Okay so no smart-ass titles for once, listening to this LP just now has made me fall in love with it all over again. My dad turned me onto Dollar Brand the South African jazz pianist and band leader, who converted to Islam in the late 70’s and who’s later works are recorded under the name Abdullah Ibrahim, he is just the most amazing pianist and unlike a lot of my favourite jazz pianists, rhythm really seems to be the priority in his playing, rather than anything flashy.
I own 3 very different LP’s by Dollar Brand, but I bought Black Lightning on my birthday in 1997 when I was out record shopping with my brother. I was looking for something by him, but it was the back cover picture that sold me instantly on this LP. Check it out:
How could you not love this? even without hearing a note. I also love the statement:
which I happen to think is cool as hell, but puts 1537 out of business in an instant, so I’ll just say ‘don’t be silly Mr Ibrahim, sit down and have a nice cup of tea and a biscuit whilst I tell our friends all about this’.
Dollar Brand started out in Cape Town and after an apprenticeship alongside my favourite trumpet player, Hugh Masekela, lit out for Europe. Through some real serendipitous circumstances and the intervention of his idol, Duke Ellington, Dollar began to make a real name for himself. Black Lightning hails from 1976 and is a real oddity amongst the Dollar Brand LP’s that I own / have heard as it has an interesting, almost rock/pop production and commerciality about it.
The LP kicks off with the title track, 14 minutes of rolling bliss beginning with a fantastic lightning bolt / clap of thunder sound effect straight out of a discarded Sabbath tune. From then on the piano just heads off on a relaxed, loping rhythm with the brass piling along for the ride and providing most of the melodic drive. Not wishing to sound simplistic here but this track always sounds like a train journey across a plain to me. That’s not to say it’s an easy ride, there are some really clever uses of dischord and some real peaks and troughs along the way. In fact I am astonished that the track does only last 14 minutes, as you get a real sense that once the band lock into the groove they could keep going forever (in a good way!).
Definite honourable mentions needed here for the band, particularly the three superb saxophonists Kippie Moketsi, Basil Manenberg and Duku Makasi, for want of a better analogy at times all three just lock together in a way that’s a little bit reminiscent of any great two-lead rock band you can think of (Wishbone Ash ?), playing the same notes together and then riffing on that synchronicity. They make it all sound like lots of fun.
The second side is equally as good, ‘Little Boy’ the lead off track is just simply happy music, but not simple happy music. Again we get the brass all locked together as tight as the JB’s in places, but all in the service of a grand overarching melody. And what a melody it is, African to the core, there are debts here to Duke Ellington, but you can hear links in the sound to classical music as well as Fela Kuti and Afrobeat. This is most apparent during the second track, played as a quartet, ‘Black & Brown Cherries’, which is faster and where there definite echoes ofthe Nigerian scene in the way the brass is used. Black Lightning closes with an absolutely swinging version of Thelonious Monk’s standard ‘Blue Monk’, yes I used the word ‘swinging’ totally straight-faced.
This is an easy listening LP for me, no I’m not invoking the ghosts of James Last or Herb Alpert*, by that I mean it is an easy, pleasant listen and it transports me to the sunny skies of an idealised Africa, because this is far more of an African, than a jazz LP to my ears**. Which when you consider what the South African homeland of most of these musicians was like at the time, is very poignant. I don’t know enough to tell you whether this LP was recorded in South Africa during the brief time Dollar Brand returned there, before fleeing apartheid again later, much of Black Lightning sounds to me like the visions of home exiles carry around with them to sustain themselves at times of need – big, colourful, highly-selective, potent.
I found a video of the title track below, have a nice coffee, listen.
*easy Orange, easy.
**the term Cape Jazz was later invented to describe this type of African jazz.