this down, but lived only to 40, one of the saddest artistic casualties of exile during Apartheid. His relatively slender discography is so compelling he’s one of the players who always make me feel wistful for the music he might have gone on to make. 

More positively, in this year of reflection, that effect of first hearing the music of the great South Africans has never faded. Don’t think it ever will. 

More on Dyani, and these recordings, here

Full album here

Why the No 5? 

This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

And I’m going to collect them all on this page.

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