Live review

Xhosa Cole Quartet at Watermill Jazz Club, Dorking

Xhosa Cole Quartet
(Watermill Jazz Club, Dorking. 21 January 2020. Review by Peter Jones.)

On Tuesday evening, in a neat bit of symmetry, the venue of the year played host to the musician of the year. OK, it wasn’t the same year, but 2019 saw Watermill Jazz scoop their category in the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, and tenor saxophonist Xhosa Cole was the winner of the 2018 BBC Young Jazz Musician Award. You might think, bleh – gongs. Some gongs, it’s true, are handed out on the basis of Buggins’ turn, but not in this case. Like all jazz clubs, Watermill is run by a team of volunteers, but this team has created a welcoming, vibrant and well-attended club with great facilities and an excellent sound system. They have also gained a justified reputation for booking the best jazz acts in the world, and one of these is the Xhosa Cole Quartet.

Xhosa Cole, Jay Phelps. Photo © Brian O’Connor

Backed by Jay Phelps on trumpet, fellow BBC Young jazz Musician finalist James Owston on bass and Jim Bashford on drums, in person Cole is imbued with star quality. He is natural and comfortable with an audience, dapper in red tie, dark suit and two-tone shoes, talking about the music with a charmingly light touch. That quality was also evident in the music they played. Cole is a bebopper at heart, enthused by the great tradition of Monk and Trane. They played two by Monk, Cole’s favourite composer: the ballad Reflections – in this rendition, perhaps the most cheerful ballad you’ve ever heard; and Played Twice, with its tricky 5/4 bridge; here the band also introduced a kink of their own, by slowing the head down and rapidly speeding it up again. Clever stuff, but played in a spirit of fun and adventure rather than to show off their chops.

But what chops! This was music at a very high level. The Cole/Phelps pairing alone was a revelation. They played off each other with extraordinary empathy, often operating in parallel – not just the usual 3rd or 5th apart, but playing similar lines with subtle, complementary variations. The absence of a chord instrument meant you had to work a little bit harder, as an audience member, to construct the harmony from the band’s individual note choices, but before you knew it, you were hearing the chords in your head.

What makes this quartet a proper band is not merely the sheer energy and internal telepathy they have developed but the degree of arrangement that has gone into their repertoire. You could hear it in Ornette Coleman’s upswinger Ramblin’ (a tune beloved of Mornington Lockett, another dyed-in-the-wool bebopper): Owston and Bashford thundered away ominously behind the two bright and breezy leads, and there was a terrific unaccompanied solo by Cole, the others creeping back in one by one. There was also some calypso – in Owston’s arrangement of Darn That Dream, over which Cole played a distinctly Rollins-type solo, and again in the Dizzy Gillespie number And Then She Stopped.

This band is going places – literally: there are a few more dates on their tour, including Town Hall, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, on 25 January, Progress Theatre, Reading, on 31 January, Quay Arts, Isle of Wight, on 2 February, Newhampton Arts Centre, Wolverhampton, on 6 February, Calstock Arts in Cornwall on 8 and The Musician, Leicester, on 20 February.

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