‘Big Ben: Celebrating saxophonist Ben Webster’ with Tony Kofi & Alex Webb (EFG LJF 2023)

On 17 November 2023, Watford Jazz Junction at The Pump House Theatre will become an EFG London Jazz Festival venue for the first time, and will host a celebration of the music of Ben Webster. Preview by Kai Hoffman:

Ben Webster, Tony Kofi and Alex Webb triptych of photos
L-R: Ben Webster, Tony Kofi, Alex Webb

Featuring a stellar cast of musicians including long-time collaborators saxophonist Tony Kofi and pianist Alex Webb, ‘Big Ben: celebrating saxophonist Ben Webster’ pays tribute to one of the great, but lesser-known legends of the tenor saxophone, Ben Webster, fifty years after his death. “No one honours this guy enough, he’s been left by the wayside by the jazz historians,” says Kofi. “For me, Ben Webster is such an institution, and he’s not all about technique, it’s about sound and feeling, rather than playing really fast licks. I was aware of Ben Webster for ages of course, but I really discovered him when I had my music player on random, and ‘Some Other Spring’ came up. I absolutely fell in love with it.” 

“Ben Webster (1909–1973) was a true giant of the tenor sax and one of the most-loved of all African-American jazz musicians. His career spanned several generations of jazz and resulted in hundreds of recordings, including many acknowledged classics,” say the show notes.

Having collaborated with a vast array of household names during his five-decade long career from the 1930s onward, both as a bandleader and a sideman, Webster recorded and played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, worked on a number of albums with Oscar Peterson, and did duets with Coleman Hawkins. Using the same second-hand Selmer tenor saxophone for over fifty years – which he named ‘Ol’ Betsy’ – Webster’s recordings include live albums at Ronnie Scott’s with Stan Tracey and the mellifluous introduction to Billie Holiday’s iconic ‘Love is Here to Stay’ from the 1950s.

Kofi and Webb discovered a mutual fascination with Ben Webster’s unique sound and style while chatting during a break on a gig; Tony had played a few of Ben’s signature licks and it got them talking. According to Tony: “The more I tried to play like that, the more I got into his sound. That’s when I realised that Ben Webster’s sound is his technique.” As Alex Webb describes it: “It was definitely a meeting of minds… Basically, I’m arranging, Tony’s playing, but Tony and I discussed the repertoire and arrangements – we’re both passionate about this collaboration. We needed each other to make it work.” 

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Big Ben: celebrating saxophonist Ben Webster’ involves four horn players and a string section. Along with the fantastic team of Kofi and Webb, the show also features singer and narrator Lulu Pierre, who will be performing tunes originally recorded by Webster with Billie Holiday. The band also features a veritable who’s who of the London jazz scene with Alan Barnes on reeds, Dave Lalljee on trombone, Freddie Gavita on trumpet, Clark Tracey on drums and Dave Green on bass, with the J.A.M. String Collective, a brilliant group of young string players from Tomorrow’s Warriors. Webb adds: “The band was definitely selected with this specific material in mind, it’s a great band to be working with – Dave Green of course actually worked with Ben and recorded with him, so it’s such a privilege to have him on the show.”

Alex Webb
Tony Kofi and Alex Webb at Ronnie’s. Photo courtesy of Alex Webb

The show covers Ben Webster’s “acclaimed years with Duke Ellington, his work with Billie Holiday, his visits to Ronnie Scott’s in London, his later years in Copenhagen, and his remarkable work with strings.” Alex Webb continues: “Lulu Pierre is also narrating the show. There’s plenty of biographical material; he had a colourful life…”

If you can’t make it along to Watford – or indeed if the show has sold out – Kofi and Webb recommend checking out the following recordings to get a real flavour of this tenor genius, and give Ben Webster the recognition he deserves for a glorious contribution to the jazz idiom.

Kofi suggests the ‘Soho Nights Volume 2 Live Album’, recorded at Ronnie Scott’s with Stan Tracey in 1964. This is an album which, according to John Fordham at the Guardian, showcases Webster’s “monumentally powerful sound, sly timing and teeming imagination.” Tony says, “I’m amazed with how at ease he sounds, with a new rhythm section he’d never met, yet they sound like they’ve been playing together for years.”

Webb says: “The Ellington sides from the early ‘40s are endlessly fascinating – and the way the whole band sounds, not just Ben, on the live recordings from the Fargo Ballroom.” That’s the ‘Duke Ellington Live from the Crystal Ballroom’, 1940 – now on my personal playlist too. 

With thanks to the Arts Council England for financial support, Kofi and Webb began working on the materials and organising the band members for ‘Big Ben: celebrating saxophonist Ben Webster’ back in the spring of 2023. “It’s always good to premiere something in the London Jazz Festival,” Kofi says. “This show will be livestreamed too, details will be announced on Watford Jazz Junction.” With the phenomenal musicians involved and the anticipation surrounding this show, there are bound to be plans afoot for performances at other venues and festivals in 2024, so watch this space. 

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LINK: More info and booking

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