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Xhosa Cole Quartet

K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us

by Ian Mann

September 30, 2021


A real sense of musical adventure imbues these buccaneering performances, the quartet’s obvious love of their source material balanced by the collective desire to make this music their own.

Xhosa Cole

“K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us”

(Stoney Lane Records SLR2020)

Xhosa Cole – tenor saxophone, Jay Phelps – trumpet, James Owston – double bass, Jim Bashford – drums
plus guests Soweto Kinch – alto saxophone, Rueben James – piano

“K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us” is the keenly awaited leadership début from Birmingham based saxophonist Xhosa Cole, the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year for 2018.

Handsworth born Cole first came to jazz through the Ladywood Community Music School run by the late, great Birmingham saxophonist Andy Hamilton and he later became a member of the Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra. He also attended courses run by the National Youth Jazz Collective and the National Youth Wind Orchestra.

Cole subsequently studied jazz to degree level at Birmingham Conservatoire and has since become an important presence on the city’s jazz scene, playing in Sid Peacock’s Surge Orchestra and with drummer Romarna Campbell’s Blan(c)anvas group among others. A musician with a social conscience he has also been involved with numerous community based projects.

The BBC award helped to bring Cole to the attention of the national jazz audience and further consolidation came in 2019 when he was the recipient of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for ‘Jazz Newcomer of the Year’.  These accolades have led to work with musicians such as pianist Monty Alexander and muti-reed player Courtney Pine.

Cole has since recorded with Soweto Kinch, featuring on the saxophonist / rapper’s latest album “Black Peril”. Kinch returns the favour with his guest appearance here.

Cole also appears on “Love and Compromise”, the début album by British R&B singer songwriter Mahalia.

Other projects that Cole is involved with include Ibeji, a set of recordings that will feature him in a series of duets with percussionists from various aspects of the African diaspora. This venture that will be financed by yet another music prize, in this instance the Peter Whittingham Award, presented by the Help Musicians organisation.

Cole also leads the Rhythm-a-thing Trio, featuring bassist Josh Vadiveloo and drummer Jim Bashford, an ensemble dedicated to mixing new writing with the works of the late, great pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

Also an accomplished flautist and composer Cole has recently written a film score for the silent film “Sidewalk Stories” for Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival. He is also involved with the organisation Black Lives in Music, a body that addresses the subject of inequality in the music industry and seeks to create opportunities for Black musicians and industry professionals.

Cole also organises regular multi-racial jazz events at Birmingham’s Legacy Centre of Excellence, often appearing as a member of the house band.

In early 2020, just before the pandemic, Cole completed a hugely successful tour with his regular quartet featuring Vancouver born trumpeter Jay Phelps plus the UK rhythm section of bassist James Owston and drummer Jim Bashford, these two also graduates of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire.

I was lucky enough to witness the quartet’s barnstorming show at The Hive in Shrewsbury in January 2020, a performance that is reviewed here;

I was so impressed that I also attended a later, more informal, show on that tour at the Left Bank Village in Hereford. Meanwhile regular guest contributor Trevor Bannister saw the quartet in Reading and offered his own take on the band’s music. He clearly enjoyed them immensely and his thoughts can be found here;

Much of the material that appears on this début release had been performed on that tour and was thus thoroughly ‘played in’ by the time that the quartet entered the studio.

The album has been described as “celebrating the rich tapestry of great African-American composers and improvisers, formative influences on Cole’s life and music, as seen through a contemporary Black British lens”. The recording takes its title from Dizzy Gillespie’s words about Louis Armstrong, “no him, no me”, emphasising the importance of the jazz tradition and the Black experience, as Cole himself explains;
“This album acknowledges the shoulders on which all the musicians in the band stand as one. To understand me and my music is to understand all the amazing teachers and musicians who have helped me along this path. Without the greats who helped to forge this journey over half a century ago we wouldn’t be lucky enough to be walking in their footsteps today” and adding “The view is immense here, standing on the shoulders of giants. I hope to be the shoulders on which future greats stand”.

The programme features adaptations of a couple of songbook standards alongside originals by jazz composers Woody Shaw, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron and Lee Morgan. But this is more than mere repertory, Cole and his colleagues really do put their own stamp on the music, much as they did on that triumphant 2020 tour.

The album kicks off with a version of trumpeter Woody Shaw’s “Zoltan”, with Cole recalling a time of repeatedly listening to clips of Shaw’s albums and “trying to milk all the little nuggets of information out of those moments of pure genius”.
The performance commences with a volcanic solo drum salvo from Bashford, which evolves into a martial style rhythm above which Cole and Phelps state the unison theme, before diverging to spar playfully with each other in a rich, and often fiery, exchange of ideas. Owston, also a BBC Young Jazz Musician finalist, delivers an excellent bass solo and is generally a tower of strength throughout, establishing a superb rhythmic relationship with the similarly impressive Bashford.

Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation” begins with the unaccompanied horns of Cole and Phelps, their absorbing dialogue eventually leading into a high octane quartet performance fuelled by Owston’s propulsive bass lines and Bashford’s crisp, sometimes explosive drumming. Cole and Phelps continue their conversation before the trumpeter goes it alone to deliver a bravura solo that is matched by the leader’s own excursion on tenor. Both soloists perform with grace, power and fluency, getting deep inside their chosen material and bringing the best out of it while imbuing it with a very 21st century mentality. Once the horn men have blown themselves out Owston takes over once more, with Bashford again proving to be a highly capable foil. The drummer is a powerful presence as the whole group comes together for a powerful final statement of Coleman’s memorable theme.

There’s a change of mood and pace with the Rogers & Hart song “Manhattan”, which also features the piano of guest Rueben James. Indeed, its James who introduces the piece with a passage of lyrical, subtly blues tinged solo piano. Cole then displays his qualities as a ballad player, while subtly continuing to push the envelope – this is a very inventive and contemporary performance of an old classic. James then stretches out more expansively at the piano, reminding us that he too is a rising star in the British jazz firmament.

Given Cole’s love of Thelonious Monk’s music there just had to be a Monk tune on the album. Cole says this of the great man;
“There is no composer like Monk and no pianist like Monk. The depth of his groove coupled with his harmonic commitment and integrity makes for one BAD musician! I’ve learned so much trying to prise open his compositions, you have to mine for the abundance of gold and treasures he’s left for humanity”.
Monk’s “Played Twice” is a great vehicle for the quartet, who expertly channel Monk’s spirit, even in this piano-less format. The flexible and intelligent rhythm team of Owston and Bashford negotiate the rhythmic challenges of Monk’s writing with skill and verve as Cole and Phelps probe deeply into the harmonies, both soloing with power, fluency and conviction. In this highly democratic quartet there are also convincing solo features from both Owston and Bashford.

Guest Soweto Kinch joins to create a three horn front-line on Tadd Dameron’s “On a Misty Night”, combining effectively with Cole and Phelps as well as delivering a fluent and incisive individual solo. James returns and also features as a soloist, impressing once more. Phelps and Cole combine effectively with Kinch on one of the album’s most beguiling tracks.

The song “What’s New” (B. Haggart & J. Burke) offers Cole another opportunity to highlight his ballad skills. He recalls hearing the song sung by Ella Fitzgerald and reveals; “I’m what you call a hopeless romantic, which is why the old American songbooks resonate with me”. Phelps sits out as Cole’s tenor ruminations are supported by Owston’s melodic but resonant bass and Bashford’s sympathetic, mainly brushed drums. Cole’s tone is warm, but his playing is subtly exploratory, with Owston’s bass sometimes emerging onto the foreground. The performance ends with a fluttering solo tenor sax cadenza.

The album concludes with trumpeter Lee Morgan’s “Untitled Boogaloo”, with Kinch and James joining the core quartet. The horns start things off before Bashford kicks in, laying down a terrific groove that allows Cole to vocally introduce the individual soloists, Bashford going first, followed by Owston, James and Phelps. Next it’s the turn of Cole’s one time mentor Soweto Kinch, and then finally Cole himself. Further individual features follow, plus some rousing ensemble sections that feature the full sextet sounding like a ‘mini big band’. This is a high octane piece that would also represent a tremendous set closer in the live environment.

I’m sometimes a little sceptical about albums that rely entirely on outside material, so often the music sounds up sounding like ‘jazz at repertory’, no matter how skilfully it is played.
The Cole quartet approach their chosen selections with a different attitude. The twenty four year old leader brings a youthful energy and enthusiasm to the music, getting deep down inside these tunes and finding something fresh in them. There’s a real sense of musical daring, allied to remarkable technical skill. Phelps, Owston and Bashford are all bandleaders in their own right and although the album is released under Cole’s sole name there’s a real sense that this a highly democratic unit with a strong group identity. A real sense of musical adventure imbues these buccaneering performances, the quartet’s obvious love of their source material balanced by a youthful irreverence and the collective desire of the band members to make this music their own.

It’s not quite a case of “standing on the shoulders of giants makes it easier to kick them in the teeth”, as bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott of Mostly Other People Do The Killing once said, but sometimes it feels pretty close. Interestingly the Cole quartet share the same instrumental line up as the first edition of MOPDTK, so I wonder if there’s some sort of inspiration there.

The critical reaction to “K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us” has been universally favourable and it will be interesting to see what Cole does next. Having paid his own very personal homage to the tradition an album of original material is said to be next on the cards. This is a recording that will also be eagerly anticipated and which will represent another significant step in Cole’s musical journey.

In the meantime we have this excellent current album to enjoy, a real cut above most standards collections.

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