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Alina Bzhezhinska: Inspiration

Chris May By

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Among the highpoints of London's 2017 jazz diary was the Barbican Centre's A Concert for Alice and John. The event commemorated the 50th and 10th anniversaries of the passing of John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane. It was headlined by Pharoah Sanders, the most distinguished surviving member of bands led by the Coltranes, who turned in an unforgettable set which ranged from an exquisite "A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square" through a fiery North Africanised version of John Coltrane's "Olé" featuring Moroccan oud player Mohammed Ahmed. But the magic began at the very start of the evening...

A Concert for Alice and John was opened by harpist Alina Bzhezhinska and her quartet. Still on the first rungs of her career, Bzhezhinska was brought up in Poland and Ukraine, and now divides her time between London and Edinburgh (she teaches harp at Goldsmith's University, London and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Edinburgh). She has already worked with some of Britain's most singular musicians, including Django Bates and Henry Wu, aka Kamaal Williams, whose jazz-meets-hip-hop workout The Return (Black Focus), previously reviewed here, is lighting up 2018. Bzhezhinska has a formidable technique which includes conjuring an unusually wide range of timbral qualities from the often monochrome harp. She is further equipped with something you cannot learn: soul, which she has in spades.

Inspiration is Bzhezhinska's debut album and it is a corker. She fronts the same band with which she performed at the Barbican—saxophonist Tony Kofi, drummer Joel Prime and double bassist Larry Bartley. All three musicians shine, but Bartley is Bzhezhinska's key foil. He came to attention in London in the late 1990s and early 2000s in bands led by saxophonists Denys Baptiste, Steve Williamson, Soweto Kinch and Ingrid Laubrock. Bartley can be light on his feet or viscerally intense and on Inspiration he deftly accompanies Bzhezhinska back and forth between both poles.

Inspiration is both a tribute to Alice Coltrane and the calling card of an exciting new talent. Bzhezhinska gets deep inside Coltrane's music without ever losing her own identity. "Nothing [in Alice's music] is written down," she wrote in her Barbican programme note, "so it took quite a while to learn her melodies by ear and analyse what she was doing with them. So when we play 'Blue Nile,' for example, it starts with Alice's signature glissandi, but we then put our interpretation and influences into it. Trying to play it note for note is not what she would like us to do. It would go against her idea of free jazz."

The tunes on Inspiration are a mixture of originals and familiar favourites from the Alice and John Coltrane songbooks, and it all hangs together beautifully. True solace for the soul.

Postscript: Sanders and Bzhezhinska's sets at the Barbican sandwiched a blinder from Denys Baptiste (whose performance also benefited from Bartley's presence). Baptiste's The Late Trane (Edition) was itself a landmark event in 2017. The album focused on the often challenging work John Coltrane recorded during the final years of his life, with Baptiste successfully searching out and developing the melodicism within it. All that is now needed for nirvana is a new Coltrane-themed album from Pharoah Sanders. Meanwhile, his Crescent With Love (Evidence, 1994) still hits the spot.

Track Listing: Wisdom Eye; Blue Nile; Los Caballos; Spero; Annoying Semitones; Winter Moods; Following A Lovely Sky Boat; Lemky; After The Rain; Journey In Satchidananda.

Personnel: Alina Bzhezhinska: harp; Tony Kofi: soprano saxophone (tracks 2, 4, 7, 10), tenor saxophone (tracks 3, 8, 9); Larry Bartley: double bass (tracks 2-10); Joel Prime: drums and percussion (tracks 1-3, 5-10).

Title: Inspiration | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Ubuntu Music

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