New Generation Jazz: Xhosa Cole
The Verdict, Brighton
Friday 28th June, 2019
On the last Friday of June the 2018 BBC Young Jazz Musician Of The Year, Xhosa Cole, brought his fine Midlands- based quartet to The Verdict for the latest round in the ever-popular New Generation Jazz series. Xhosa himself is a warm, lucid and highly lyrical exponent of the tenor saxophone. At only 22 years of age he commanded the stage at last year’s BBC Young Jazz Musician Of The Year final in front of a capacity audience, alongside the resident trio of Gwilym Simcock on piano, bassist (and director of The Brecon Jazz Festival) Paula Gardiner with Asaf Sirkis at the drums. When presenting the award after stellar performances of Johnny Green’s I Cover The Waterfront, the John Coltrane classic Moments Notice, plus his own original Moving Ladywood, judge Iain Ballamy described the saxophonist’s performance as “heartfelt, sincere and communicative”. Therefore it was no wonder, despite the high calibre of the other contestants, that Xhosa took the coveted prize.
The expectations of yet another impressive Verdict crowd were understandably high as the quartet set up after a grueling six hour road trip from Birmingham. They were not to be disappointed as the saxophonist had surrounded himself with three like-minded creative young artists. Drummer Nathan England-Jones was not only rock steady when required but carried a high level of musicality and invention in his playing both in solo mode and in support of others. He has set himself high standards, having already appeared on the BBC late night Prom in 2016 plus as a soloist on Harrison Birtwistle’s Concerto For Saxophone And Drum Kit. Shivraj Singh, formerly with The Jazzlines Ensemble and leading his own band since the age of 15 showed himself to be a very fine bass player with no problem in carrying the theme of the music as well as being the complete heartbeat of the quartet. Pianist Elliott Sansom is a truly incredible player, a self- confessed admirer of none other than Oliver Messiaen and Igor Stravinsky, his keyboard statements were large and bold with a magnificent sense of rhythm and harmony in all tempos.
From the very opening bars of the first number, Thelonious Monk’s I Mean You the joyful crowd were treated to no less than a thrilling performance by four superb jazzmen obviously totally in touch with each others musical thoughts and intentions. Of the nine renderings of great jazz standards and one original, four were from the Monk songbook which allowed pianist Elliott Samson to not only expand on the great man’s themes, but also to include ‘Monkish’ phrasing indistinguishable from the originals. The leader at no time tried to play the Charlie Rouse tenor links to the pianist’s Monk. Here we had a player with his own sound, although crafted from a dynasty that seemed to include Coltrane, Rollins and Dexter Gordon, a very personal one. This was most apparent on a beautiful rendering of Frederick Lowe and Alan J Lerner’s great standard Almost Like Being in Love and a high tempo version of Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, a tune from way back in 1928 that never seems to age. This band seemed to be able to dissect and re-build any tune at will, this was very apparent on Bye Bye Blackbird which opened with a tenor and bass duet preceding a stunning piano solo that brought rapturous applause from all. It seemed that the bar for quality and invention was being raised for every number, so it proved once again for one of the most recorded and performed tunes of all time, George Gershwin’s Summertime from Porgy And Bess. Here Shivraj Singh took the early honours with a jaw dropping bass solo, reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison’s days with Coltrane. What followed from all players was a complete re-working of this classic piece, so refreshing that it sounded like a song of today and not 1935 when it was composed. The evening closed with an extended reprise of the leader’s own original Moving Ladywood from the 2018 award winning performance plus a rip roaring finale covering Dexter Gordon’s arrangement of yet another Lerner and Lowe classic It’s You Or No One.
It had been a night of superb jazz from a great quartet, their next port of call was to be the Love Supreme festival at Glynde. They should have felt most at home.
Photo by Anya Arnold