Live reviews

REVIEW: Alina Bzhezhinska – Legacy: Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby at Kings Place

Alina Bzhezhinska and her band for the Alice Coltrane set
Photo: Leah Williams

Alina Bzhezhinska – Legacy: Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby
(King’s Place, 20 February 2019. Review by Leah Williams.) 

As part of the Venus Unwrapped series at King’s Place, which focuses on the creative firepower of women composers, talented harpist Alina Bzhezhinska put together a concert to celebrate the music of jazz harpists and composers Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, two Detroit-born musicians whose music is both brilliantly of its time and also incredibly relevant today.

It’s a rare opportunity indeed to hear their harp music played live. Indeed, I wonder if these pioneering women would have been surprised or disappointed to know that today, the jazz harp – especially as band leader – is still such a rarity. Either way, they’d certainly have been happy to know that someone as passionate and talented as Alina was on the case, continuing to celebrate their legacy and bring the jazz harp to new audiences.

The first set was music from Dorothy Ashby’s album Afro-Harping. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the album and was in part what spurred Alina on to begin this project. As she said in an LJN podcast interview last year: “The music still sounds so fresh and almost kind of revolutionary, especially for the jazz harp world, but [Dorothy Ashby] also managed to capture the music that was fashionable at that time in the ’60s.”

She also talked about the arrangement of the album, which has been pared back to a quintet but given an “even funkier, more modern feel” with arrangements from pianist Christian Vaughn. It was a labour of love for all the musicians involved, and this is apparent on stage with a vibrant energy and unbridled joy infusing the music and infecting the audience. It would be remiss not to mention in particular Gareth Lockrane on flutes, whose sound ranged from jaunty to nostalgic but with an unwavering clarity and fluidity, making for a simply mesmeric listen.

For the second set a changed line-up played the music of Alice Coltrane. Alina said she’d put herself on “a mission to share Alice Coltrane’s story and music with more people. Although Alice had a very special relationship with her husband John Coltrane, she was so much more than just his wife.”

It was a really interesting experience to hear the music of these two contemporaneous composers side by side. Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby had plenty of things in common: both were undoubtedly incredible musicians and women, battling against not only race and gender barriers but a general lack of interest in the harp – especially in a jazz setting. But they also took quite different paths and had different inspirations and motivations driving their music.

The shift in sound was immediately notable from the opening notes of Alice Coltrane’s solo harp piece Wisdom Eye, which has an almost mystical quality. Moving seamlessly straight into Blue Nile, lush melodies bled into moments of frenetic energy, which seemed to hint at the spiritual journey Alice went on throughout her life.

One of the highlights of this set was a surprise guest in the form of Rihab Azar, an exceptional oud player from Syria who Alina had just met the week before and enticed to join them for the concert. Her effortless playing added a new texture to the sound that felt perfectly suited to the music.

For the final tune, the bands from both sets came on stage together for Alice Coltrane’s famous Journey in Satchidananda. The full sound afforded by the septet really rose the enchantment of the music up another level and would have left many people humming the recognisable melody from this brilliant track.

As Alina said at the start of the concert: “This is truly a special night, not just for me and the band but for the whole jazz community who love the harp…” That community was surely swelled by the end of the evening.

Line up for Dorothy Ashby set:
Alina Bzhezhinska, harp
Gareth Lockrane, flutes
Julie Walkington, double bass
Christian Vaughn, piano
Joel Prime, drums / percussion

Line up for Alice Coltrane set:
Alina Bzhezhinska, harp
Tony Kofi, saxophones
Larry Bartley, double bass
Joel Prime, drums / percussion

Leah Williams is a freelance journalist and editor working across many different sectors and has been a regular reviewer and feature writer for LJN since 2016.

Categories: Live reviews

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