I love South African jazz pianist / band leader Dollar Brand, he was a big favourite of my father’s and so I have known his music for hundreds of years*. Now I think of him predominantly as a wonderful percussive, groovy pianist but he has also led a number of big band ensembles too; in fact when I saw him in about 2000 he barely played any piano at all, to my huge disappointment**. Dollar Brand African Space Program, from 1974 was his first LP with a big band , and I picked up a pristine copy in 2006.
I love the LP cover, a dusty dirt track leads into a sub-Saharan landscape and some camels crossing the horizon. Space, plenty of space.
You might expect, I expected, the music to reflect this the fact it doesn’t may be more of a reflection on the fact that it was recorded in Studio WARP in New York City, all on November 7 1973 in fact. The second side of African Space Program is taken up by a single track, ‘Jabulani – Easter Joy’, which sparkles with all the frenetic energy that you might expect from that city, the same energy that crackles throughout the best recordings on the Impulse! label from the time. The piece begins with a little tuning up and then lurches into what sounds uncannily like the opening melody from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, played at 2/3 speed and then after a couple of shouted directions the track accelerates into something akin to a New Orleans funeral march played at 78rpm; that’s when it starts to get really frantic. The rhythm section of Cecil McBee and Roy Brooks set off at an astonishing lick of speed and everyone solos over the top, really loudly for 20 minutes before everything lurches back to the opening theme.
Now here’s my problem. I can appreciate it for what it is technically but it’s just too discordant and maybe just too jazzy for me. Now I own a fair number of jazz albums by a fair number of artists and whilst I can handle some of the more difficult stuff ‘Jubulani – Easter Joy’ reminds me of my short-lived experiment with Archie Shepp New Thing at Newport – the brain was willing, but the ears were weak. I fully accept the possibility that I’m maybe just a big jazz lightweight and that were I sitting on a jazz beach, I’d be getting jazz sand kicked in my face by the jazz bullies; that’s fine but I can’t seem to find the aural Charles Atlas course I need.
None of which is the fault of the music, of course. I find the first side of African Space Project ‘Tintiyana’ (split into first and second parts) easier, slower and more melodic, overlaid with a little more of that space I was craving. There is still some wild virtuosity on display but within a framework my tired ears can relate better to and with an overall celebratory tone.
I hope none of that makes it sound like listening to this LP was in any way a chore, although some bits of the second side did grate a little – I’m happy for there to be difficult music out there and I’m happy to give it a go, maybe at some point some fundamental balance will shift for me and then in the time-honoured fashion of the recently bullied I can go and kick jazz sand in some other jazz wimp’s face.
*I know he changed his name following a conversion to Abdullah Ibrahim and it isn’t out of disrespect that I keep referring to him as Dollar Brand, but simply because I think of him as that and the records of his I own are all in that name.
**I’d just bought Black Lightning and was hoping for some similarly loping piano.