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Remembering Kofi Burbridge: 1961-2019

Alan Bryson By

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"Kofi has always been my doorway to that, specific voicings at any given time that are absolutely perfect for that moment in time, it’s really uncanny." Oteil Burbridge
Kofi Burbridge, keyboardist, flutist, arranger, and composer with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, passed away on February 15, 2019 at the age of 57. His health issues became public in the summer of 2017 when he underwent emergency heart surgery. Things seemed hopeful after his return to the band and his participation in the recording of what was to be his final album with the TTB. The aptly titled Signs, in a seeming display of cosmic synchronicity, was released on the day of Kofi's passing—giving fans a deeply personal way to grieve and celebrate his contribution to the music.

His life was an incredible musical odyssey on a road that literally stretched millions of miles. It began early, as his brother Oteil Burbridge explained to me in a 2015 interview. Kofi's teacher recognized his perfect pitch and musical gift when he was seven years old. Their father was a flutist himself, and utterly enamored with music. He had struggled with the decision to become a professional musician, but sensed he might not have the requisite talent. He opted instead for family and stability, and was understandably ecstatic when told that Kofi was musically gifted. Their father had an extensive music collection and their home was alive with music. The children were learning multiple instruments, and their father had instilled in them his passion for music.



When it came time for high school Kofi left Washington D.C. to study classical flute at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. While there he got into Chick Corea and began to focus on piano and jazz. In the years after graduation Kofi gigged around the Southeast. Eventually Oteil joined him in Atlanta as part of the band Knee-Deep which also included Jeff Sipe on drums. Thanks to Jeff Sipe, in the late 80s, Kofi and Oteil came into the orbit of Bruce Hampton—to whom the TTB album Signs was dedicated.

Oteil joined Hampton's Aquarium Rescue Unit and Kofi ended up in an R&B band which, long before the TTB, exposed him to touring and major venues, albeit as part of an opening act. A few years later Kofi too would join the ARU, but this was after Bruce Hampton had moved on.

Although he officially joined the Derek Trucks Band in 1999, his association with Derek Trucks goes back even further. The Southern music scene enjoys a fluid family quality and Kofi sat in with the Derek Trucks Band many times over the years before he officially joined. In fact, in 1998 Kofi joined Frogwings, which, with the benefit of hindsight, was actually a band worthy of the "super-group" moniker. Frogwings had been formed a year earlier by Butch Trucks, the Allman Brothers Band drummer. In 1998 the revamped lineup included: John Popper [of Blues Traveler] on vocals and harmonica, Jimmy Herring on lead guitar, Derek Trucks on slide and lead guitar, Oteil Burbridge on bass, Kofi Burbridge on flute and keyboards, and Marc Quinones of the Allman Brothers Band on percussion.

When the Derek Trucks Band's keyboard player moved on in 1999, Kofi was the obvious replacement choice—the rest, as they say, is history. By 2002 Kofi's influence on the next Derek Trucks Band release, Joyful Noise, was unmistakable. He co-wrote four songs, and wrote two, including "Like Anyone Else" sung by R&B legend Solomon Burke. As the DTB was winding down in 2009, I mentioned to Derek Trucks in an interview that Miles Davis liked to have disparate musicians in his band, such as John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, believing the clash of styles or ideas could spur creativity. Cannonball did something similar in his band with Yusef Lateef and Joe Zawinul, and I asked Derek who in his band was closest to him in terms of musical tastes, and who pulled him the most in a different direction. He replied that Mike Mattison was closest in term of taste, and Kofi was the one who stretched him the most in different directions. Interestingly, when the TTB was formed not long thereafter Mike and Kofi were the DTB members he retained.

For fans of the Derek Trucks Band and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Kofi's presence, both physically and musically, is indelibly etched in their memories. He was such an integral part of the group that it's difficult to imagine the band without him. It's probably impossible to grasp the influence Kofi had on the musicians he worked with, beginning with his brother Oteil. Kofi turned him on to Jaco Pastorius and cleverly used fusion to introduce Oteil to jazz. It was Kofi who bought a bass guitar and left it at home when he went away to school—a decision which changed Oteil's life.

In August of 2018 I published an abridged print version of my 2015 audio interview with Oteil Burbridge. There's an exchange which wasn't included in the print version that relates to Kofi. In a question I mentioned Jimmy Herring had told me Oteil's understanding of chord harmonics and his resulting choices made him hear his own solos in a whole new way, and that Jeff Sipe had mentioned that because Oteil also plays drums, he plays bass so it doesn't step on what the drummer is doing—he too felt that allowed him to connect with Oteil in a whole different way. Oteil's response is illustrative of the impact Kofi Burbridge had on other musicians:

Oteil Burbridge: "I can tell you all of that comes from Kofi Burbridge. His gifts with rhythm and his understanding of harmony, I'm still trying to catch up with it, and when I play with him—if people haven't heard me play with Kofi, they haven't really heard me play. For real, I've had people come up to me when I was with TTB and say, 'Dude, I already knew you were a good bassist, but this is like something different.' And I'd say, yeah, this is because I'm playing with Kofi, and what I'm doing now is within a context, and you can hear it. He's just amazing, and he's still teaching me about harmony, and harmony is fascinating because it's mathematical and it's also part physics, but then there's this emotional and spiritual part, and that's the fascinating part, why does it make you feel this way? (Laughs) I guess the quantum physics part. And Kofi has always been my doorway to that, specific voicings at any given time that are absolutely perfect for that moment in time, it's really uncanny."



On a personal note, I had the opportunity to see Kofi play on eight different occasions. The most memorable was the Derek Trucks Band's first concert in Germany. In 2005 they were hardly known in Europe, and had been booked for three concerts in the Netherlands in conjunction with a radio station, and two concerts in Berlin and Bremen also in association with radio stations. A wealthy hardcore Allman Brothers fan from Southern Bavaria noticed a break in the schedule, and quickly organized a show in a community center in a small town near his home.

He paid the band their going rate, but didn't have time to adequately promote the impromptu event. An email chain of serious music fans brought together about 40 people, and about 35 curious locals from the town showed up not knowing what to expect. I was lucky enough to be there and convinced a somewhat skeptical jazz promoter from Switzerland to meet me there.

The band understood the financial sacrifice this dedicated fan had made, and knew the small group of fans had traveled from all over Europe to this small town to support them. They were determined to put on the show of their lives, and they did. It was a small venue which that night seemed more like a large living room. Many of the guests recognized each other from previous shows, so it had the feel of a relaxed private party. That was a magical and unforgettable evening.

On that first tour the band had been remarkably accessible. Offstage Kofi had a natural grace and dignity, and he was friendly and engaging in conversation. Onstage he was intuitive and his flute solos were definitely highlights, I had the good fortune to hear him play "Afro Blue" several times and it was always an experience.

Finally, when the evening was over the Swiss jazz promoter ended up buying a CD and got the entire band it sign it.

Photo: YouTube screen capture with effects by A.Bryson
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