The Mill: When The Wind Blows is too short a storm

albumI almost wish I’d listened to the new CD from South African/Swiss outfit The Mill, When The Wind Blows ( ), before I heard them live at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in March. Either that, or this ought to be a double album.

Though the band’s core – trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, pianist Yonela Mnana, vocalist/trombonist Siya Makuzeni and Swiss bassist Marco Muller – remain the same, the Mill’s touring personnel differed from that on the recording. The CD’s Swiss reedmen Mathias Wenger and Benedikt Reising were replaced by their countrymen Florian Egli, Fabian Willman and Matthias Tschopp; guitarist Théo Douboule by South African Vuma Levin; and drummer Christoph Steiner by South African Kesivan Naidoo. The solos on stage obviously reflected different characters and visions, and the interplay of three, rather than two, reeds plus trumpet and trombone provided the opportunity for some witty, self-aware riffing on big-band idioms.

in CT
The Mill onstage at CTIJF 2019

The original personnel, as heard on the album, embodies the story of how the musicians came together: though journeys, meetings, residencies and collaborations over time facilitated by Swiss Arts Council offshoot Pro Helvetia. Mlangeni and Mnana are the principal composers on the dozen tracks, with one each from Wenger and Reising and collaboration on another two from Makuzeni. And how the music sounds, tells the story of a much longer set of exposures to one another’s music between South Africa and Switzerland.

The original Blue Notes with (among others) saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and pianist Chris McGregor, for example, played in Zurich and Geneva ( ) in late 1964 and early 1965, shortly after their debut at the Antibes Jazz Festival. Former Jazz Epistles drummer Makhaya Ntshoko had an early and long-lived residency at the Birds Eye Club in Basel. Bassist Johnny Dyani played Switzerland regularly, with too many different ensembles to count. Abdullah Ibrahim remains a regular visitor – and that’s before we get to more recent generations of South African players such as McCoy Mrubata and Feya Faku, slightly pre-dating Mlangeni, Makuzeni and Naidoo. So, as with British jazz players from the 1960s onwards, the South African sound is known and has woven its way into how mainland Europe plays.

You can hear that in, for example, how everybody picks up on Mnana’s Abdullah-ish opening chords on the first track, Wenger’s Cheers for the Night and in Muller’s committed bass-line attack on Mlangeni/Mnana’s modern-jazz mbaqanga Hop n’ Skop, and more.

The album splits neatly around track six, shifting from predominantly instrumental to more strongly vocal textures – although we don’t hear quite as much of Makuzeni the vocalist on the album as we did on stage. (We do, however, hear a great deal of her as a highly capable trombonist.) Her vocal work on her two co-compositions, Let Me Walk in the Light and (especially) Msotra’s Forgotten Dues leaves your ears hungry for more.

Yonela Mnana

As on stage, Mnana’s presence is key to the outfit’s character. He is already established as a remarkable pianist: unmistakably South African, but nevertheless transforming all the familiar historical roots and reference-points (Ibrahim, McGregor and so on, classical music, traditional and church music) into a highly personal series of keyboard explorations. What we learned in Cape Town and on this album is that the same is true of his singing.

The most extended track is the Mlangeni/Mnana Inkululeko : eight-plus minutes with a shorter radio mix at the end. It’s a track whose rhythm patterns acknowledge the broader African continent, but crafted across some tricky segues and mood-changes. The tune is irresistibly reminiscent of how Pukwana melded danceable grooves with sophisticated ideas and hospitable space for tough solos. It reinforces the musical identity that Mlangeni is establishing: extending and re-dreaming that particular part of the South African modern jazz heritage. It’s what makes Moholo-Moholo such a perfect collaborator for him in the project Born To Be Black, and Mnana so much the right co-composer and pianist here.

Mandla Mlangeni

There’s a reason why the music value-chain has transformed in the digital era, with live music now the highest-value product at the end and recordings now sitting at the start as promotional devices. A live performance always has more space than a recording for stretching out; in Cape Town, half a dozen rather than a dozen numbers, but each of them much longer. And what I miss now when I listen to the album is not the alternative instrumentalists I heard there – because this album’s soloists are just as robust and creative; and the contrasts make listening more interesting – but simply the space the live stage provided for growing some of the album’s two-minute cues into joyous, vibrant, extended conversations. When the Wind Blows is both inspiring and exhilarating, but even at 40-odd minutes it stops too soon.

taking a bow in Maputo.jpg
The Mill take a bow in Maputo

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