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Xhosa Cole Quartet

Xhosa Cole Quartet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 18/01/2020.

Photography: Photograph by Hamish Kirkpatrick of Shrewsbury Jazz Network.

by Ian Mann

January 19, 2020


As an ensemble the quartet played with passion, energy and consummate skill, and their shared love of their chosen source material, and of the jazz genre in general, shone like a beacon throughout.

Xhosa Cole Quartet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 18/01/2020.

Xhosa Cole – tenor saxophone, Jay Phelps – trumpet, James Owston – double bass, Jim Bashford – drums

Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s 2020 programme got off to a great start with this sold our performance by Birmingham based saxophonist Xhosa Cole and his quartet.

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.

In 2018 Cole was awarded the accolade of BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year, an award that helped to bring him to the attention of the national jazz audience. He consolidated this in 2019 when he was the recipient of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for ‘Jazz Newcomer of the Year’.

Cole can be considered to be something of a ‘rising star’ and there’s certainly something of a buzz about this young musician at the moment, something evidenced by this capacity crowd at The Hive, an audience that included several first timers at the venue.

Tonight represented the third gig of a twenty date UK tour that will see most of the performances taking place in the South of England and in Cole’s native Midlands. It sees him leading an exceptional quartet featuring the talents of two more Birmingham Conservatoire graduates, double bassist James Owston and drummer Jim Bashford, the latter a composer and bandleader in his own right and an increasingly influential and in demand figure on the UK and international jazz scene with a number of recordings to his credit.

The Birmingham contingent is joined by the Vancouver born trumpeter Jay Phelps, who first came to the attention of British jazz audiences back in 2007 when he was a member of the very first edition of Empirical, a line up that also included pianist Kit Downes. Since basing himself in the UK at the age of seventeen in 1999 Phelps has performed with many of the country’s leading jazz musicians including trombonist Dennis Rollins, saxophonist Courtney Pine and keyboard player Django Bates, and was once a member of the late Amy Winehouse’s band. He has also established a career as a solo artist with albums such as “Jay Walkin’” (2011) and “Free as The Birds” (2018). In 2019 he signed to Ubuntu Music, releasing the digital only albums “SoulEndvr” and “Chaos or Commerce”. Phelps is musically active across a variety of genres but remains first and foremost a jazz musician, a fact emphatically confirmed by his superb performance this evening.

Cole’s love of jazz, and of the jazz tradition, was expressed in a programme consisting largely of bebop and hard bop standards – and not always the obvious ones. Apart from minimal amplification for Owston’s bass the quartet played almost entirely acoustically, but still made a suitably big and impressive sound that was greatly appreciated by the supportive audience.

The two horns combined to introduce the Gigi Gryce composition “Salute To The Bandbox”, swirling, swooping and dovetailing in thrilling fashion prior to the introduction of bass and drums. The fluid grooves laid down by Owston and Bashford fuelled Cole’s opening solo, the fluency of the saxophonist complemented by Owston’s rapid bass walk, Bashford’s crisp drumming and Phelps’ trumpet embellishments. As the leader stretched out with the group now in saxophone trio mode Phelps bided his time before delivering his own bravura trumpet solo, a rousing introduction to his virtuoso technique.

Next up was “Zoltan”, a tune written by trumpeter Woody Shaw that appeared on organist Larry Young’s celebrated “Unity” album. Bashford’s military style drums underscored the unison theme statement from Cole and Phelps before the pair diverged to deliver their individual solos, Phelps going first. Following Cole’s solo the two horns came together once more in a series of increasingly fiery and garrulous exchanges. Next we enjoyed a virtuoso bass solo from Owston, himself a BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year finalist. Owston is very much Cole’s musical right hand man and his powerful and deeply resonant bass playing was very much the heart and backbone of this ensemble as he forged an excellent partnership with the more experienced Bashford. The drummer was also to feature at the close of the tune, his martial flourishes bringing the piece full circle.

Phelps left the stage as Cole, Owston and Bashford played the rarely heard Thelonious Monk ballad “Reflections” in the saxophone trio format. An extended introduction featuring just tenor sax and double bass emphasised the closeness of the musical bond between Cole and Owston, while Bashford’s delicate and understated brush work underlined his skills as a sympathetic accompanist and colourist.

The chordless format of the group had already led to me scribbling down the words “close to replicating the line up of the classic Ornette Coleman quartet” in my notebook. Almost as if on cue Cole now called a Coleman tune, “Ramblin’”, the opening track from Coleman’s 1960 album “Change of the Century”. This was introduced by the sound of dovetailing horns before Cole and Phelps coalesced on the head. The pair then diverged once more to deliver their individual solo statements. Phelps trumpet feature incorporated a vocalised growl, achieved without the aid of any form of mute. The solo as a whole was a dazzling display of fluency and virtuosity, qualities matched by the leader’s own excursion on tenor. I’ve witnessed Cole’s playing before in the bands of others, but never leading his own group. I’d suggest that at the moment he’s playing better then ever, a musician currently at the peak of his powers, clearly benefiting from being part of such an exceptional quartet. His chemistry with the resurgent Phelps is a key part in this, with each musician helping to spark the ideas of the other in a process that combines mutual support and respect with a friendly rivalry, it’s a winning combination that makes for thrilling music. The Coleman piece also included a feature for the excellent Bashford, whose busy but unobtrusive drum work was also essential to the success of the evening as a whole.

An exceptional first set closed with Cole’s arrangement of Dexter Gordon’s composition “Cheesecake”. Fellow tenor man Gordon (1923-89) represents something of a bridge between the swing and bop eras and elements of both could be heard here. The piece was introduced by Owston at the bass before the horns stated the theme, with its echoes of the swing era, in unison. Cole took the first solo on tenor, propelled by Owston’s fast paced bass walk and Bashford’s neatly energetic drumming. As the rhythm team stoked the fires Cole stretched out with an expansive, extended
solo. Phelps followed with a similarly dynamic trumpet feature before the two horns finally came together once more to restate Gordon’s theme. It had been a superb first half, and one that was warmly appreciated by the audience.

There was to be no let up in the energy or performance levels in a second set that commenced with Dizzy Gillespie’s “And Then She Stopped”, a tune sourced from the trumpeter’s 1964 album “Jambo Caribe”. As the album title suggests this was a piece with a definite Caribbean flavour and initially I was reminded of the calypso jazz of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, an acknowledged influence on Cole’s style. Solos here came from Phelps, Cole and Owston, with the musicians injecting some welcome humour into the proceedings.

A second Thelonious Monk tune, “Played Twice”, saw Phelps making temporary use of a Harmon mute during the opening theme statement. Cole’s tenor solo found the group in saxophone trio mode once more, with the leader squeezing in a quote (one of several overall) from yet another Monk tune, “Well You Needn’t”. When Phelps returned his fiery solo was delivered through the open bell and there was also an engaging dialogue between Owston and Bashford that incorporated individual features for each.

Cole sat with the audience for Phelps’ performance of the ballad “Soul Train”. In a rare ‘trumpet trio’ performance Phelps deployed the Harmon mute throughout, also appropriating the vocal mic to give his playing sufficient volume. The piece was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied trumpet, with Phelps subsequently joined by Owston at the bass and eventually by Bashford, whose mallet rumbles, cymbal shimmers and deft brushwork represented suitable atmospheric and sensitive accompaniment. Phelps then concluded the piece with a stunning solo trumpet cadenza.

Following on in a similar vein “When You Wish Upon A Star” was introduced and concluded by similarly impressive solo sax excursions. In between we heard we heard more dazzling horn interplay, with Cole and Phelps ably supported by the flexible and intelligent rhythm section of Owston and Bashford.

The quartet have vowed to play a different Charlie Parker tune every night during the course of the current tour. Tonight’s offering was “Steeplechase”, the tune that gave its name to a record label, introduced to the group by Phelps. Having navigated the complexities of the typically tricky and complex bebop ‘head’ the two horn men then relished the opportunity of stretching out with extended solos featuring some genuinely barnstorming playing. No less absorbing was the subsequent dialogue between Owston and Bashford, with Cole and Phelps eventually returning to tackle Parker’s theme once more.

The performance concluded with Owston’s innovative arrangement of the jazz standard “Darn That Dream”. Introduced by a passage of solo double bass Owston’s adaptation brought an energetic, contemporary feel to the piece as the horns caroused above a busy rhythmic undertow with Cole and Phelps exchanging phrases, followed by full length solos. As befitted the final number of the evening there were also features for bass and drums before a final passage of spirited interplay between saxophone and trumpet.

A packed house gave the quartet a terrific reception, which bodes well for the rest of the tour. The group have already achieved a remarkable level of empathy and togetherness very early on in the tour and should continue to wow audiences in other parts of the country.

Inevitably Cole and Phelps will attract most of the plaudits, but this shouldn’t detract from the contribution made by the brilliant rhythm team of Owston and Bashford, whose superb work helped to bring out the best of the two front line soloists. Owston, in particular, played with a skill and maturity beyond his years, his tone big and resonant, his time keeping immaculate and his solos highly dexterous and consistently engaging. The gig as a whole was a terrific advert for the jazz faculty at Birmingham Conservatoire, which continues to produce some remarkable musicians.

As an ensemble the quartet played with passion, energy and consummate skill, and their shared love of their chosen source material, and of the jazz genre in general, shone like a beacon throughout.

My thanks to Xhosa Cole for speaking with me afterwards. Following this set of outside material I asked him about his original writing, and although he does compose writing comes second to his love of actually playing at the moment. “I just can’t keep out of the practice room” he told me, and this dedication to self improvement was reflected in the brilliance of his performance tonight.

That said Cole has written music across a variety of genres, including his “Greek Suite”, written for himself on flute and a string quartet featuring Birmingham based musicians Sarah Farmer, Helena Britten, Richard Scott and Victoria Groves. Fortuitously we were to enjoy an excerpt from this work on Corey Mwamba’s “Freeness” programme on BBC Radio 3 as we drove home after tonight’s gig.

There will no doubt be more original work to come from Cole, but at the moment he’s doing a wonderful job of keeping the bebop and hard bop flame alive for contemporary jazz audiences, and bringing a lot of himself and his excellent quartet to the process. The addition of Phelps to the band has obviously been a real creative shot in the arm, and the undeniable chemistry between the saxophonist and the trumpeter promises to develop even further on this tour.

Catch this excellent quartet if you can. I’m hoping to see them again at the Left Bank Village in Hereford on January 29th, this time strictly as a fan.

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