by Greg Dale
In my upcoming series of blogs I am hoping to attempt to decode, perhaps for myself mostly, in writing, exactly what it is about each individual record in my small collection housed in a single cabinet, that is so deeply resonant with me.
But that discovery process is for the coming weeks. My offering this week is far easier, and probably as immediate as a stream of words could be, and involves, as so many stories do, a record, a room and a moment.
In the middle of the day last Wednesday, at the end of what felt like an endless anticipation, I learned that the wait was finally over; my daughter would arrive the following morning. Having had months to mentally prepare I suddenly found myself in a very empty house with but a few hours to finalise preparations in the home, pack a bag, and most importantly, take stock of a time that was entirely unknown and loomed ahead, fatherhood. And so, with just a few last minutes to myself before everything began, I turned to my music, and the lifelong catalogue of memories and feelings contained in the vault that we all carry. Which record, which single record in this pivotal moment, would hold comfort, nostalgia, promise, joy, mastery, fond memories, the promise of unknown future ones, be present yet not overwhelming, contain beauty but not syrup, and echo yet calm a very nervous soul? And so I slid out Dollar Brand’s Blues for a Hip King.
To start with, even the cover of this beautiful album is comforting. An instant familiarity is engendered in the cool primary colour, and in the similarity and honesty of its tribute to ‘Tranes Blue Train. The stoic image of Brand on the South African version of the cover, his saxophone at rest, hints at the resolute men that made the music inside, from an era in a country that could have created nothing but resolute men, and for a moment I think how this is an album about colour, blues and greens, blacks and whites. African colours.
The label as it comes out of the frail Interpak sleeve reveals a red Sun Records logo, and the warmth that accompanies African jazz for me stirs.
Tonight there is no time for the whole album, so I do what I have done so many times, put on side two, and lay the stylus down right into the groove that starts track two, with precision, there isn’t a note in the beginning that can be missed.
The opening organ could be a church dirge, and I think how few players can mix murky organ chords like Dollar Brand, and allow them to come out clean and painterly, there is that colour again, a rainbow into a prism. Then starts that small erratic drumming under the organ, like a fluttering heart, a rhythm feeble yet stable that at the minute mark starts to fibrillate, and there begins the fluctuating time signature that defines this piece of music for me, and mirrors my own calm yet fluttering pulse.
What follows is 9 minutes and 46 seconds of pure bliss. In my heightened state of awareness every instrument is separate, like there’s a speaker in the room for each channel, yet the musicians, all seven of them, work like family, like conversation around a large table. Each member gets to step up and have their say, followed by a silence, listening, then a response. You get the physical sense of the musicians leaning back in their chairs, rocking back, telling a story, before dropping the legs back down to lean, elbows on the table, and carry on the conversation while the candles burn down. I have driven past brightly coloured Cape homes on winter nights and pictured the festivities inside, and this is what I imagine, it’s a table I would want to be invited to, jazz at its finest, music at it’s most empathetic, and I feel that this may be the kindest song ever written.
The track finally returns to the opening melody, quieted back down to that twitchy but steady drumbeat and Brand’s organ, wedding march, church service, christening? I think about my once incorrect belief that this song was dedicated to Brands son, Tsakwe. I later discovered it is in fact a tribute to King Sobhuza II, the Swazi monarch, whom Dollar lived and worked with for a time. But now it doesn’t matter whether it is for his son or a king, a daughter or a queen, tonight I was at that table for nine and a half sacred minutes, and can go back at any time, to an unchanged group of men, in an unchanged room, who will all lean forward, and start straight back up, into a Blues for my Hip Queen.
For Sadie June Dale who was born on the 28th July 2016, and came into the world to music.
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