Alina Bzhezhinska and Tony Kofi
Livestream from Alina’s house
Sunday 22nd March, 2020
‘Unprecedented’ is the word of the moment, but there is nothing new under the sun. In 1918, at the dawn of the jazz age, the Spanish flu swept the world with devastating consequences, due in part to the authorities’ failure to recognise the gravity of the situation and take appropriate measures. Then, as now, cultural life suffered collateral damage – on October 18th 1918, in one of the birthplaces of jazz, Chicago’s Emergency Commission declared that “all public gatherings not essential, such as banquets, conventions, lectures, social affairs, athletic contests, of a public nature be stopped. Music, cabarets and other entertainments be stopped in restaurants and cafes. Crowding prohibited in poolrooms, saloons, etc.” Thus was the development of jazz put on hold til the aftermath.
Back then, viral transmission was still not understood. Now we have all the resources of virology at hand to combat the disease: and we have new resources to combat the collateral damage to our cultural life as well. Jazz is a forward thinking art form and jazz musicians have been quick to take advantage of our new digital affordances of social media as well, and so, even in the first days of our new restrictions, the virtual gig is rapidly becoming a thing.
Thus it is that we are welcomed into Alina’s living room for a Facebook livestream of her duetting with regular collaborator Tony Kofi. The parlour recitation is an ancient form of presentation, pre-dating the paid gig: the livestream is a new phenomenon, a new mediation for an old tradition with its own unique array of opportunities and difficulties. One evolving convention seems to be the opening shot of one of the performers leaning into the camera and asking the other “Is it working? I can’t tell if it’s working properly!” before returning back to their station: the domestic setting can sometimes intrude, as when Alina has to repeatedly break off to field calls from her mum (it’s also Mother’s day), and on my stream there’s a noticeable latency between sound and image so that the musicians seem to be playing catchup with themselves. The conventions of performance have yet to be established: Alina announces the tunes, and Tony stands up to take his solos, like in a regular gig, but there’s also a lot of relaxed domestic banter of the sort that wouldn’t happen on a stage, and of course while we can hear the performers, they cannot hear us or our applause. Our presence can be detected via the live comments in the right hand bar (people log on from across Europe, and wherever else the timezone permits) and via the limited range of emoticons upon which you can click, to release them so that they float like little bubbles of acknowledgement across the performer’s faces. Thumbs up, heart, laughing, surprised, sad, angry – that’s the range of our demonstrative emotional response to the music.
How about the music itself? A pair of Alice Coltrane compositions to start: one a brief harp solo, then a rendition of the magisterial Blue Nile. The impact of Tony Kofi’s entrance with the mournful, keening theme cuts through the digital blur, his thick, chunky tone and unsentimental phrasing conveying the power of the moment. The subtleties of Alina’s technique can be perceived at a distance: her use of harmonics, the tonal variations up and down the string, the powerful bass from her left hand are all present cutting through the haze. Evan Eisenberg in his book The Recording Angel recounts how 19th century audiences were entranced by the wax cylinder and shellac disc recordings they listened to, despite the approximate reproductions offered by these primitive technologies: the brain can make up the deficit of information so that the performer’s intent can still be detected, and so it is tonight. A Dorothy Ashby soul-boogaloo number keeps its funk, thanks to Tony’s big-toned, rhythmic tenor: Alina’s own Spero is a mellow ballad well-suited to the Sunday night occasion: Tyners’s Contemplation is performed in honour of the late composer, despite further telephonic interruption from Mrs Bzhezhinska mère, with Tony showing the strength and purity of his upper register on tenor in a suitably powerfully charged rendition: his solo, switching between fast fluent runs and jagged bluesy melodic fragments, illustrating yet again what an original voice he is, and the velvety power of his low notes hum across the bandwidth.
As the evening progresses, the players relax into the informal oddness of the occasion. Tony even takes to the harp for a portion of Afro Blue as Alina pounds a djembe, but there’s no mistaking the commitment of their performances when they return to their primary axes for some extended declamatory soloing. After a heartfelt plea for us all to support each other through whatever the coming months may bring, they finish with a totally focussed rendition of After The Rain. Alina’s harp is stately and sonorous, Tony’s sax tough and unclichéd, devoid of schmaltz but equally neither cerebral, nor abstract, but earthily rooted in feeling. It’s a much needed message of hope: let’s hear more.
You can view a recording of the live stream on Alina Bzhezhinska’s Facebook page here.
Live stream photos: screenshots taken by Lisa Wormsley.