by Ian Mann
September 21, 2018
“Inspiration” goes far beyond the bounds of the usual jazz “tribute” album. Bzhezhinska’s own compositions more than hold their own alongside the classics from Alice and John Coltrane.
(Ubuntu Music UBU008)
Harpist Alina Bzhezhinska was born in the Ukraine and studied art and classical music in Poland and the USA before settling in London. She has performed internationally with many leading orchestras and opera companies and is also an acclaimed tutor of her chosen instrument with teaching posts in London and Glasgow.
The versatile Bzhezhinska has also established a successful career as a jazz harpist and has worked with saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and vocalist Niki King among others. She has twice recorded with the Stan Getz inspired New Focus ensemble co-led by the Scottish musicians Konrad Wiszniewski (saxophones) and Euan Stevenson (piano).
Bzhezhinska has also released her own album “Harp Recital” and recorded with the American harp ensemble Harp Fusion, but “Inspiration” represents her first one hundred per cent jazz recording. It’s an album that has attracted a compelling amount of critical acclaim and really put Bzhezhinska on the jazz map in Britain, and rightly so.
Released in June this year “Inspiration” was recorded in 2017 and represents Bzhezhinska’s tribute to the memories of John and Alice Coltrane. Saxophonist John died in 1967 and remains one of the most influential of all jazz artists. His widow, Alice, who died in 2007, was a pioneer of the jazz harp and a particularly significant source of inspiration for Bzhezhinska. “Inspiration”, the album, pays homage to them both, while celebrating the eightieth anniversary of Alice’s birth in 1937.
“I set myself on a mission to tell Alice and John Coltrane’s story in my own words, through my own interpretation of their music and through my own compositions. Coltrane is a true role model whose art was an example of endless potential and creative possibilities and whose life journey was dedicated to finding the meaning of human existence and universal consciousness”.
The ten pieces on “Inspiration” comprise of four compositions by Alice Coltrane, one by John, four Bzhezhinska originals and one group free improvisation. The quartet that Bzhezhinska has assembled for this project is an exceptional one with Tony Kofi featuring on soprano and tenor saxophones, Larry Bartley on double bass and Joel Prime on drums and percussion.
At the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival Bzhzhinska and her quartet appeared as part of a triple bill paying tribute to the Coltranes at an event billed as “A Concert for Alice and John”, The other acts were saxophonist Denys Baptiste with his Late Trane project and the veteran saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, a living link to the Coltranes themselves. The event was nominated for ‘Best Live Experience of The Year’ at the 2018 Jazz FM Awards.
Unsurprisingly Bzhezhinska’s album focusses on the style of ‘spiritual jazz’ that John and Alice pioneered, music that still holds a mesmeric pull for both jazz musicians and jazz listeners. Superbly supported by a team of fellow Coltrane devotees Bzhezhinska more than does justice to the memories of the Coltranes and their combined musical legacy. The playing is superb throughout with the quartet channelling the spirit of their heroes, but still bringing plenty of themselves to the performances. The inclusion of Bzhezhinska’s own material ensures that the music transcends any allegations of ‘mere copying’.
The album commences with a trio of Alice Coltrane compositions, the first “Wisdom Eye”, being a tour de force from Bzhezhinska on unaccompanied harp. Her sound encompasses a pianistic depth that embraces the full dynamic range and expressiveness of the instrument.
The piece segues almost seamlessly into the modality of “Blue Nile” which adds drums and bass, and finally Kofi’s stately, spiritual, John Coltrane style soprano. It’s Kofi that takes the first solo, stretching out on the style of his mentor. The colourful, other worldly timbres of Bzhezhinska’s harp provide an effective textural counterpoint.
The lively Latin flavours of “Los Caballos” feature Kofi on tenor and Prime on an exotic array of percussion. Played at a breakneck pace the unison riffs and melody lines are stunning with Bzhehinska’s harp again sounding almost pianistic at times. But there are freer moments too, including a powerful unaccompanied bass feature from Bartley mid tune.
Bzhezhinska’s first original composition offers a total contrast. “Spero” is a delightful, folk infused ballad played as a duet by Bzhezhinska and Kofi. The gentle ripple of the harp sounds like a mountain stream and contrasts well with the gentle melancholy of Kofi’s long, delicately probing soprano sax melody lines.
Also written by the leader “Annoying Semitones” adopts something of a Middle Eastern / North African feel, a reflection perhaps of Alice Coltrane’s fascination with Egyptology and other Eastern religions in the late 60s and early 70s. Occasionally there’s something of an Indian feel too, with the harp occasionally sounding a little sitar like. Played as a trio the piece emphasises Bzhezhinska’s virtuosity and versatility but there’s some terrific playing from Prime and Bartley too.
“Winter Moods” continues to find Bzhezhinska exploring her compositional voice. Bartley’s bass motif underpins the piece and there’s a fascinating dialogue between the leader’s harp and Prime’s delightfully detailed drums and percussion as Kofi again sits out. In many respects the piece is a feature for the drummer, and Prime acquits himself well with his wonderfully colourful playing.
“Following A Lovely Sky Boat” is credited as a group improvisation but ends up sounding something like a Coltrane composition. Bartley’s deep, grainy bowed bass contrasts well with the trills and shimmers of harp and percussion on the intro, but when the bassist puts down the bow he sets up an insistent pizzicato groove that forms the basis for Kofi’s probing soprano meditations. In a neat improvisational arc the piece comes full circle and finishes much as it began.
Bzhezhinska’s final original, “Lemky”, pays tribute to the tribe of that name from the Carpathian Mountains that was displaced from its homeland, never to return. Inspired by a piece of traditional music with the same name the melancholy sound of Bartley’s bowed bass again features on the intro and the piece is a fascinating amalgamation of folk inspired melody with the spiritual jazz style of the Coltranes. Kofi, on tenor, shares the solos with the leader on a piece that moves through several distinct phases, and at a little over eight minutes in length, forms one of the cornerstones of the album.
The quartet pay tribute to John Coltrane with his celebrated piece “After The Rain”. Bzhezhinska’s harp is the perfect foil to Kofi’s tenor sax incantations with Bartley also offering powerfully empathic support. Bzhezhinska says of the performance;
“John Coltrane’s ‘After The rain’ strikes me by its beauty, and I think it works wonderfully with the sound of rain and a storm that can be initiated on the harp so naturally”
The album concludes with a performance of Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchinananda”, a nine minute odyssey that begins with a lengthy passage of unaccompanied pizzicato double bass from the excellent Bartley. A dramatic cymbal crash from Prime initiates the next part of the tune with Bzhezhinska reproducing Alice Coltrane’s trademark harp glissandi as Kofi embarks on a lengthy, searching soprano sax exploration, underpinned by a rolling, modal groove and Bzhezhinska’s ever evolving harp embellishments. The leader eventually takes over with her own solo, again producing an astonishing array of sounds from the harp.
Apart from the New Focus project this is the first time that I’ve heard Bzhezhinska on disc and I have to say that I’m hugely impressed. The sounds that she produces from the harp are little short of astonishing and include some unexpectedly dark timbres as she brings out the full sonic capabilities of the instrument. In her hands it has the range of a piano, while also hinting at the sound of other instruments such as guitar, sitar and more. It’s an orchestral approach that doubtless has its roots in the playing of Alice Coltrane, but Bzhezhinska has developed a personal style that is very much her own.
Immaculately engineered and produced (by Bzhezhinska and Kofi) “Inspiration” goes far beyond the bounds of the usual jazz “tribute” album. It impresses with its stylistic diversity, a quality greatly enhanced by the inclusion of Bzhezhinska’s own compositions, which more than hold their own alongside the classics from Alice and John Coltrane. There’s also the playing from all four protagonists which is sensational throughout. It’s easy to see why this album has been so well received by press and public alike.
Bzhezhinska is currently working on another project, “Afro-Harping”, which will pay tribute to that other great jazz harpist, Dorothy Ashby (1932 – 86). The band for this will feature Prime, plus Gareth Lockrane (flute), Christian Vaughan (keyboards) and Julie Walker (double bass). Both the Coltrane and Ashby projects will be featured at the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival.blog comments powered by Disqus