Album Review : We Are Busy Bodies reissue three mid-seventies SA Jazz gems from sax supremos “Mankunku” and Makhalemele.

The Breakdown

The music on each of the three album’s justifies individual attention. The sonic thread is vibrant, tune based, classic form jazz, edging to the funky, focused on a fundamental groove and lifted by that township swagger.

The irrepressible curators at We Are Busy Bodies continue to tap into the energised seventies South African jazz eco-system with three more illuminating re-issues in their significant As-shams archival series. For some time now WABB have worked in close collaboration with Johannesburg based As-shams (aka The Sun) label, bringing the historic imprint’s burgeoning back catalogue to a wider audience through a sequence of re-mastered vinyl beauties. Still owned and guided by legendary founder Rashid Vally, who set up As-shams in 1974 as an extension of his downtown Joburg record shop, the imprint was regarded as the voice-piece for South African jazz music for a heady decade until the mid-eighties. So through their close connections with these seminal partners over the last couple of years, We Are Busy Bodies have brought us stunning music from Kippie Moketsi, Pat Matshikiza, Lionel Pillay and Basil ‘Mannenburg’ Coetzee. Now,to keep up the momentum, they’ve added to that role call with two other saxophone kingpins from that relentlessly fertile scene, Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi and Mike Makhalemele.

Simultaneously available we have ‘Alex Express’ by The Cliffs (featuring “Mankunku” Ngozi) originally out in 1975, Mike Makhalemele’s ‘The Peacemaker’ from the same year and to complete the set 1976’s ‘The Bull and the Lion’, an inspired twin sax summit where “Mankunku” and Makhalemele share the spotlight. As well as being a fascinating sequence with back stories aplenty, the music on each of the three album’s justifies individual attention. The sonic thread is vibrant, tune based, classic form jazz that edges towards the funky, focused on a fundamental groove and lifted by that township swagger.

Alex Express’ is a significant record in itself even before the first bars reach out. It marks the return to the studio for “Mankunku” Ngozi some six years after his classic quartet album ‘Yakhal’ Inkomo’ which, as well as being a piece of cool jazz perfection, represented an act of resistance against his country’s apartheid regime. Perhaps the pressures of that release took its toll on Ngozi whose sax playing, besides featuring on The Chris Schilder Quintet’s ‘Spring’ album in 1969, had remained silent until ‘Alex Express’.

The returning album with the six piece jazz-funk band The Cliffs, feels perhaps understandably carefree and understated, a brisk romp through a set of airy, upbeat Ngozi originals. The title track chugs along smoothly, a mid-paced funky shuffle, sparked by the “Mankunku” sax which takes a lead, uncluttered in a Junior Walker way until those upper registers spiral skywards. The breezy, soulful Over The Cliff shows off the group’s crisp horn section, Roger Khoza’s warm organ cushioning and Allen Kwela’s clipped, clean guitar sound as well as their illustrious composer’s articulate way with melody. It’s an album that has a real skip in its step from the township sway of Gu Gu Lethu to the classic big band swing of Ever Green and onto the closing rolling soft bop of Revelation where “Mankunka” stretches into some ‘higher plain’ moments. ‘Alex Express’ that may not demand but it simply shines.

Coming out in the same year as Mankunku’s return, Mike Makhalemele’s ‘The Peacemaker’ showcased the saxophonist at the point of starting out. A player who had been dabbling in numerous projects around the SA scene for a while, this 1975 album released on Jo’burg Records marked his solo debut and the first in a prolific run of crossover jazz records that extended into the early nineties. Included in the session band were co-writer for several tracks pianist Jabu Nkosi and bass supremo Sipho Gomede, both of whom came with serious Cape Jazz credentials. Check out sax legend’s Kippie Moketsi’s essential ‘Blue Stompin’ album and there they are, ditto with the Almon Memela produced funk release ‘The Roots’. Still despite such presence ‘The Peacemaker’ is an album that belongs to Makhalemele’s beaming musical personality.

Coming from a soul jazz foundation, you get the Grover Washington/Stanley Turrentine vibes from the fluid, well-oiled locomotion that’s going on here. 15th Avenue saunters along with the band in a tight knit step, Gomede’s agile bass burbling and Nkosi’s chunky key tones laying the floor for Makhalemele’s upfront but sensitive, tune driven sax. That melodic touch gets to shine further on End Of The Road, buoyed by the spiritual lift of its gospel-blues undertones. Here the sax is given time and space to explore on a solo run which scales up to roaring point while Gomede’s bass slides and slaps in agreement. That nimble fretwork is impossible to ignore on the fine blues-swinger Going West, pushing Makhalemele to bring in some heady post bop flamboyance of his own. Perhaps ‘The Peacemaker’ is an album that sticks to the manual but it still presents enough fine execution and detail to bring plenty of joy.

Neatly completing the trio of re-issues is the coming together of “Mankunku” Ngozi and Makhalemele’s talents on the intriguing ‘The Bull and The Lion‘, originally released on Jo’burg Records in 1976. It’s in some ways an unexpected outcome which you wouldn’t bet on, given the prospect of putting two dynamic jazz horn players in a studio together. That might be down to the backing band on the record formed from labelmates the pop rock band Rabbit, which included guitarist Trevor Rabin, the future 90125-era Yes guitarist, writer of their ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ mega-hit and then later Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame incumbent. Jazz balance alongside “Mankunku” and Makhalemele gets provided by big band pianist Tete Mbambisa and although they take the leading edge ‘The Bull and The Lion’ is wrapped in a quirky, pre-eighties slick and sharp production.

That sound is perhaps most upfront in the Makhalemele penned opener Togetherness which takes a sharp Brecker Brothers strut blended with some smooth jazz luxury. The saxes bring a touch of skilfully controlled raunch, Rabin’s proto prog funk guitar slices are classy and the Mbambisa piano solo introduces some welcome angles. Makhalemele’s other tune Snowfall emphasises his lyrical feel for melody in a chilled and calm cut but Mankunku’s long form nod to their home city sound Rainy Day is the stand out. A slow swaying ballad at fourteen minutes and counting, Ngozi’s elegiac sax is given room to pirouette and play with the tune while the deftly placed backing vocals add the gospel reverence. This shouldn’t be dismissed as easy listening. There may be little free form dynamism but Rainy Day stands as a piece of hypnotic, uplifting spiritual jazz in anyone’s book.

So that’s the story, another exceptional clutch from the We Are Busy Bodies/AS-Shams partnership, always reaching out to re-discover and once again finding gold.

Get your copies of ‘Alex Express‘, ‘The Peacemaker‘ and ‘The Bull and the Lion‘ from your local record store or direct from We Are Busy Bodies HERE

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