REVIEW: Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet at 1000 Trades, Birmingham

Tony Kofi, Joel Prime and Alina Bzhezhinska at 1000 Trades
Photo credit: © Brian Homer

Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet
(Birmingham Jazz 1000 Trades 27 April 2018. Review and photos by Brian Homer)

In the history of jazz there have been few harpists. In the past I have heard Casper Reardon – he was probably the first to play jazz on the harp before WW2. Then there was Adele Girard who played with her probably better-known husband Joe Marsala. And that’s part of the problem, the harp itself is not often thought of as a jazz instrument and it’s played mainly by women who have notoriously often been marginalised in jazz.

A few others have played harp including Dorothy Ashby and Betty Glamman and more recently Zeena Parkins and Brandee Younger. But the player most of us will mark is Alice Coltrane. She was John Coltrane’s second wife and originally a pianist, it was John who had a harp made for her but he sadly died before it was delivered. Alice herself went on to revolutionise the playing of the harp in jazz.

Which brings us to Friday’s gig at Birmingham Jazz. Appropriately it was the first gig in this year’s Legends Festival which focusses on celebrating women in jazz. Leading the quartet from the harp was Alina Bzhezhinska with fellow luminaries Tony Kofi on soprano and tenor saxophone, Larry Bartley on bass and Joel Prime on drums.

It was spectacular from the first notes. The music is all from their new and first CD Inspirations which celebrates Alice Coltrane by featuring some of her music together with some of Alina’s originals and After The Rain by John Coltrane.

An accomplished classical virtuoso Alina first came to notice in the jazz world a couple of years ago playing in a trio with Tony Kofi and Enzo Zirilli. When she decided to investigate the music of Alice Coltrane, Joel Prime replaced Zirilli on drums and just before they played at Birmingham Jazz last year Larry Bartley also joined on bass.

Larry Bartley
Photo credit: © Brian Homer
This has proved to be a really successful line up and it the one on the CD. Both Larry and Alina often allow the strings to vibrate and Larry's muscular technique complements Alina’s expressive and musically and visually stunning playing. Talking to Larry, he referred to notes being circular and how he likes to allow the whole note to form and resonate. And this is what also happens when Alina allows one or more strings to vibrate while going on to pluck other strings.

Watching and listening to the band play is mesmerising. Kofi channels Coltrane with circular figures and impassioned runs and patterns. Larry is one of the most distinctive bass players on the scene with the ability to bend notes while maintaining the essential underpinning of the music. And Prime is a drummer who is rock steady, rhythmically strong and unflashy but whose contribution is not to be understated. And then there is Alina, who plays the bulky harp as if it’s something smaller, like a zither. Her hands make striking patterns and the sounds are incredible. She even gets some bluesy tones by vibrating one of the three pedals which normally change an octave when fully pressed.

Together with Kofi’s brilliant sax playing and Prime’s flexible but strong pulse they create a unique soundscape that is by turns lyrical, funky and spacey with some harsher tones – but always extremely listenable. It’s jazz but not the tune/solos/tune standard approach – there are solos but the overriding impression is of a musical journey with shifting feelings and each piece being complete and the ensemble playing exemplary and fascinating.

Alina Bzhezhinska
Photo credit: © Brian Homer
They played all the music from the CD in the same order as it all forms a kind of programmed suite. Wisdom Eye, Blue Nile and Los Caballos by Alice Coltrane were followed by Alina’s own tunes Spero, Annoying SemitonesWinter Moods, Following A Lovely Sky Boat and Lemky (based on music from her Caucasian mountain ancestry). Then After The Rain by John Coltrane was followed by Journey In Satchidananda by Alice.

At one point during a particularly fierce solo Alina broke a high string and we had the bonus, while she replaced it, of a heart-felt trio rendition of John Coltrane’s Alabama about the incident in 1963 when four black girls were killed and 14 other people injured when a racist bombed a church.

If you get a chance to see this band, take it. You won’t be disappointed.

LINKS: Alina Bzhezhinska’s website 

Birmingham Jazz’s Legends Festival – Celebrating Women in Jazz continues on 11 and 12 May with a final weekend on 18/19/20 May 

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