JAZZ DIARY / The stars look down: Phil Johnson talks to Louis Moholo about life after the Blue Notes.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Louis Moholo carries a heavy burden. As well as being one of the most exciting drummers in the world, he is also the last of his line: the sole surviving member of the original Blue Notes, the South African quartet who arrived in London in 1965 in flight from apartheid and ended up changing the course of British jazz. All the other Blue Notes have died in exile: trumpeter Mongezi Feza in 1975; bassist Johnny Dyani in 1986; pianist Chris McGregor and saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, both in 1990. Moholo is haunted by their memory; indeed, he says he still meets them in his dreams. Fittingly, his latest project, the Dedication Orchestra, is a tribute to the Blue Notes, and to the bassist Harry Miller - a member of Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath - and to Dumile Feni and Princess Patience, two more exiled South African musicians.

When Feza and Dyani died, the remaining Blue Notes recorded tribute albums to them on Ogun Records, the label run by Miller's widow Hazel. With McGregor and Pukwana gone, the Dedication Orchestra - a 24-piece big band - was formed to play two shows at the 100 Club on New Year's Day 1991. They have now released an album, Spirits Rejoice, with re- arrangements of Blue Notes tunes by Keith Tippett, Kenny Wheeler, Mike Westbrook, Django Bates and others.

The recording was an emotional occasion for Moholo. As he recalls: 'I was setting up my instruments while Keith Tippett was rehearsing the singers for Kenny Wheeler's arrangement of Dud's ballad, 'B My Dear'. For the first time I heard it being sung and tears just started falling. I was just setting up and it caught me completely by surprise.'

All proceeds from the album will go to a trust fund to enable young South African musicians to continue their education. Nimbus Records has donated the first pressing of 3,000 CDs and Virgin the first 1,500 cassettes to the Dedication Trust. The participation of so many important musicians in the project is itself a tribute to the massive influence the Blue Notes had on the British scene. When they arrived in London, British jazz musicians were still coming to terms with the music of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. The Blue Notes seemed to have absorbed it already, intuitively.

'We were surprised that people were still under the influence of Coltrane,' says Moholo. 'To us he was just another brother playing some different notes. We didn't bother - we just played our music, which complemented the music of the West as well as mixing it with the richness of the South African rhythm, which is the foundation of everything. We could do anything: let the Europeans deal with Coltrane - we were dealing with something else. We were quite an influence, although we did pay our dues and the British musicians gave us something to think about too.'

In December, Moholo is going back to South Africa with his band, Viva la Black, on a two-month tour for the British Council. Spirits Rejoice is available, cost pounds 15, by mail order from Ogun Records, 180 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2 (071-836 3646). Cheques should be made out to Spirits Rejoice Dedication Trust Fund.

THE Dedication Orchestra is such a worthy enterprise that at Saturday's concert at the Outside In festival, you felt the band might get an ovation just for turning up. In fact, they played remarkably well, with heroic saxophone solos by Evan Parker, Alan Skidmore and Chris Biscoe among the highlights of a powerful set. The performance of the Indian violinist Shankar, with Andy Sheppard and Nana Vasconcelos, was less successful. Indeed, one musician commented that the band had 'the perfect German festival vibe', playing music so dreamily insubstantial that almost the entire audience seemed to fall asleep. Shankar played his curiously shaped violin less than he sang, in wordless dirge-like vocals, or droned, operating a complex set of electronic effects. Sheppard's delicate saxophone playing was often lost in the mix and the setting did not seem a happy one for him.

The trio of Peter Whyman on clarinet, Peter Fairclough on drums, and Huw Warren on piano was, by contrast, a pleasure to listen to. Taking his cue from the experiments of the American reeds player Jimmy Giuffre, Whyman draws on classical and folk sources in his improvisations to explore complex harmonic patterns while remaining unfailingly tuneful. They were the best new band at the festival.

AUTUMN is the season of new CD releases. Images: Live at Mt Fuji (Blue Note) by the brilliant Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is quite outstanding. With Jack Dejohnette on drums and John Patitucci on bass, Rubalcaba plays with astounding speed and power. Even a version of John Lennon's 'Imagine' - normally a cue for nausea - is performed quite beautifully. Releases from earlier in the year that deserve mention include Don Pullen's wonderful Afro- Brazilian fusion, Kele Mou Baha (Blue Note); David Murray's funky organ- combo set, Shakill's Warrior (DIW); Joe Henderson's Billy Strayhorn Tribute, Lush Life (Verve) and Barbara Dennerlein's That's Me (Enja), with Bob Berg on sax. Another excellent CD reissue from the Impulse catalogue is John Coltrane's 1965 classic quartet date First Meditations. ECM's reissue of the Jimmy Giuffre 3's 1961 albums Fusion and Thesis is also one of the re-releases of the year.