ALBUM REVIEW/DOMINIC VALVONA

Xhosa Cole ‘K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us’
(Stoney Lane Records)  30th July 2021

Collecting an enviable array of accolades already, at such an early point in their career, the Jazz FM Breakthrough Artist of the Year in 2020 and BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year in 2018 tipped saxophonist Xhosa Cole, can boast quite a resume. With it however comes great expectations and anticipation.

Xhosa certainly has the skills, as shown when performing at the BBC Proms and at Ronnie Scotts’; rubbing shoulders with the UK’s stalwart jazz luminary Courtney Pine and Monty Alexander. There’s also been the most congruous of guest spots on both Soweto Kinch’s The Black Peril and the R&B songwriter Machalia’s Love And Compromise albums.

That’s the professional CV out of the way. Let’s now talk about Xhosa’s formative years, exposed to the African-American progenitors of jazz. Various anecdotal experiences that unleashed a passion in the saxophonist are channeled into this debut album of jazz standards reinterpretations; and surprisingly a number of smoother 1920s romantic serenades from the great American songbook,

Through a contemporary ‘black British lens’, as it’s framed, K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us (which adopts and repurposes Dizzy Gillespie’s original homage quote about Louis Armstrong: ‘no him, no me’) is a largely faithful attempt to capture the spark, joy and essence of creating something new with old jazz favorites. Although loaded with a biography in the press spill, with all good intentional references to Xhosa’s LGBTQIA+ community identity, the issues of race, and campaigns to help black hopefuls to get a decent break in the music industry, this album isn’t so much a cry for justice, opportunity and equality but a very decent, sometimes exceptional, transformation from a different, contemporary perspective of jazz music that in its own way was just as fresh, dynamic and game changing back in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. An expression of fluidity and freedom you could say that finds room to expand and play with the original signatures of those seven classic compositions.





Joining Xhosa on this homage to the greats, the innovators, and sweet spot inspirations are Jay Phelps on trumpet, James Owston on double bass and James Bashford on drums. This set up is further expanded with guest spots from fellow Birmingham jazz talents, the already mentioned saxophonist Kinch and pianist Reuben James. All of who prove as adroit, masterful and dynamic as their focal bandleader.
 
It all begins with a free rolling NYC style skyline tooted and spiralled horns version of Woody Shaw’s Hungarian folk opera and Lydian mode free jazz march ‘Zoltan’. Originally the kick starter on the organist Larry Young’s iconic ‘post-bop’ classic Unity, for the equally iconic Blue Note label in ’66, Xhosa and quartet turn it inside out with dry spit rasping horns, splashes and cushioned tight drilled drum rolls. They do however maintain the core drive and melodies of the original.
 
The great innovator extraordinaire and saxophone god Ornette Coleman, has his turn-of-the-60s ‘Blues Connotation’ composition injected with a well-oiled dynamism that feels quite faithful to the source again. Appearing on Coleman’s fifth album, This Is Our Music, with his quartet, that track followed a thematic concept; blending all the various strands of group improvisation, from Dixie to the progressive, and of course the blues and swing. This take of that class performance skips, quickens and even rushes along to that same set of influences, both wildly and in step; loose and fluted; swinging and abstract.
 
Another of the great jazz progenitors, Thelonious Monk sees his ’59 ‘Played Twice’ composition handled with care by the quartet. The original of course featured on Monk and his quintet’s (hence the album riffed title) 5 By Monk By 5 album. With a dash of be-bop swing and leaning towards Dizzy, this contemporary version seems to be constantly on the move in a dot-dash like progression.
 
Album finale, ‘Untitled Boogaloo’ by the fatalistic trumpet demigod Lee Morgan also gets into the swing of things; Boogaloo alright, bordering on driving R&B and Stax like soul. The original appears on a couple of posthumously released late 70 albums (on the Blue Note catalogue), but was recorded a decade before. A real hot-stepper groove, Xhosa uses it to announce and credit each member of his band; all of who get a little solo spot. Just as cool, rambunctious and fun, the ensemble makes a great job of it.
 
In a less busy mode, and playing to the romantic in Xhosa, there’s a trio of pre-war standards. The oldest of which, ‘Manhattan’, first appeared in the Garrick Gaieties revue of ’25. Composed by Richard Rodgers with words by Lorenz Hart, this meandrous jolly lovers budget tour of the city skit made lyrical “delights” out of Manhattan’s least desirable spots and cheap side landmarks: “We’ll turn Manhattan into an Isle Of Joy”. Wordless on this occasion, the quartet play hard and fast with the original score; refashioning the piano parts to resemble Oscar Peterson’s idiosyncratic touch rather than roaring 20s gaiety. It must be stated at this point that James’ pianist skills are very, very good; with keyboard patterns that seem to flow like a waterfall, merged with more loosened trills, dabs and off-kilter singular stabs.   
 
A moonlit serenade, Tadd Dameron’s (in this version arranged by W. Markham) bluesy caress, ‘On A Misty Night’, is played with a tenderness. This legendary composer and arranger worked with a litany of the crème de crème: from Count Basie through to Coltrane and Dizzy. And this song has been reinterpreted by the best of them to in the past, with Xhosa’ version sailing closest to the latter of those great names.
 
Also close to Xhosa’s heart is Bob Haggart’s original 30s torch song, ‘What’s New’, which a year after its initial unveiling by Bob Crosby and his Orchestra saw Johnny Burke add ‘casual conversational lovers’ style lyrics. Again, covered by a litany of legends, from Louis Armstrong to Dexter Gordon, and made extra special and stirring by Billie Holiday, Xhosa and guests conjure up a sentimental enough and elegant performance of wandering languorous yearned saxophone and walking basslines. 
 
If anything, all these reinterpretations prove just how innovative and even pleasurable the source material was, and still is. And this album remains a touching, respectful tribute to those pleasures. There’s always enough space to chance something a little different and fresh; some individual flares, expansions and concentrated thrills. Despite all the outside motivations that are funnelled into this debut, it remains a loving homage to the unadulterated joys of discovering music in your formative years; especially something you can instantly relate to, or that makes the growing pains, woes and uncertainties of youth seem so much clearer: an inspiration rather than drawback. Whilst never personally really thinking at all about the sexuality of those that have gone before in the jazz community, Xhosa offers a fresh perspective, musical language in what is, at least from my experiences, still an overwhelmingly heterosexual male dominated scene: an extremely egotistical and snobby one at that.
 
What Xhosa does is now help to widen that community and scope, whilst still keeping faithful to the music. And what a talent Xhosa is; backed by a more than capable, in fact highly adroit, band that feels its way around a great legacy. One to keep an ear out for; the potential is great in this rising jazz star.

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

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