This piece of music has haunted me all day, here are some of my thoughts:
‘L.A. Soul Train Blues’ – Bhekumuzi Mseleku
Woooooooooooooooh, the first 16bar intro of this song is a study. I don’t know how many times I have played this section of the song and it still has the same impact on me. This makes me wonder what was being channeled through this tune, the title doesn’t give away the full meaning but perhaps the fact that it’s a blues gives a hint even though it has odd bars making a total of 13 bars instead of the 12 bars that we are used to. The tune still sounds very much bluesy though, there is also a 16 bar middle section that stays is the form throughout.
The tune opens with a very meditative, chant-like ostinato between the bass and the piano left hand, a full on swing feel on the ride cymbal and with very precise sticking. When the sax plays it’s first note I hear a cry, shortly after this same note comes back the 2nd time with a bit of overtones which adds even more intensity to the music, I believe heaven’s doors could open to this note. It also sounds to me as if Mseleku was trying to emulate the sound of a train whistle which could be very symbolic, there is quite a strong narrative around trains in Southern Africa especially during the apartheid regime they carried stories as they travel between cities. Artists like Bra Hugh Masekela have explored this narrative at length, a good example is ‘Stimela’ by Masekela but it is also possible that Mseleku speaks of a different train though I see and feel strong parallels between the two pieces as far as the emotional content is concerned.
Often we hear people talk about Mseleku the great pianist of which he is, but it’s quite seldom that we speak of Mseleku the saxophone player, or even Mseleku the composer and arranger. Perhaps our ignorance towards his greatness as a saxophonist is influenced by his humbleness, I have heard Mseleku on numerous interviews saying he doesn’t regard himself as a saxophonist instead he just love the sound of the instrument. But on this particular record I definitely believe he qualifies beyond any possible criteria to be called one, just from the sound perceptive and the flow of ideas he reminded me a lot of Joe Henderson and at time Pharaoh Sanders both were some of his music gurus. Mseleku has in the past done sessions as a tenor man, the one that comes to mind is the historical Dance World Dance by Rodney Kendrick a good friend of Mseleku who is also a great piano player, on this record Mseleku’s tenor once again stands out.
I am touched by Mseleku’s command of the instrument in the first couple of bars of this tune, he makes the horn tell a story and I feel it’s too big a statement not be noticed. While I was struck by all these kind of thoughts listening to this record I became even more puzzled when I learned that he is both the tenor saxophonist and pianist on this particular record or even how about the fact that he also sings and play guitars on a the one song. For years I have been thinking we have surely not explored this genius’s work enough. Also while I was listening to the record I tried to imagine how this recording session played itself out, my first thought was the most logical one which is they had recorded this album as piano trio and then Mseleku did his overdubs later, but the amount of interplay, call and response between the piano and the sax makes me doubt my take on how this session was carried.
The personnel on this record is also another fascinating factor. Charlie Haden is on double bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Haden was loved by a lot of pianists including the great Keith Jarrett during his years with impulse record in the 70s, he was obviously loved because of his openness to sound and his very wide understanding of harmony. I personally loved Haden’s playing because of his ability to always have a birds eye view in his approach towards ensemble playing.
Billy Higgins is one the greatest master drummers and a specialist when it comes to creating space and textures in the music, his brush work on the kit is heavenly, he has amazing sensitivity.
There is so much magic on this record, but this song just stood out for me this afternoon driving in the busy Durban’s festive mood.
Oh I just remembered something, some years ago in the early 2000 I once asked Mseleku a rather childish question and said: ‘Which one is your favorite out of all your albums…’ Very reluctantly he replied: ‘Check out Star Seeding‘ I will never forget that.
Release Date 1995, Recording Date March 11, 1995 & March 12, 1995