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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet @ Gosforth Civic Theatre - February 9

Alina Bzhezhinska (harp); Toni Kofi (soprano/tenor sax); Larry Bartley (bass); Joel Prime (drums/percussion)
(Review/photos by Ken Drew

 Given the recent reviews of the quartet’s current national tour, expectation was high for this, the first co-promotion between Jazz North East and Gosforth Civic Theatre. Originally from Ukraine/Poland and now based in London, Alina Bzhezhinska is an internationally renowned harpist and her critically acclaimed Quartet was formed two years ago to celebrate Alice Coltrane's 80th Birthday, performing at the EFG London Jazz Festival 2017 with 'A Concert for Alice and John'. 

It was great to see this quartet on the road.   A decent sized audience provided a good start to help fill the theatre space and hence a good atmosphere with the band performing on stage, although it would have been equally acceptable for them to perform on the main floor as is sometimes the case at GCT. Still, the sound was clear and well balanced, providing a good space for the performers.

The music started with the floating and meditative sounds of Wisdom Eye, a short Alice Coltrane piece, ending with a series of plucked harmonics before moving nicely into Blue Nile which was instantly recognisable.  Bzhezhinska energetically strumming and plucking the harp strings with Kofi adding an emphatic voice on soprano sax, with a strong pounding beat from Bartley and Prime. This set the tone for the rest of the evening or rather whetted an appetite hungry for more of the same.  Then from Eternity came  Los Caballos  (Horses)  with a catchy riff and changing tempo,  featuring Prime in the intro and later with an extended solo. 

On to two of Bzhezhinska’s compositions - Hope with harp, Kofi on sop, and Prime on percussion. Very soporific, followed by Another Semitone with harp, bass and percussion. 

Set 1 ended with Alice Coltrane’s Fire.   Bzhezhinska was busy throughout, save for an extended solo from Bartley, providing a rich mix of timbres from the harp, whilst Kofi provided a strong lead on tenor. Quite an energetic piece!    Then it was time for a rest, to let the brilliance of the music and the playing soak in.

Set 2 began with  Message from the Nile (Tyner) followed by a less ‘arranged’ piece of her own incorporating some free improvisation – Following a Lovely Sky Boat with an extended solo from Kofi on sop.  Then another by Bzhezhinska, Winter Moods with harp, bass and percussion. Quite atmospheric, evoking the feelings around dark winter moods.  This was followed by a tune with Ukraine/Polish roots - Lamki  (a Tribe) which is dedicated to those who were driven from their homeland and not allowed to return. A very moody intro, progressively taking on various rhythms throughout, mournful and slightly haunting in places, ending quietly with a windswept and barren feel.  A tribute piece to John Coltrane followed - After The Rain with Kofi playing superbly on tenor and  Bzhezhinska ending the piece beautifully with perfectly placed harmonics from the middle strings.

The final piece was the classic  Journey In Satchidananda  with a bass, harp and percussion intro then Kofi on sop with another extended solo, along with sweeping and swirling harp strings. Bartley providing a solid beat throughout, often with heavily plucked strings to great effect. The melody and interpretation by Kofi was just wonderful!     Then an encore, based on Alice Coltrane’s a prayer Er ra  (originally sung with harp, unaccompanied). Here Kofi took the part of Coltrane's singing through his clear-voiced soprano, alongside Bzhezhinska ’s busy yet meditative swirling strings.  Bartley with bowed bass and Prime providing subtle backing on cymbals to provide a slowly developing crescendo to the piece.

Overall, this was a wonderful tribute to Alice Coltrane’s legacy. Bzhezhinska’s playing was, to my eyes and ears, virtuosic. And with so few jazz harpists around, it was a delight to see and hear what a harp can bring to a jazz stage, where the quartet took the audience on quite a musical journey with impeccable playing, producing a rather unique soundscape.   What a fabulous evening of superbly delivered live jazz and the Allendale (on tap) was in particularly fine condition too.

Check out the CD !   Alina's new album  Inspiration was released to high critical acclaim in June 2018 through Ubuntu Music - see  Bebop Spoken Here’s review.

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