- Blind Monk Theory
- Toni Kofi Quartet
27 February – 1 March 2020
The late winter boost of the Liverpool International Jazz Festival is with us once more, our jaded immune systems sorely in need of a shot of immunoglobulin A. As usual the Jazz Festival team have put together an eclectic, multi-national line-up to celebrate its eighth year, with artists from India, Belgium and Holland joining the local and UK talent.
YAATRI, a Leeds-based five-piece, ease us into proceedings on Thursday evening with some proggy time signature changes. Vocalist Sunday Lendis evokes Diana Reeves at times and adds an ethereal scat singing over washes of cymbal and keys and bubbling basslines, and it’s something of a surprise to learn that she is only standing in for Yaatri’s regular singer. If she is nervous it certainly doesn’t show in her performance, and it’s great to start things off with a young band demonstrating such a high level of musicianship.
Headlining the first night are CYKADA. The London six-piece are knitted together from the current scene south of the Thames, having performed with the likes of Ezra Collective, Where Pathways Meet and Family Atlantica. Guitarist Javi Perez ambles and skips across the stage with the abandon of a faun in a fairy tale, knee length socks over leggings, he looks and sounds like a 70s rock god. The horn section of Rob Milne (sax) and Laurence Wilkins (trumpet) demonstrate during the first song Creation their ability to knock out both Stax-like riffs and riveting solos. It was Fat Tuesday earlier in the week, as the swinging New Orleans brass lines testify. It’s obvious that we’re in for a wild ride. “Get up and dance if you want to, there’s plenty of space down here,” invites bass player Jamie Benzies, “we’re not judgemental, look at the state of us”.
There’s literally some chin stroking going on during Realise as band members step back and admire another sublime Wilkins trumpet solo. Drummer Tim Doyle and Benzies alternate between rock solid grooves and mesmerising polyrhythmic flourishes, while Tile Gigichi-Lipere provides pulses and washes of electronic sound adding a masterful contemporary twist.
There are shades of Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham in the mix, often played with a Rage Against The Machine-like intensity and fury – it’s not often that the guitarist’s mic stand takes a flyer in the Capstone! The audience are lapping it up: sax player Milne is dancing like he’s at Newport 62, and Perez is on his knees ripping out another dazzling solo.
Benzies provides vocals on the politically conscious So Divided with the prescient lyric “Divided, so easy to control”. When introducing the band we learn that it’s trumpet player Wilkins’ first gig with Cykada. The evening demonstrates, in time honoured jazz fashion, that talented musicians can jump in and out of the most moveable of feasts without so much as a bum note. It’s a wide-eyed and somewhat breathless audience that leaves the theatre.
Sunday night’s finale brings Liverpool’s own BLIND MONK THEORY as support and they get the evening off to a classy start. Martin Smith’s addition to the Blind Monk Trio has added another dimension to an already outstanding band, and his performance on trumpet and flugelhorn blends seamlessly with that of sax player Bob Whittaker. Both players take standout solos, the other stepping into the shadows to literally allow his bandmate time in the spotlight. The rhythm section of Johnny Hunter (drums) and Hugo Harrison (bass) underpin the melodic and fiery horn explorations with absolute precision and take the spotlight themselves with passages both stirring and contemplative as the band fulfil their mission to update the classic sounds of Cherry, Rollins and Monk to the delight of a full house.
The festival’s final act is the TONI KOFI QUARTET, playing tribute to the music of the legendary and innovative Ornette Coleman. Early on in the set Kofi informs us that, after playing a session with Coleman several years ago in a New York studio, Coleman leant over to him and whispered “Don’t let them forget me”. A short while later he was gone. That’s quite the weight to lay on someone’s shoulders, but Coleman picked his torchbearer well. Kofi wears the mantle lightly and with the look of a man not only determined to do his mentor justice but of a man who is enjoying himself hugely in the process.
Kofi’s playing displays raw power and sensitivity in equal measure, a perfect fit; Coleman may have pioneered the free jazz improvisations of the 60s but he always went out there from a bedrock of sweet sounding melodies and incorporated earlier styles such as swing. And boy, can these guys swing! When Kofi and Byron Wallen (trumpet) blow together it sounds like a full big band horn section in action, and with a rhythm section of Rod Young (drums) and Larry Bartley (bass) on board, there’s no way the band can lose.
There’s plenty of seat dancing going on amongst the crowd, heads nodding and feet tapping, and solos by each member of the quartet draw rich applause, applause which culminates, after exquisite interplay between Kofi and Wallen, in a standing ovation. It’s a fitting conclusion to another finely curated festival of top notch music.