REVIEW: Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet plays Alice Coltrane at the Vortex

Tony Kofi, Alina Bzhezhinska and Larry Bartley
Photo credit: Mustafa Gold


Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet
(Vortex, 28 August 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)

Increasingly regarded as a musical and spiritual visionary, for Alice Coltrane there was more to music than just great playing. She was already an accomplished professional pianist when she met John Coltrane in 1963. They married in 1965, and shared a profound bond. She is remembered for the albums she made in the decade following his death in 1967. These albums are characterized not by piano, but by an instrument less familiar in jazz, the harp, which she taught herself after John’s death. John had bought the harp intending to broaden his thinking about harmony and texture, but it would take a year to make. By the time it arrived at their home in Dix Hills, New York, John had passed away. As Alice’s spiritual impetus deepened in the shadow of that loss she moved away from standard jazz, toward more transcendental moods, reaching for truths beyond the veil of life and death.

For the late Alice Coltrane’s 80th birthday, BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up last week devoted an entire show to her life, work and influence. This year Ukrainian/Polish harp player Alina Bzhezhinska has led the field in performing Alice’s work with performances including Jazz in the Round in May and last weekend on Jazz FM’s The Blueprint with Chris Philips in the run-up to her quartet’s celebratory performance at the Vortex, a fine tribute that attracted a diverse audience.

Alina Bzhezhinska is an accomplished soloist who has previously recorded an album ranging classical, jazz and folk styles. She is technically innovative in her use of the harp’s key pedal and pinched harmonics to jolt surprises into its typically dream-like washes of notes. Her original tune Annoying Semitones is inspired by Alice and John’s deep love. It shares that enigmatic mood you also find in Ravi Coltrane and others who understand that the Coltrane influence is a feeling, more a spatial thing than a gazetteer of technical or musical innovations.

Alina’s interest in Alice Coltrane’s music is fairly recent. The young player admits that when she heard Alice Coltrane’s music a decade ago she wasn’t ready for it, but after an invitation from Shabaka Hutchings to play Alice’s tune Journey in Satchinanananda at Brilliant Corners a year ago says “I was hooked!” Shortly after this she met the redoubtable saxophonist Tony Kofi, and Larry Bartley (bass) and Joel Prime (drums) completed the synergy of this fantastic quartet. They display an endearing enjoyment of each other’s playing with an often subtle interplay and a sense of one unit rather than it being a showcase for the harp. Alina enthuses, “Every time we take this journey, every time is different— it’s amazing!”

At the Vortex, Alina begins with one of Alice Coltrane’s signature statements for solo harp, Wisdom Eye, sensitive to its subtle nuances of texture and feeling, before the group taps into Blue Nile, a reflective groove from Alice’s third album Ptah, the El Daoud, a tune and an album reflecting Alice’s growing interest in mythology. Isis and Osiris is the story of an Egyptian Queen and her lover who dies. She is devastated and wants to bring him back to life. In time, she succeeds. It is a poignant allegory for Alice’s devastation at losing John and her commitment to continuing his work as a kind of resurrection. Her first albums were all recorded in the studio they had planned together, the studio that, like the harp, John didn’t live to see.

The harp has a vitally different chordal texture to the piano, making it interesting to hear two selections from John Coltrane’s landmark album Giant Steps (released in 1960 but recorded in that year of jazz years 1959). As on that album, the group follow Syeeda’s Song Flute with the standard Naima, announced as “a special tune we don’t need to announce”. They rework the ballad into a smooth groove given a subtle bossa vibe by Alina’s vamping and Kofi on tenor. Their reading has a charmingly dainty, whisperingly delicate, sense of affection (though it is, we note with affection, a tune dedicated to another woman: Coltrane’s previous wife Juanita Naima Grubbs).

In After The Rain the harp glissandi perfectly stir the undulations of the tune. It seems to breathe in and out; you can smell the petrichor on the breeze. Closing with plucked harmonics, the tune’s sense of dewy stillness is a familiar aspect of both Coltranes’ later music. Lovely Sky Boat, taken from Alice’s anguished first album A Monastic Trio, is a beautiful blue bubble sailing close to a storm, filling up with tears as Alina’s glissandi zither up and down the strings.

Tony Kofi is fast-moving lava on Joe Henderson’s Fire. This amazing saxophonist has a rich and fulsome tone and command of Coltranesque extrapolations from deep blues to strenuous clouds of notes and circular abrasions in the upper register of the horn. He has some of that knack of making thematic permutations that somehow perfectly recall the material but strip it apart to its heart and soul at the same time. Joel Prime doesn’t splash about in his drum solo, tightly adhering to the discipline of dynamic snare control taking it down and bringing it up to huge applause. Alice’s riffy Los Caballos features Larry Bartley in a double bass solo that pleasingly echoes techniques Alina has shown us on the harp.

On Journey in Satchinanananda Alina remarkably integrates the album’s double use of the melodic and chordal harp and the tamboura, the long-necked Indian string drone instrument, into her harp playing. The sound is further enriched by Bartley and Prime’s disciplined rootedness that adds depth and texture so as to release ascensions in the upper register. Er Ra a meditative song with harp accompaniment from World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda which was released to great excitement earlier this year. Apart from her 2004 album Translinear Light any music Alice recorded since the end of the seventies until her death in 2007 only appeared on cassette tapes rather than formal releases. It’s amazing stuff but naturally obeys spiritual rather than musical concerns. Alina makes the inspired choice to substitute soprano sax for Alice’s chanting. The result is mesmerising, and, much like life, too short...

Encore The Hymn is taken from Translinear Light, which was produced by her son Ravi with Oren Coltrane on alto sax. At the Vortex, after the fire, this family affair makes a contemplative close to an evening of many moods and shades. The sounds fade away, the notes of the harp slip into silence, clouds disperse, and love remains. We live in the eternity of Alice Coltrane. Datta, dayadhvam, damyata.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

Alina Bzezhinska Quartet will be recording in September. Her solo harp album is available from her website

Related events coming up at the Vortex: Gilad Atzmon Plays John Coltrane - Thur 31 Aug + Fri 1 Sep LINK

SET AND BAND LISTS

FIRST SET

1. Wisdom Eye / Blue Nile (Eternity 1975/ Ptah, The El Daoud 1970)
2. Syeeda’s Song Flute (John Coltrane, Giant Steps 1960)
3. Naima (John Coltrane, Giant Steps 1960)
4. Isis and Osiris (Journey in Satchidananda 1971)
5. After the Rain (John Coltrane, Impressions 1963)

SECOND SET

1. Lovely Sky Boat (A Monastic Trio 1968)
2. Annoying Semitones (Alina Bzezhinska)
3. Er Ra (The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda 2017)
4. Los Caballos (Eternity 1975)
5. Journey in Satchidananda (Journey in Satchidananda 1971)
6. Fire (Joe Henderson, The Elements 1973)
7. The Hymn (Translinear Light 2004)

PERSONNEL

Alina Bzhezhinska (harp)
Tony Kofi (saxophones)
Larry Bartley (bass)
Joel Prime (drums)

Sound engineer: Ali Ward

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