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Chris Cobbson’s African Jazz Quartet

Chris Cobbson’s African Jazz Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 18/06/2023.

Photography: Photograph by Kasia Ociepa

by Ian Mann

June 20, 2023


"A “jazz celebration of music from around Africa". This was an excellent live show that made many people very happy.

Chris Cobbson’s African Jazz Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 18/06/2023.

Chris Cobbson – guitar, vocals, Phil Dawson – guitar, Raph Mizraki – electric bass, Richard Olatunde Baker – percussion

Guitarist Chris Cobbson describes himself as “a Ghanaian who grew up in London” and states “I have been fortunate to absorb an eclectic mix of music from my African heritage and my explorations in jazz, soul, Caribbean music and other genres. The experience has shaped my musical voice and personality”.

Now based in the West of England Cobbson is probably best known to the Black Mountain Jazz audience for his appearance in Cheltenham based saxophonist and vocalist Kim Cypher’s online quintet performance that formed part of the 2020 Virtual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, filmed and streamed from the Melville Centre by BMJ. Review here;

He was also part of the quartet that Cypher brought to a hugely successful village hall gig at Pudlestone in Herefordshire in November 2022. Review here;

Cobbson appears on Cypher’s acclaimed 2019 album “Love Kim x”.

In addition to his work with Cypher and the leadership of his own groups Cobbson is also a member of the Bristol based band Baraka, a group that performs in a variety of musical styles stemming from the African diaspora. The band is fronted by Ghanaian percussionist and vocalist Ben Baddoo, the Caribbean is represented by bassist/vocalist Royston Gage from Dominica, who is joined in the rhythm section by Trinidadian drummer Tony Bailey. 

Baraka describe their music as “a high energy mix of Hi-Life, Township, Soca, Calypso and Reggae” and I’ve been lucky enough to witness a couple of their colourful performances at Festivals in Brecon (2022) and Wall2Wall in Abergavenny (2016). The Abergavenny show also featured the  Irishman Brendan Whitmore,  who added a jazz and blues element via a range of saxophones plus flute and harmonica. At Brecon this role was filled by trumpeter Ryan Porteous.

Cobbson’s career has included a couple of high profile engagements, including a stint with UK African music pioneers Osibisa and also as a member of the band of saxophonist / bass clarinettist Courtney Pine. Cobbson was part of the group that Pine brought to the 2013 Brecon Jazz Festival and was one of the better performers at what ultimately proved to be disappointing gig. A review of this show forms part of my Festival coverage here;

Cobbson has also performed in the band of restaurant critic turned jazz pianist Jay Rayner.

In 2022 Cobbson released the solo album “My Favorite Things”, which featured his compositions almost exclusively, the exceptions being the Rodgers & Hammerstein title track and “Malaika”, a song written by the Kenyan singer and composer Fadhili William. 

I have to confess that after enjoying Cobbson’s live performances with Pine and Cypher I found the album to be just a little too laid back and tasteful and would have appreciated a few more rough edges.  The recording featured a large cast of musicians with the veteran percussionist Karl Vanden Bossche playing a particularly key role. Nationally known names appearing on the album include Courtney Pine, pianist Dave Newton and flautist Gareth Lockrane. My review of the recording, from which much of the above biographical detail has been sourced, can be found here;

Cobbson’s first headlining performance for BMJ featured his African Jazz Quartet, featuring Phil Dawson on second guitar, Raph Mizraki on electric bass and percussionist Richard Olatunde Baker, who was seated behind a bank of three African conga drums and who also deployed a variety of other, smaller percussive devices, played with both hands and feet.

The combination of Cobbson’s video appearances with Cypher and his reputation as a virtuoso guitarist resulted in a sell out crowd, which represented music to the ears of BMJ’s head honcho, Mike Skilton.

Cobbson promised us a “jazz celebration of music from around Africa”, which is exactly what we got, but it was a journey that started in America with Cobbson’s African-ised arrangement of “On Broadway”. This offered a fascinating blend of seductive African rhythms and Americana style guitar twang from the two six strings of Cobbson and Dawson. The leader was playing on a ‘reserve’ guitar after his first choice instrument sustained some damage during the sound check, although nobody would have known had Cobbson not elected to inform us of the fact. Rather like the guitarists in a gypsy jazz group Cobbson and Dawson shared lead and rhythm guitar duties and this first item featured fluent solos from both, with Dawson adopting a sharper, more attacking guitar sound. As the guitarist with the multi-cultural London ensemble Soothsayers the versatile Dawson is skilled in the arts of ‘world jazz’ and makes an excellent foil for Cobbson. He is also a bandleader in his own right.

The first musical visit to Africa itself was an instrumental arrangement of “Pata Pata”, a song that was huge international hit for the revered South African singer Miriam Makeba. With the rhythm pairing of Mizraki and Olatunde Baker helping to give the music an irresistible Township lilt this was a piece that was particularly well received by the BMJ audience, with Cobbson and Dawson again sharing the solos.

Both Cobbson’s Ghanaian heritage and his tenure with Osibisa were celebrated in a performance of that group’s song “Music For Gong Gong”. This a highly rhythmic piece that proved to be something of a showcase for percussionist Olatunde Baker who played the congas with shakers strapped to his wrists, helping to create a veritable forest of percussive sounds. Cobbson’s guitar solo saw him making effective use of the wah wah pedal, thus imparting the music with an underlying funkiness. Olatunde Baker’s exuberant percussion feature then saw whipping up the audience and encouraging them to clap along.

The music of the great South African pianist and composer variously known as Dollar Brand or Abdullah Ibrahim was celebrated in a segue of two of his most famous and popular compositions, “The Mountain” and “Water From An Ancient Well”. The beautiful melody of the first piece was played by the twin guitarists, with Mizraki and Olatunde Baker joining for the second part of the sequence. “Water From An Ancient Well” featured the liquidly melodic electric bass playing of Mizraki, his feature bookended by guitar solos from Dawson and Cobbson. Mizraki is no stranger to working with twin guitarists, having been a regular member of the Pete Oxley / Nicolas Meier Guitar Project.

The music of East Africa, and specifically Ethiopia, was celebrated in an arrangement of “Yerkemon Sew”, a tune by Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke that featured on the soundtrack of the Jim Jarmusch film “Broken Flowers”. I recall seeing Astatke leading a band at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival that included many leading British jazz musicians, among them Richard Olatunde Baker. Tonight the percussionist gave a particularly compelling performance on a tune that combined traditional Ethiopian music with modal jazz, with Cobbson’s guitar melodies snaking sinuously through the dense rhythms generated by Olatunde Baker and Mizraki. This rendition of Astatke’s best known tune represented an excellent end to a hugely enjoyable first set that had touched upon many musical and geographical bases.

The second set began with a return to West Africa and the song “Gambia”, written by the Gambian kora player, singer and multi-instrumentalist Sona Jobarteh, the first female griot. Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied guitar by Cobbson this was another piece that was particularly well received as the two guitarists traded solos prior to a closing percussion feature from the exuberant Olatunde Baker.

Cobbson now featured two pieces from the “Favorite Things” album, beginning with Fadhili William’s “Malaika”, a song that was also recorded by Miriam Makeba. This was another piece to be ushered in by a passage of unaccompanied guitar by the leader, with Olatunde Baker subsequently adding a smattering of percussion. Solos were subsequently traded between the two guitarists.

Cobbson’s most popular composition must be “A Time To reflect, A Time To Forget”, his musical dedication to Desmond Tutu. Different versions of the tune appear on his own “My Favorite Things” album and Cypher’s “Love Kim x”.
Tonight’s version combined Cobbson’s gorgeous melody with lilting South African rhythms and featured solos from Mizraki on electric bass and Dawson on guitar.

The Afro-beat of the late, great Fela Kuti has been a profound influence on Cobbson and as the guitarist remarked “no musical tour of Africa would be complete without a visit to Nigeria”. This came in the form of an arrangement of Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy”, which incorporated a guitar solo from Cobbson and a stunning percussion feature from the Anglo-Nigerian Olatunde Baker, who (I think) was playing the traditional Yoruba instrument the Dundun, a type of talking drum.

Cobbson added vocals to his armoury as he sang the old Osibisa hit “Flying Bird”, encouraging the audience to sing along with its “anoma” refrain, dividing the crowd into two in an attempt to replicate the harmonies. Those years with Courtney Pine have obviously taught him a thing or too about showmanship. Cobbson possesses a warm singing voice that was well suited to this song. He also featured as an instrumental soloist, his guitar underpinned by a loping rhythm.

Cobbson announced the next piece as the last number. “We’re just going to jam on it, but I think you’ll recognise the song”, he explained. The song in question proved to be the Paul Simon hit “You Can Call Me Al” from the seminal “Gracelands” album, recorded in then apartheid South Africa, a controversial move at the time that brought Simon a lot of disapproval at the time, although history has been kinder to him. This was the album that introduced countless numbers of Western listeners to the concept of ‘world music’ and it’s arguable that tonight’s gig wouldn’t have been taking place in front of a full house had it not been for this hugely influential recording. The inclusion of such a familiar song, allied to the prompting of Cobbson and Olatunde Baker, ensured that the whole audience were now on their feet, dancing, singing and clapping along – and I mean EVERYBODY. It’s not something you see at the Melville very often, although saxophonist Aaron Liddard did manage it last year at the Wall2Wall Festival, but tonight’s audience was even bigger and more enthusiastic than that. Along the way we enjoyed solos from Dawson, Mizraki, making extensive use of slap bass techniques, and Olatunde Baker.

The inevitable encore was a version of Manu Dibango’s “Aye Africa” which kept the crowd on their feet as Cobbson, on both guitar and vocals, encouraged even more audience participation. The applause at the end was thunderous. This was a gig that definitely turned into an EVENT, something that can only bode well for future BMJ promotions.

This was an evening that been a triumph for BMJ (a full house) and Cobbson (a wildly enthusiastic audience reaction and healthy CD sales) and I think it’s fair to say that everybody went home happy.

The success of the performance has even seen me re-evaluating the “Favorite Things” album, which has been playing as I’ve been writing this. The old truism that you can only really appreciate music once you’ve seen it performed live probably applies here and I may have been a little harsh with regards to my original album review. No such reservations here, this was an excellent live show that made many people very happy.






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