“Good jazz is when the leader jumps on the piano, waves his arms, and yells,” observed Charles Mingus. “Fine jazz is when a tenorman lifts his foot in the air. Great jazz is when he heaves a piercing note for 32 bars and collapses on his hands and knees. A pure genius of jazz is manifested when he and the rest of the orchestra run around the room while the rhythm section … dances around their instruments.”
Mingus often talked to journalists with his tongue firmly in his cheek. But his satirical humour still captures something important. At its best, music is not only an aural experience and not only a spiritual one, but a kinetic one too. The air dances. The musicians dance. Your heart dances.
Unleash trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni in front of a new, ten-piece, Amandla Freedom Ensemble to launch the Born To Be Black album (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/amandlafreedomensemble2 ) at the Orbit last weekend and that’s exactly what you get.
The album and the performance share the same principals: trumpeter Mlangeni, pianists Andile Yenana and Yonela Mnana, drummer Louis Tebugo Moholo-Moholo and reedmen Salim Washington, Oscar Rachabane and Nhlanhla Mahlangu. On the album, they’re joined by tenorman Shabaka Hutchings, vocalist Zoe Modiga, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, drummer Tumi Mogorosi, bassist Ariel Zamonsky and guitarist Keenan Ahrends. On stage, the horns were Washington, Rachabane and Mahlangu, plus veteran Kaya Mahlangu, McCoy Mrubata on bari, and Siya Makuzeni on trombone and voice, plus bassist Bryden Bolton and drummer/percussionist Thebe Lipere. In South African jazz terms it was a much more cross-generational experience that resounded in everything we heard.
Mlangeni dancing as he directs and plays…Makuzeni taking a magnificent extended scat on Sdwedwe Rag starting where Ella started (“stealing from the horns”, Ella called it) and spiralling out to a place that has half the horn-line and Moholo-Moholo as well as the crowd yelling encouragement…Mnana forensically dissecting the innards of the piano on a re-christened Uthando Lwako to take the tune into territory Ornette and Dudu would both have relished…Rachabane and Mlangeni duetting on Mama Ngibongakonke in the very personal music-space they share, but inviting the rest of us in, not shutting us out…Moholo-Moholo just inhabiting those tunes, picking us up and carrying us along twisty, challenging, joyous paths (nothing ‘effortless’ here: close to seven decades of hard physical and intellectual engagement with sticks and skins talking)…and the cry of Moholo-Moholo and Yenana’s When Spirits Rejoiced, invoking gospel and the experimental SA jazz of the 1970s, but wrapped in an ancestral consciousness much older than that, and a creativity fresh as tomorrow.
Born to be Black is the AFE’s second recorded outing, and the album comprises a dozen tracks not recorded before. From the stage, we heard a generous sample of those, plus a moving, rousing finale with Mlangeni favourites Bhekisizwe and Woza Mama. In the reed line-up, Mlangeni must have assembled a crew of the most emotionally intelligent sax players around ( the elder Mahlangu, remember, brought us the tears of Isililo way back, and still commands that power) and that was important because this is music that is meant to wake listeners to what’s going on, and to the revolutionary power of authentic, collectively shared, emotion.
The album isn’t the stage performance, and never could be. “When you hear music,” Eric Dolphy said, “it’s gone: in the air. You can never capture it again.” A different combination of players means different opportunities for serendipitous interplay (on the album, one different delight is the conversations between Ahrends’ guitar and the rhythm; another, the crisp strings of the Resonance String Quartet) and a stage show offers twice the space for solos to stretch out. So you won’t hear what we heard. But you will hear those melodies and others – muscular enough to support multiple diverse imaginations, and catchy enough to stay in your ears a long time. It’s not cosy music: the arrangements take a ton of creative risks in their juxtapositions of texture and their dislocations of rhythm. But it’s kept wholly accessible by its lexicon: magically transformed root references to mbaqanga, bop and the blues.