Big Ben – Celebrating Ben Webster with Alex Webb and Tony Kofi
(Watford Pump House Theatre. 17 November 2023. EFG LJF. Review by Ian Theo)
To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster’s death, pianist and arranger Alex Webb and saxophonist Tony Kofi have collaborated on a celebration of Webster’s life and music.
The aptly named “Big Ben” premiered at Watford Jazz Junction as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, with financial assistance from Arts Council England, and featured a band comprising Dave Green (bass), Clark Tracey (drums), Alan Barnes (reeds), Freddie Gavita (trumpet), and David Lalljee (trombone) alongside Webb and Kofi.
Three numbers from the legendary Webster/Blanton incarnation of Duke Ellington’s band – “Main Stem”, “What Am I Here For?” and “Sittin’ and Rockin’ ” – opened the evening. Following “Main Stem”’s clear, bluesy swing, we were introduced to the wonderful Lulu Pierre who as well as singing soulfully, narrated scenes from Webster’s life and tied the various eras together.
Webster’s recordings with Billie Holiday were represented by Pierre’s fine interpretations of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, “Too Hot for Words” and “Easy to Love”, with Kofi taking Webster’s parts. In the 1950s, Webster recorded albums with a series of notable bandleaders. “Tangerine”, from Webster and Coleman Hawkins’ 1957 recording, Blue Saxophones, found Kofi and Barnes in the twin tenor roles. Then Gavita joined Kofi out front for “Used to Be Basie” from 1956’s Harry Edison session before Barnes returned to baritone to evoke Gerry Mulligan on “The Cat Walk”.
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In the second half the JAM String Collective allowed Webb and Kofi to feature items from Webster’s various “with strings” recordings, including “Chelsea Bridge” from 1954 and the much later “Some Other Spring”. Adding a string quartet changed the mood and highlighted Webster’s ballad style while retaining the jazz sensibility. Lulu Pierre also sang some numbers from Billie Holiday’s later Verve sessions, with Kofi again taking Webster’s place as soloist, and the encore, “Cotton Tail”, found the four horns showing a real feeling for the sound of Ellington’s horn section.
All in all, this was a great evening of jazz, with the rhythm section keeping the uptempo numbers moving and the ballads sensitive and the horns contributing tight ensemble playing and fine soloing.
Tony Kofi sensitively evoked the spirit of Ben Webster. Recreating the instantly recognisable sound of Big Ben’s tenor, he encapsulated the tone and feel of Webster’s playing right down to those diminishing flows of air on the ballads’ codas.
A big shout out to Watford Jazz Junction for a warm welcome at the Watford Pump House.
Main Stem (Ellington years)
What Am I Here For? (Ellington years)
Sittin’ and Rockin’ (Ellington years)
What A Little Moonlight Can Do (Billie Holiday years)
Too Hot For Words (Billie Holiday years)
Easy To Love (Billie Holiday years)
Tangerine (Blue Saxophones with Coleman Hawkins 1957)
Used To Be Basie (Harry Edison session 1956)
Cat Walk (Gerry Mulligan session 1959)
Chelsea Bridge (Strings session 1954/54)
Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me (Strings session 1960)
Stella By Starlight (Strings session 1954/54)
Come Sunday (strings session 1970)
Some Other Spring (Strings session 1971)
Day On, Day Out (Billie Holiday reunion sessions 1956/57)
Love Is Here To Stay (Billie Holiday reunion sessions 1956/57)
All Or Nothing At All (Billie Holiday reunion sessions 1956/57)
Encore: Cotton Tail (Ellington Years)
Tony Kofi – tenor
Alex Webb – piano, arranger, MD
Alan Barnes – reeds
Freddie Gavita, trumpet
David Lalljee – trombone
Dave Green – bass
Clark Tracey – drums
J.A.M. String Collective – Miranda Lewis-Brown, Jules Dos Reis, Abbey Davis and Annalise Lam
Show promoted by Watford Jazz Junction; financial help from Arts Council England
LINKS: Kai Hoffman’s preview feature about this show
Producer Copasetic Foundation website