“Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale…” to paraphrase The Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. This famous quote from ‘Anthony & Cleopatra’ came into my mind whilst reflecting on a packed-to-the-rafters Cafe Oto gig last night. Once I got home, I couldn’t help comparing the 79 year old South African percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo, leader and inspiration for last night’s Five Blokes quintet (a very English name for a band, reminiscent of several tongue-in-cheek free improv configurations from earlier decades) to another incredible percussionist, Max Roach. I caught the latter,at the age of 75, in duo with Cecil Taylor, almost exactly 20 years ago, in January 1999 at the Barbican Hall.The two events went to demonstrate the truth of Shakespeare’s words.
To paraphrase another Shakespeare adage (from ‘Hamlet’) - “Frailty, thy name is Age”. This was the first impression that both septuagenarians suggested to me as they both were escorted to the stages of these very different venues. I was rather taken aback at how much frailer Moholo has become since I last saw him live, about five years ago. He has lost a considerable amount of weight, for a start. Roach had made his way using walking sticks, and took about five minutes to get to his modest drum kit, across the Barbican’s sizeable stage. However, once the two old campaigners, incalculably important figures in the music’s history, had sat themselves down on their respective stools, they were transformed into percussive powerhouses.
Lat night’s concert was a triumph for the Blokes and for Moholo in particular. He is truly like a micro-surgeon of the beat, facially impassive while laying down an imperturbable undertow for his fellow-members of this free bop ‘supergroup’. Just typing out their names reminds us of what a fantastic band this is -pianist Alexander Hawkins, another completely un-showy and modest master of his instrument, another vital part of the undertow, as is England’s greatest jazz bass improviser, John Edwards; and the front line saxophonists du jour, Shabaka Hutchings and Jason Yarde, the former staying mostly on tenor, with a bit of bass clarinet, with some ‘little instruments’ thrown in, the latter on soprano, alto and tenor, with a bit of singing and general rabble-rousing on top. I know that comparisons are invidious, but we were taken through early New Orleans funeral marches to Albert Ayler pyrotechnics, through kwela rhythms and some driving Mingus-type arrangements to some Art Ensemble moves and Sun Ra-ishly joyous themes. In fact, the ‘sound of joy’ just about sums these five blokes up, with plenty of extended jams on ostinatos and vamps, and the audience lapping it all up. There were even a few of ‘em dancing, not a sight I’ve seen very often at this sometimes rather serious venue.
In the end, they deservedly got a rousing ovation, but the rest of the band, and the audience, saved the most vociferous applause for the nearly-80 year old master percussionist, who first came over to these shores nearly 55 years ago, escaping apartheid, then at its height . This mixed-race band is only the latest continuation of his work with The Blue Notes, the group which were persecuted in their homeland for precisely the fact that white and black are capable of creating such positive and optimistic music. We certainly need some optimism at the moment, given the current challenges that democracy faces in our own country, the proposed proroguing of parliament being only one.