Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet
Friday 17th March 2017
The harp has a very marginal history as a jazz instrument, barely even appearing in the ‘miscellaneous instruments’ category in the self-appointed arbiters that are magazine polls. However, it does possess at least one major voice, and one that’s closely linked into the very heart of the tradition; Alice McCleod, otherwise known as Alice Coltrane, released a handful of albums after her husband’s death that placed her unique harp playing at the centre of an idiosyncratic, spiritually charged and highly accessible take on modal jazz. While the cosmic trappings of the presentation of such albums as ‘World Galaxy’ and ‘Universal Consciousness’ may place them very firmly in the context of 1970s Californian counter-culture, the music within has an unflinching directness and powerful emotional intensity that transcends genre, and there’s been a revival of interest that’s seen Alice Coltrane’s work grow in popularity and influence, both within the jazz world from artists such as Matthew Halsall, and far beyond to encompass tributes from such artistically disparate fans as Paul Weller and her own grand-nephew, Flying Lotus.
Alina’s repertoire tonight is based around the classic albums ‘Ptah, the El Daoud’ and ‘Journey in Satchidananda’. The seminal ‘Blue Nile’ is the archetype for this style – hypnotic, repetitive, with a stately swinging groove overlaid with sweeping harp glissandos and simple majestic melody. The performance stands or falls by the degree of gravitas which the performers are able to impart – fortunately Tony Kofi on tenor and soprano is the perfect partner, able to switch from searing Pharoah Sanders style intensity to a fluid, mellow tone on demand. His soprano sound is full-voiced and powerful – on tenor he has a gruff intensity and free-flowing melodic sense reminiscent of Bennie Maupin’s work with McCoy Tyner, shedding any traces of standard bop language. Bassist Larry Bartley adds his own imposing physical and sonorous presence to the stage; his contribution is pivotal to the success of the band with his dark tone, and starkly powerful, imperturbably swinging lines recalling Jimmy Garrison. Joel Prime provides tasteful accompaniment on drums, and exotic percussion as necessary. Alina herself attacks the harp with great vigour; her personality fizzes with energy, balancing between a suitably profound seriousness and a sense of barely suppressed hilarity. There’s a composition of her own, showing off the her instrument’s range over a pulsing groove, and a welcome reading of John Coltrane’s seldom-heard ‘Syeeda’s Flute Song’ that shows how the harp can function effectively in a more conventional jazz context, adding colour to a spacious sax-plus-rhythm trio sound. Everyone plays with total commitment and the result is fresh sounding, intense and utterly compelling; a welcome addition to the scene and a great tribute to a long overlooked but increasingly revered artist.
Photo of Alina Bzhezhinska by Rachel Zhang.