Tumi Mogorosi revives the tradition of choral jazz


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Tumi Mogorosi revives the tradition of choral jazz

By Andy Beta September 06, 2022

The choral jazz canon is soaring yet deep. With roots that stretch to diametrically opposed origins – Sunday morning church and Saturday night jazz club – it’s a heady blend of gospel choir exuberance against a hard bop backdrop that makes for a formidable combination. Early ’60s fusions like Max Roach’s It’s timeby Mary Lou Williams Black Christ of the Andesand that of Donald Byrd A new perspective were bold, hummable and thrilling, finding common ground in the black musical vernacular while soaring into exciting new worlds. Other albums, like Andrew Hill’s Raise every voice and Billy Harper capra black, favored the sound of choral jazz before other jazz hybrids – not to mention the economic constraints of funding a full band and choir – pushed the style to the side.



This year, however, you could once again hear aspects of choral jazz emerging. There were hints of it in SAULT’s latest album, Kendrick’s recent work with Duval Timothy and, most importantly, Tumi Mogorosi’s recent release, Group theory: black music. The South African percussionist/composer came through sound organically, tapping into the vital history of the country’s choral music tradition. “Although I didn’t grow up in a church choir, my first interaction with mass music was through a brass ensemble,” he says via video call from his living room in Johannesburg, speaking the hum of a generator amidst the rolling power of his city. cuts. “Across the street from my grandmother’s house was this church with a brass ensemble, and my first interaction with music was through the high school choir.”

Mogorosi was initially drawn to the guitar, admiring Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, and soon he was playing gigs throughout his college days. But as graduation approached, there was a drastic change in him. “I don’t really have a coherent answer as to why I switched to drums; it just happened,” he says. “When I graduated, I officially stopped playing guitar and gave away all my guitars, even a 1976 Gibson model which I gave to my cousin, who then took it to the loaner. on pawn.”

After giving away all of his guitar gear, Mogorosi had no choice but to double on drums. “There was no way for me to go back, so I made a conscious choice,” he says. “I wanted to put in the hours required for the battery.” Within a few years he was full on the Johannesburg jazz scene behind the kit. And in 2014, he released his first album as a leader, ELO project.



This album featured Mogorosi leading a sextet, backed by four singers, drawing on the South African choral tradition without knowing too much about its small but mighty catalog of modern jazz outside of the Roach and Byrd albums. “It wasn’t a conscious connection,” Mogorosi says. “Only after ELO project, did I dig? He also began playing in various bands, from the avant-garde-leaning trio The Wretched to his ongoing dialogue with Anglo-Barbadian saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings in the vast South African band Shabaka and the Ancestors.

Even with two critically acclaimed albums bringing Hutchings’ tireless work and Johannesburg’s vibrant jazz scene to the world’s attention, Mogorosi felt there was more to say. “Elo always felt like an unfinished project,” he says. “In my subconscious, I always wanted to finish this project, so maybe Group theory: black music is part of. But at the start of the pandemic, getting a big band together — plus ten extra singers — was next to impossible.

Mogorosi continued to refine his vision, still with the thought of these voices at the forefront, but with his role as drummer and their roles reversed. “Vocals have always been that thing that can propel the energy of the band and keep it there, without needing to release the tension,” he explained. “It can keep the tension there without it being uncomfortable. The drums can then create this thundering backdrop around this intense center. On a number like “The Fall,” wordless vocals back the band while Mogorosi’s snare drum and cymbals and Reza Khota’s swirling guitar lines spin around the band. On “Walk With Me”, Mthunzi Mvubu’s saxophone and Khota’s guitar bring out the timbral colors of the vocal group.



For most of the album, these massive vocals remain abstract and wordless, accentuating and heightening the drama of songs like “Panic Manic” and “At the Limit of the Speakable” with “Oh“‘the sand “aah“I was thinking more in terms of creating a soundscape that deals with certain notions of the unconscious and how to bring people into this space of the dark unconscious,” Mogorosi says. a sense of insecurity, a sense of uncertainty about the future of what it means to be Black in the world.”

The album culminates with not one, but two iterations of the Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, a song whose origins extend beyond historical documentation. Its pain and primal sense of estrangement were born out of the days of slavery in the United States, but we may never know who first distilled such sadness into verse. Its first entry into the historical record dates back to 1870, when the legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers began performing it across the United States. In 1918, the composer HT Burleigh inscribed it on a score and Paul Robeson recorded a first version of it in 1926. Since then, his sentiment has echoed among the greatest: Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, even Prince.



“There are certain standout songs that talk about displacement and dislocation, and ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is one of those canonical songs, a spiritual ghostwriter that talks about spiritual but also socio-political displacement. , taking into account the inability for someone to explain what it means,” says Mogorosi. In one version, the painful lyrics are spoken by singer Siya Mthembu; in the other, by Gabi Motuba, who worked with Mogorosi on his debut album and as part of his other band, Les Misérables.His version offers a glimmer of hope, reiterating a line about “we come from far from home” as Khota’s poignant guitar winds around his vocals, Mogorosi’s understated snares and brushed cymbals bearing the song’s heavy burden.

“These feelings are at the preconscious mind level, and the song brings up those moments of anxiety and nervousness,” he says. “For me, it was important for black men and black women to sing it as a way to complete the narrative. The story becomes one-sided if only Siya or Gabi sings it. I arranged it differently for both, to make it feel the same, but different. The story becomes complete with the two participants. Although they haven’t all been in the same room for years, Mogorosi was struck by the consistency of the album: “It all happened so fast, I was amazed. It was also seeing friends for the first time in so long. Everyone was eager to play music and experience it. And with that, Group theory: black music enters the canon of choral jazz and stands as a poignant culmination of the recent revival of South African jazz.

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