by Ian Mann
March 20, 2023
Cole is a fluent and hugely gifted tenor sax soloist and both his leadership style and his high standard of musicianship served to inspire similarly excellent performances from his colleagues.
Xhosa Cole Quintet, The Corn Exchange, King’s Head Hotel, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, 16/03/2023.
Xhosa Cole – tenor saxophone, Steve Saunders – guitar, Josh Vadiveloo – double bass, Nathan England-Jones – drums, Liberty Styles – tap dancer
Birmingham based saxophonist Xhosa Cole is currently in the middle of an extensive UK tour playing music from his latest project Rhythm-a-ting, an exploration of the rhythmic and melodic possibilities of the music of Thelonious Monk in a contemporary jazz context.
All of the shows feature Cole’s new quartet, guitarist Steve Saunders, bassist Josh Vadiveloo and drummer Nathan England-Jones, like Cole all graduates of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire. The Rhythm-a-ting group began as a trio with Vadiveloo and drummer Jim Bashford before mutating into its present formation.
Some of the dates on the current tour have seen the quartet augmented by a tap dancer, usually the New York based Liberty Styles, although the Cardiff show at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama featured dancer Petra Haller.
Styles was present for this well attended event at the new Corn Exchange venue at the King’s Head Hotel in Ross-on-Wye. Her presence brought a new dimension to the band and the sounds made by her flying feet were an integral part of the musical performance. The inclusion of a tap dancer was no ‘add on’ or ‘gimmick’, Styles was an equal member of the group and I have no hesitation in billing the band as a ‘quintet’ rather than as a ‘quartet with’ or ‘quartet plus’. Styles work introduced the fresh rhythmic possibilities that the Rhythm-a-ting band name suggests and she was totally on the same wavelength as the four instrumentalists. Interestingly Styles or Haller are not available for all the dates on the tour and some gigs will be played by the core quartet. One such will be the show at Kidderminster Jazz Club on 6th April 2023, a show that I will also attend, and it will be interesting to see just how much it differs from tonight’s. Watch this space.
The playing of the core quartet is very much in the same spirit as the group that appears on Cole’s début recording “K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us”, released on the Birmingham based Stoney Lane record label in 2021. Here Cole, trumpeter Jay Phelps, bassist James Owston and drummer Jim Bashford stretched out adventurously in a ‘chordless’ format on a series of modern jazz and bebop standards written by the likes of Monk, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan, Tadd Dameron, Woody Shaw and more.
Reviewing the recording the Jazzmann observed;
“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”.
Full review here;
Prior to the release of this keenly anticipated album I had enjoyed a couple of brilliant live shows from the Cole / Phelps / Owston/ Bashford quartet at The Hive in Shrewsbury and the Left Bank in Hereford. My review of the Shrewsbury show can be found here;
In 2022 Cole released his second album for Stoney Lane Records. Very different to the début “Ibeji”, the title a Yoruba word meaning “Twins”, teams Cole’s saxophone with the playing of seven different drummers / percussionists and represents another example of Cole’s fascination with the universal language of rhythm.
His collaborators on this recording include; US drummer Jason Brown, Brazilian born percussionist Adrian Adewale Itauna, Yoruban musician Lekan Babalola, Trinidadian percussionist Ian Parmel and the British musicians Mark Sanders, Corey Mwamba and Azizi Africa Cole, Xhosa’s brother. The album mixes music with spoken word as the various drummer / percussionists discuss their work, heritage and influences. It makes for fascinating and informative listening and has been very well received critically, although it’s arguable that the numerous spoken word tracks may not encourage regular repeat listening.
The music itself is excellent and Cole chose to open tonight’s show with “Andy’s Shuffle”, a tune from the “Ibeji” album that features Cole in a duo Jason Brown. Tonight’s rendition was introduced by the sound of Cole’s tenor sax and the rhythms of Styles’ tap shoes, the pair then joined by England-Jones at the drums. The kit drums subsequently took over from Styles and a tenor / drum dialogue ensued that recalled John Coltrane and Rashied Ali, or from a later vintage Binker Golding and Moses Boyd, and of course Cole and Brown. The addition of guitar and double bas,s plus the return of Styles, inspired a more conventional jazz solo from Cole, the saxophonist stretching out and improvising fluently. The quartet’s free-wheeling approach to improvising and soloing is very much a continuation of Cole’s previous quartet and the impressive Saunders was the next to feature with a wide ranging solo that drew on elements of jazz and rock. With Cole sitting out the group temporarily became a power trio augmented by a tap dancer, a pretty unique combination. Vadiveloo and England-Jones also enjoyed similarly impressive individual features as this opening piece served as an excellent introduction to all of the members of the quintet, with Styles responding to England-Jones during the ‘trading fours’ section.
A lengthy segue that commenced with Monk’s “In Walked Bud” and which also incorporated elements of “Let’s Call One” and “Criss Cross” saw the group warming to their task and exchanging ideas in brilliantly inventive fashion, The joy that the quartet took in their music making was obvious, both encouraging and challenging each other to reach new levels of musical excellence. Cole introduced this section with a passage of unaccompanied tenor saxophone before the rest of the band joined in for the theme. Vadiveloo, whose playing combined great stamina with restless musical inventiveness was featured at the bass before Cole took over on tenor, his solo shadowed by Styles’ fleet footed tap dancing. Cole and Styles then sat out as Saunders, Vadiveloo and England-Jones went into trio mode once more, quiet and reflective at first and with this section also including a guitar and drum dialogue and a solo guitar episode. After first joining in off stage Cole then returned to the stand for a second tenor sax and tap episode, this followed by a second bass feature and a second guitar solo and a finally an all percussive exchange between England-Jones at the kit and Styles on the tap dance ‘riser’. This extended sequence represented breathless, thrilling, ever evolving music making with the members of the quintet gleefully bouncing ideas off each other and utilising Monk’s tunes as the spark to fire their own musical imaginations.
An excellent first set concluded with the quintet’s version of Monk’s “Bright Mississippi”, introduced by tenor and tap, and again incorporating a quote from “In Walked Bud” during Cole’s tenor solo. The impressive England-Jones was also to feature extensively, again interacting with Styles. With the exception of the leader England-Jones was the only other musician that I’d seen play live prior to this evening. As a Birmingham student he had appeared at numerous Jazz Exchange events at Cheltenham Jazz Festival and I later saw him perform as part of a trio led by pianist Elliot Sansom, that group also augmented by guest saxophonist Alex Merritt.
Set two kicked off with Monk’s “Trinkle, Tinkle”, ushered in by the duo of Cole and Styles with the band added for a more traditional tenor sax solo from the leader. England-Jones and Styles were then involved in more rhythmic dialogue, as if to further emphasise the importance of the name of this project, itself a reference to the Monk composition “Rhythm-A-Ning”. Cole’s second solo excursion was gentler and more ballad like, but this was later superseded by some angular riffing from Saunders as the guitarist and bassist Vadiveloo enjoyed individual features with Cole sitting out. The saxophonist eventually returned for a final solo – despite the high level of interaction between the band members it was still clear that this was very much HIS project.
“Epistrophy” is one of Monk’s most played compositions and the Cole quintet approached it in typically buccaneering fashion, with the leader’s unaccompanied tenor quickly joined by the rest of the band as the music gathered momentum. Cole’s tenor solo was followed by a vigorous series of sax, tap and guitar exchanges, these followed by an incendiary guitar solo from Saunders, arguably his best of the night.
Saunders also introduced Monk’s “Pannonica”, ostensibly a ballad and initially played here as such with England-Jones deploying brushes and with Styles sitting out. Subsequent solos from Vadiveloo and Saunders upped the energy levels and the piece concluded with a neatly constructed drum feature from England-Jones.
Styles returned for the ‘encore’, an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday”, also delivered as a ballad. This was ushered in by a combination of bass and drums, with Styles subsequently joining to add a third rhythmic component. Cole’s tenor solo demonstrated his fluency as a ballad player and the piece ended with the band members humming the melody and then singing the lyrics, a stunning set piece on which to finish.
Cole is a flamboyant and highly expressive personality and the warmth and enthusiasm of his own performance helped to set the tone of this hugely successful event. He’s also a fluent and hugely gifted tenor sax soloist and both his leadership style and his high standard of musicianship served to inspire similarly excellent performances from his colleagues. Styles brought an extra dimension to the music and the Ross audience clearly loved this quintet. The quality of the performance was reflected in healthy CD and merch sales, presided over by the highly personable Cole himself at both half and full time.
Winner of the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year Award in 2018 and the Parliamentary Jazz Award for ‘Newcomer of the Year’ in 2019 Cole’s star is still on the rise and on the evidence of tonight’s performance it’s easy to see why. This was a show that combined a spirit of fun and adventure with great musicianship and the leader’s love of his chosen material was obvious throughout. But this was emphatically not ‘jazz as repertory’ as Cole and his colleagues put their own stamp on Monk’s compositions and took them to new and unexpected places, something encouraged by Cole’s use of instruments such as trumpet or guitar to play tunes composed by a pianist.
My thanks to Xhosa for speaking with me at some length after the show and to promoter Dave Logan for providing press tickets for my wife and I. Also thanks to Dave, formerly of Kenilworth Jazz Club, for bringing jazz of this quality to Ross-on-Wye on a regular basis. For details of future jazz events at The Corn Exchange please visit;
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