Johnny M. Dyani : African Bass

Reissue of a 1979 Italian duet with drummer Clifford Jarvis evinces the particularly South African flavour of Dyani's music

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This gem from the late 1970s finds the ever-vital South African double-bassist and pianist, vocalist and composer Johnny Mbizo Dyani (1945-1986) in the company of the equally arresting American drummer, Clifford Jarvis (1941-1999).

The suite-like range of traditional and (chiefly) Dyani material is both political and poetic, folk-turned and fiercely exploratory. It affords plenty of space for Dyani’s superb pizzicato and arco work: hear, e.g., the opening African Anthem (Zulu) with its mesmeric blend of urgent yet measured ostinato pizzicato precision with a strummed and plucked potency, plus crying vocal and dance-inflected figures. And relish, later in the programme, Dyani’s Cherry-like rolling and driving piano and further (at times, plenty humorous) vocalising. Jarvis, who could count Coleman Hawkins, Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard and Sun Ra among his associates, contributes many a tasty crisply driven flurry of cross accents, as well as some engaging and energising vocalising.

It’s sometimes forgotten what a force Dyani was in the development of contemporary jazz in Britain, Europe and Scandinavia. A while ago I reviewed for JJ Gerhard Kubik’s Jazz Transatlantic, a two-volume survey of African jazz. Admirable as that work was, I was a touch astonished that Dyani rated not a single mention. Neither did his compatriot, the electrifying drummer Louis Moholo.

Together with Dudu Pukwana (as), Nikele Moyake (ts) and Mongezi Feza (t), Dyani and Moholo (born 1940) were members of The Blue Notes, the full-on South African group led by pianist Chris McGregor (1936-1990). In the mid-1960s The Blue Notes left apartheid South Africa to play in central Europe, Britain and Denmark before settling in Britain – where their mix of free-jazz energy with township Kwela grooves led Evan Parker, Keith Tippett and John Surman to acknowledge the huge impact of these “true innovators”.

Dyani’s career would blossom further, including associations with, e.g., Enrico Rava, Steve Lacy and John Tchicai; Don Cherry, Abdullah Ibrahim and David Murray; Harry Beckett and John Stevens. Sample, especially, SteepleChase’s Witchdoctor’s Son from 1978 ( which features a perceptive sleeve-note from JJ’s Barry McRae). The present African Bass furnishes no less essential a documentation of the work of a musician characterised by Ian Carr as “a visionary … [playing] … music of the heart, the expression of an exile’s joy, anger and sorrow”.

Discography
African Anthem (Zulu); African Blues; Ithi-Gqi; Lonely Flowers; South African; The Robin Irland Struff (42.04)
Dyani (b, v, p); Clifford Jarvis (d, v). Milan, 14 November 1979.
Red Records RR 1233339-2