Harpist Bzhezhinska strums up whole-hearted homage to the Coltrane legacy

 Coltrane-Tribute

One of the capital's lesser known jazz venues, Toulouse Lautrec, within walking distance of both Elephant & Castle and Kennington tubes, has nonetheless steadily burnished its credentials over a number of years. With the piano bar on the first floor and the loft club on the second there are two stages for a range of gigs, and its new showcase of Guildhall students reflects the establishment's eye on the future.

Having said that, the appearance of Ukrainian-Polish harpist Alina Bzhezhinska tonight celebrates heritage in a number of ways. Her band is an A-list multi-generational ensemble that brings together mid-career masters, saxophonist Tony Kofi, flautist Gareth Lockrane and double bassist Larry Bartley, alongside emerging players, guitarist Ed Riches and drummer Joel Prime, to celebrate the music of both John and Alice Coltrane. This is an unusual if not unique concept as the husband and wife are mostly seen as separate artistic entities, but the performance highlights the profound creative empathy that bound them as well as the strong personality of each.

The notable anniversaries – 50 years since John's passing and 10 since Alice's – become something of an irrelevance given the timelessness of the repertoire, and it is indeed the spellbinding modal structures, their relentless, unbroken circular motion so hard to resist, that defines most of the arrangements. Alice's glissandi on the harp were almost like the swaying and whispering of branches in the wind, and Bzhezhinska's superlative touch on the instrument does her role model proud, as can be heard on the opening late 1960s anthems 'Lovely Sky Boat' and 'Blue Nile', though she is equally incisive on John's quite mesmeric 'Equinox.' The absence of lingering left hand piano chords is well compensated by the strength of Bartley's tone as well as the heft of Kofi's tenor, which he pushes towards the low end of the instrument, sometimes broaching the register of the baritone, which he plays more regularly. On a few occasions this is problematic as the unison work of the horn and alto flute conspires to sadly drown out the harp, whose valuable detail is lost among the heavier resonances. Yet there is also great sensitivity in the handling of most of the material, particularly Alice's anthems 'Journey In Satchidadanda' and 'Isis And Osiris', whose majestic quality is enhanced by the hovering, almost airborne character of the legato phrases from the ensemble.

The gig really hits a peak on the songs where the band brings to the fore a facet of the Coltranes that is often overlooked in the prevailing narrative of their lives: dance. Both had come of age through the big-band era and the dynamics of swing and the blues were not alien to them. A very hard-hitting version of Joe Henderson's 'Fire', on which Alice played, is thus an astute choice, but it is the wily recasting of John's 'Naima' as a quite enchanting samba that has the audience rapt. Prime's swish, skipping rimshots are a very effective foil to Bzhezinska's lush chording as Lockrane and Kofi convey the deep romanticism of the theme by way of those familiarly serene, sigh-like whole notes. The use of an Afro-Brazilian rhythm is an inspired sub-text to the evening, a reminder of the all-consuming interest that the Coltranes took in the music of the black Diaspora, as well as the Indian sub-continent. Their pursuit of a 'universal sound' never felt more contemporary, as this performance convincingly showed.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Nassim Rad

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