There are few artists with Louis Moholo-Moholo’s iconic weight. With his brethren Blue Notes, the drummer went into exile in 1965 rather than endure the oppression of apartheid in South Africa, which, for Moholo-Moholo, included two weeks in jail as a teenager simply for being in the wrong part of town at the wrong hour of the night. The Blue Notes, who arrived in London in ’67 from Zürich (where they influenced musicians like Irène Schweizer), permanently changed the course of British jazz history and, by extension, Europe’s with music that compellingly matched their calls for freedom. Even after the group’s dissolution in the ‘70s, Moholo-Moholo remained a rallying figure in exile; whether a playing a one-off or leading ensembles like Viva-La-Black (who accompanied him on his ’93 South African homecoming tour), he asserted a moral as well as a musical presence.

Subsequently, Moholo-Moholo’s decision in 2004 to live in South Africa again (and “again” has to be considered loosely, given how thoroughly apartheid prevented people from fully living) had the feel of an odyssey coming full circle, but it was also met with the apprehension of his colleagues that Moholo-Moholo would rarely if ever return to what he refers to as “the West.” This foreboding was most pointedly expressed by Evan Parker at the conclusion to his notes to naan tso (psi), referring to the drummer by his middle name: “The great Moholo made London his home in exile during the apartheid period and our lives were the richer for it. We made this record to mark his return home and to say goodbye. Don’t forget us, Tebugo.”

Fortunately, Moholo-Moholo – who hyphenated his last name after his mother’s passing, which contributed to his decision to return to Cape Town – not only still performs regularly in Europe, but he has radically increased his presence in North America, as well. In 2005, he was at the helm of Dedication Orchestra’s triumphant performances at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival; the next year, he toured the US in a trio formed by Ernest Khabeer Dawkins that also included fellow South African, Zim Ngqawana; and, in 2007, he performed at Vision and Suoni per il Popolo festivals with Dave Burrell and William Parker before traveling to Baltimore for a concert with Marilyn Crispell.

Despite their respective proximities to the profoundly hub-like Parker, Moholo-Moholo and Crispell had, surprisingly, never played together. To maintain a blank-slate status, they sound-checked for only a few minutes to establish sight lines and to ensure they clearly heard each other; additionally, they also set no guidelines for the materials and the duration of the performances. This was one of the increasingly rare occasions in improvised music where no one had a clue about what would occur.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that both the pianist’s and the drummer’s respective approaches have undergone pronounced changes in recent years. Crispell has honed a “deep lyricism” through quiet, silence-rich passages to convey intensities that cannot be realized through pummeling the keys. Similarly, Moholo-Moholo now often favors a lighter attack, particularly when freely improvising in an acoustic setting. As a result, usually marginal details like the piano’s decay and the sizzle of the riveted ride cymbal could have an increased impact.

These attributes are very much in evidence at the opening of “Improvise, Don’t Comprise,” where Crispell slowly draws pensive lines from isolated single notes while Moholo-Moholo cross-hatches with cymbal swells and tightly coiled patterns and rolls. It is a well-deliberated tone-setting exchange; but, more importantly, the piece also establishes the duo’s penchant for frequent, sure-footed course changes. A new set of impulses steers the music in new directions on each subsequent track. Ebullient use of rhythm defines “Moment of Truth;” while Moholo-Moholo’s spoken and sung evocations of his fallen comrades and his present collaborator on “Journey” precipitates tumult, which is ultimately transformed into grace. And so it goes until the last swirling crests of the title piece, with each improvisation substantially widening the scope of the duo’s materials and the spectrum of emotions they stir.

Too often, recordings of improvised music only meet expectations, falling short of creating the excitement that comes with discovery and surprise. Particularly with improvisers who have been regularly, if not obsessively documented on disc for decades, the evidentiary trail is so detailed that even when two or more first meet, the resulting album often produces little more than a checklist of criteria met and not met for the over-saturated, but essentially thirsty listener. There are recordings, however, when something intervenes – call it inspiration, magic or what you will. The music then takes on a larger aspect, one that is extremely vivid to the senses, but is fundamentally resistant to description. This first meeting between Louis Moholo-Moholo and Marilyn Crispell is one of them.

Bill Shoemaker, 2008

Liner notes, Intakt CD 145


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