22. Spirits rejoice!

Amaxesha Osizi (Times Of Sorrow). From Louis Moholo Octet, Spirits Rejoice!, 1978


No chance of a finding a better title for this post than the one they gave the album. Anyone interested in exciting jazz in this country in the 1970s and later looked out for new records records on the Ogun label. This one, the first as named leader by the indomitable South African drummer Louis Moholo Moholo is one of the greatest.

Like others, it’s been hard to come by lately, so it’s heartening to see Ogun’s catalogue beginning to appear on Bandcamp this year. (I’m hoping to see Stan Tracey and Mike Osborne’s marvellous duo album Tandem on there one day…). In fact, this set of tracks can now be had two ways. The original album is available from Cafe Oto on vinyl or to download here. And the Bandcamp set combines Spirits Rejoice! with another Moholo set for a bumper collection of life-enhancing music.

The drummer has led a constellation of groups since, with gradually shifting personnel – often including Keith Tippett on piano in the early days, as here, latterly Alexander Hawkins. Then there’s the incomparable Dedication Orchestra, who have two Ogun recordings that bring together pretty well everyone who ever played with Louis, with other members of the original South African ensemble the Blue Notes or the pianist Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. All are essential, I’d say. But this one has a fervour that makes the years since 1978 melt away. It’s as inspiring, challenging, and downright exciting a recording as you could wish for.

You can see from the personnel how it builds on the drummer’s penchant for working with players who loved to explore free music but still had a place for melody. On some tracks there’s lengthy dialogue between the two trombones – Nick Evans and Radu Malfatti always seemed to appear together in the ’70s. On others we hear plenty from Evan Parker and Keith Tippett.

On this, the final track, the spotlight is on Kenny Wheeler. Like most of the others, it is anthemic. The simple little tunes stay present throughout each track, while the band do their stuff. Drums and bass impel the music with a power that is positively awe-inspiring. Moholo-Moholo’s drums combine a breathtaking lightness with rock solid timekeeping when he locks on, and there’s an additional quality – especially on older recordings – of somehow being everywhere at once, leading the others on, anticipating what they are doing, and responding, all at the same time. And, as anyone who hears this record will know, while he can move out of time with the ease of a master he – like Johnny Dyani’s majestic bass – also swings like there’s no tomorrow.

The band sound larger than an octet. At this remove, they remind me of the Liberation Music Orchestra, taking memorable songs and subjecting them to an alchemical process that retains their essential qualities but turns them into timeless jazz. After a brief gesture from the piano, the horns state the hymn-like 12-bar theme a couple of times. The ensemble aside, the magic ingredient in Times of Sorrow is Wheeler’s solo. Drums and bass join the hymnal, and the trumpet bursts out of the mix, dancing around the melody and reconstructing it at will, but never losing the thread of the song, while the others keep the theme going, steadily, underneath, all the way through. Wheeler’s piercing tone is at its penetrating best, and he uses more attack here than in some contexts, or maybe leans into the trumpet more than he would or could on flugelhorn. It’s a rare solo that can still give you goose bumps decades after first hearing, but this one does it for me. Then Tippett picks up the rumination he hinted at the outset, playing with simple arpeggios rather than using the fusillades of notes he contributes on other tracks, and the theme gets a final outing, the mood having somehow softened and deepened at the same time.

This is the second time things have taken a South African tilt in this sequence of things I have loved. It won’t be the last. But this track comes close to the essence of why the South African exiles who fetched up in Europe were such a lasting inspiration for a cadre of key UK players.

Lasting? Well, there is always the sadness of noting the woefully short lives most of the South Africans had. But there is the one glorious exception. Here’s Louis nearly 40 years later, back home, keeping a couple of South African players on their toes, along with a young saxophonist called Shabaka Hutchings, visiting from the UK… What a man.

Why the No 22? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify (not including this one!)

But for this one, better also look at the current Ogun catalogue on Bandcamp

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

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