Album Review: South African be-bop trailblazer Kippie Moeketsi’s Blue Stompin receives long-awaited reissue

Over forty years on since its original release in 1977 those intrepid sound seekers at We Are Busy Bodies have just re-issued, in partnership with Rashid Vally’s seminal South African Jazz label As- Shams /The Sun, Kippie Moeketsi/Hal Singer’s ‘Blue Stompin’. The album’s title track and centrepiece highlights an intriguing jazz intersection from the two touchstone saxophonists recorded during a 1974 session that sprang from Singer’s US State Department sponsored tour of South Africa.

Both players brought weighty credentials to their coming together: Moeketsi as a founder member of The Jazz Epistles alongside Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwanga and Singer with a CV that stretched from the Duke Ellington Orchestra to spots with Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas. So you would expect some kind of reaction from the pair when placed in the same room together and that’s exactly what you get on their take of ‘Blue Stompin’.

The tune was first recorded for Prestige by Singer on his 1959 collaboration with trumpeter Charlie Shavers, and this re-imagining loses nothing of the original’s roaring swing or definitive dash of R&B. What gets added here is some elemental sparkle and shine, one that reflects not only a musical connection but also the convergence of US and South African jazz traditions. Introduced by Moeketsi’s haunting lone sax that teeters on an emotional edge before gliding into the Singer’s bands’ sharp swing, the cut celebrates the melodic interplay between the two horn players and their contrasting solo style.

Singer takes it first, deep and strong with a yearning bluesy edge, he gets to repeat that fabulous one note repeated vamp which drives the original recording’s high kicking sign off. On the home stretch of this 70’s version Moeketsi’s more flighty alto takes the lead, feeling his way at first but reaching overdrive with a succession of explosive hard bop runs. It takes the tune to a different place, more ravaged and raucous without losing the necessary swagger and sway.

The rest of the album shifts away from that ‘74 collaboration and focuses on Moeketsi sessions with more familiar South African combos. ‘Hang On There’ features Duku Makasi on tenor plus a rhythm section of Sipho Gumede (bass), Gilbert Mathews (drums) and Pat Matshikiza on piano providing the ideal swung complement to ‘Blue Stompin’. Here the South African jazz flavours leap out with joyful tight harmonies lifting the melody line and Matshikiza’s chunky chord chimes giving the tune that effortless bounce. The sax exchanges between Moeketsi and Makasi in the solo sections converse with a companionable warmth.

The record’s flip side leans into two extended blues, Duke Pearson’s ‘Scrap Iron’ and Kenny Burrell’s ‘Yes Baby’. Pearson’s tune is taken slow and low opening up the space for Moeketsi and new alto partner Barney Rachabane to demand attention. As the track rises to the urgent coaxing of Jobu Nikasi’s electric piano it’s left to the calmest of horn arrangements to bring the tune full circle. Those same tight packed horns add a real shine to the pulsing shuffle of ‘Yes Baby’ pushing the soloists to cut through with a brightness and positivity every time. Moeketsi and Rachabane’s final spiralling flourishes adds a new thrill in a cover version that uses all its time wisely.

So four decades after its original release, Blue Stompin’ represents much more than a curio, it offers up some dynamic, straight ahead and very necessary jazz to anyone who snaps it up. The record is also a sobering reminder of the tragedy surrounding Kippie Moeketsi’s life. A key figure in the emergence of South African jazz, a self- taught musician , a be-bop trailblazer in his own country, his genius remained largely unnoticed and he died at the age of 53, stone-broke and disillusioned. Maybe this release will revive some of the wider recognition that the man known as ‘Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro’ always deserved.

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