CD REVIEW: Julian Argüelles & Frankfurt Radio Big Band - Let it Be Told.

Julian Argüelles & Frankfurt Radio Big Band - Let it Be Told 
(Basho SRCD 47-2. CD review by Jon Turney)

If South African jazz grabs you at the right time, it never lets go. The electrifying effect of the township bop and free jazz blended by the Blue Notes, playing in exile in London in the 1960s and 70s, is well known. Nowadays it is usually just one, more faintly echoing, strain in a global repertoire of styles that well-schooled youngsters can draw on. But there are occasional fully-realised reminders of the power and beauty of that music: the massed ranks of the Louis Moholo-powered Dedication Orchestra reunited at last year’s London Jazz Festival; more regular dates for the pure small group sound of Adam Glasser’s Township Comets. Here, joyfully, is one more new dip into the same well.

Julian Argüelles has written big band arrangements of some of the finest pieces by members of the Blue Notes, and other Southern African composers, and they are delivered to great effect by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. It is a smoother, more well-oiled ensemble than the raggle-taggle glory of the legendary Brotherhood of Breath, but they can whip up that township groove, and the horn section harmonies sound magnificent.

The pieces are a good blend of familiar and less often revisited tunes. There are new settings of Mongezi Feza’s You Ain’t Gonna Know Me and of Dudu Pukwana’s Mra – a tune first recorded by Gwigwi Mrwebi’s band back in 1967. Those two are in the Dedication Orchestra’s book as well, but the versions here are distinct. Other tunes are by Pukwana, the Blue Notes’ bass player Johnny Dyani, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Joseph Shabatala and Abdullah Ibrahim. A single Chris McGregor composition, played in his own arrangement, completes the set.

There are terrific individual contributions. Django Bates shines on keyboards, recalling his youthful work with Dudu Pukwana’s Zila. He took something of Zila’s spirit into Loose Tubes. Here, he conjures that feel brilliantly, especially on synthesiser excursions on Makeba’s Retreat Song and on You Ain’t Gonna Know Me. Julian Argüelles’ brother Steve adds punchy percussion throughout. Julian himself, as befits a project conjuring the spirit of Pukwana, sticks to acidly fluid alto sax, while fellow altoist Hans Dieter-Sauerborn is more reminiscent of Ibrahim’s great partner Carlos Ward on The Wedding, which is reimagined with a dreamy prelude featuring bass clarinet.

Solos aside, the big band’s range lifts the whole project. The tunes are full of riffs that cry out for a full horn section, and get the treatment they deserve. And the band sound built from Argüelles’ thoughtful arrangements is rich and expressive throughout, from the hymnal intro to You Ain’t.. to the gorgeous horn chorale treatment of Ladysmith’s Amabutho. For those who know this music this is a wonderful series of reinventions; for any who don’t, a treat that is sure to inspire further exploration.

LINK: Julian Argüelles interview

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