First making a name for himself on the British jazz scene in '91 as a member of the high profile young Turks the Jazz Warriors, Tony Kofi went on to guest with a wide variety of artists during the first half of the '90sfrom the David Murray Big Band, Jazz Jamaica and Eddie Henderson to Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepabefore joining the Township Express Orchestra and Tim Richards' Great Spirit, both of which he continues to play with. He is a red blooded and muscular soloist in whom Charlie Parker's wild, unruly tone is often writ enjoyably large, and who is also capable of moments of delicate, tender lyricism. His first horn is the alto, but he also plays soprano and an earthy yet fleet fingered baritone (more Leo Parker than Gerry Mulligan).
Incrediblyand rather shamingly for the British record businessthis is Kofi's first release as leader, a full thirteen years after his emergence with the Warriors. But that's another story, and an old one.
The Tony Kofi Quartet, the members of which began woodshedding the Thelonious Monk songbook together in '00, debuted in fall '03 at the London Jazz Festival with a marathon six hour set in which they played every one of Monk's seventy known written compositions. The Quartet is part of the larger Monk Liberation Front ensembleco-led by Kofi, pianist Jonathan Gee and composer Philip Clarkdedicated to bringing Monk's oeuvre to new audiences while also commissioning original work informed by Monk's legacy and spirit.
So Kofi and his colleagues have paid their dues and spent plenty time getting inside the head of their spirit guide. And Plays Monk (All Is Know) itself is a blast: a respectful (without being slavishly so) and insightful celebration of fourteen of Monk's compositions. Unlike some albums given over entirely to Monk's works, for instance Esbjorn Svensson Trio's own excellent Plays Monk, the Quartet mix up some of the best known Monk standards with lesser known gems, some which many listeners will probably be hearing for the first time here. Half of the tracks feature the core alto-led quartet, while the other half ring the changes with a string arrangement (Philip Clark's sepulchral chart for "Ugly Beauty"), or with Kofi playing other saxophones (the closing "Monk's Mood" on unaccompanied baritone is especially memorable), or with a guest artist. (Orphy Robinson's lovely marimba on "Misterioso," at 9'01" the longest track on the albumand a reminder of how well tuned percussion fits into Monk's work, probably because, without decrying his harmonic or melodic genius, Monk often approached the piano as a piece of tuned percussion.)
Not only the first own-name album for Tony Kofi, Plays Monk (All Is Know) is also the first release on Proper Records' contemporary Specific Jazz imprintand it's an auspicious, hugely enjoyable and thoroughly convincing new beginning on both fronts.
Personnel: Tony Kofi, alto, soprano and baritone saxes; Jonathan Gee, piano; Ben Hazleton, bass; Winston Clifford, drums; Orphy Robinson, marimba; Reiad Chibah, viola; Andrew Joyce, cello; Madeleine Easton, violin.