EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Three, Sunday 18th November 2018: Alina Bzhezhinska Tribute to Dorothy Ashby


A rare visit to London’s deep south for this performance by jazz harpist Alina Bzhezhinska at the Toulouse Lautrec Jazz Club in Kennington.
Tonight represented my first visit to Toulouse Lautrec although I have been publicising events at the venue for a number of years and enjoyed regular email and Facebook contact with its enterprising proprietor Nolan Regent. It was good to meet Nolan at last and it was also nice to experience a performance space that had previously only existed in my imagination.
Based in a building that I surmise to have been a pub in a former existence the Toulouse Lautrec is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. The ground floor of the venue houses the Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec which serves authentic French cuisine and has established a good reputation for the quality of its food. The first floor houses a piano bar that recreates the cabaret atmosphere of 1920s/30s Paris.
The Jazz Club itself is situated on the second, or top, floor and I was immediately impressed by its authentic jazz club ambience, definitely a match for the 606, the Pizza, Spice of Life, Vortex and Ronnie’s. Somehow I’d always imagined that the venue was primarily an eating place with the jazz primarily deployed as background music. How wrong can you be? Although tapas style bar snacks were served, very different from the main restaurant menu, this was a genuine, serious jazz club with a relaxed, informal atmosphere and a listening audience. Tonight the room was absolutely rammed and stiflingly hot but I still thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Toulouse Lautrec and would like to take the opportunity of returning again in subsequent years.
The size of the crowd was a tribute Bzhezhinska, a musician and composer who has made a big impression on the UK jazz scene with her album “Inspiration” (Ubuntu Music, 2018), her tribute to the lives and music of John and Alice Coltrane. My review of the “Inspiration” album can be read here;
The “Inspiration” band, featuring saxophonist Tony Kofi was due to play at the Spice of Life later in the week but tonight we were to enjoy the music of Bzhezhinska’s latest project, inspired by the “Afro Harping” album by that other great jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby (1932-86).
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of “Afro-Harping” and many of tonight’s selections were sourced from that record. Along the way Bzhezhinska told us something of Ashby’s life story and her struggles as a young, black, female jazz musician playing an unfamiliar instrument in a male dominated musical environment and in an America going through the social upheavals of the 1960s with issues such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War on the political agenda. Besides her jazz output the prolific Ashby also worked as a pop session musician and recorded extensively with Bill Withers and with the Motown record label.
The band that Bzhezhinska had enlisted for this project included Christian Vaughan (keyboards, musical director), Gareth Lockrane (flutes), Julie Walkington (double bass) and Joel Prime, the only survivor from the “Inspiration” band, on drums and percussion.
They commenced with “Soul Vibrations”, the opening track from the “Afro-Harping” album with Vaughan adopting an organ sound on his Yamaha keyboard as Bzhezhinska took the first solo of the night on harp. Initially the leader was a little too low in the mix but careful repositioning of the microphones around her instrument brought about a substantial improvement as the set progressed. “Microphones always represent a challenge” explained the harpist.
From the same album “Games” brought a Latin-esque feel to the music, something encouraged by Prime’s colourful percussion as Bzhezhinska, Lockrane and Vaughan, now deploying an electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ sound, impressed with their solos.
The ballad “My One And Only Love” was introduced by an unaccompanied passage from the leader which demonstrated her command of the harp and its sonic possibilities. Ashby worked regularly with the flautist Frank Wess, hence the presence of the excellent Lockrane on a variety of flutes. It was the flautist that took the next solo, followed by Bzhezhinska, whose harp playing sounded almost pianistic at times, this quality mirrored by Vaughan’s subsequent solo with the keyboard player now adopting an acoustic piano sound.
Returning to the repertoire of the “Afro-Harping” album “Action Line” had something of the feel of a TV theme about it with Bzhezhinska taking the first solo accompanied by the exotic patter of Prime’s percussion. Lockrane featured on piccolo while Vaughan deployed string synth sounds (much of “Afro-Harping” features an orchestra directed by Richard Evans) before switching to an electric piano setting for his solo. The Australian born Prime, who impressed throughout, then rounded things off with an exuberant percussive flourish.
Also from the “Afro-Harping” album came “Lonely Girl”, the second piece to feature a solo harp intro, Bzhezhinska joined first by double bass and then percussion. Ashby’s background in commercial music ensured that she always wrote strong melodies, something emphasised by Lockrane’s breezy theme statement and subsequent solo as he shared the features with harp and electric piano. Like Bill Frisell earlier in the day Ashby’s style was so distinctive that record producers would often ask other harp players to recreate “that Ashby Sound”.
Besides her work as a musician Ashby was also a political activist who was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She and her husband John Ashby also founded a radical black theatre group in her native Detroit. The title of her piece “Life Has It’s Trials” reflected both her personal circumstances and the turbulence of the times and featured solos from Bzhezhinska on harp and Lockrane on flute.
A lengthy first set concluded with “Secret Love”, a piece that Ashby recorded for a standards album. The performance included features for Walkington and Prime alongside solos from Lockrane, Bzhezhinska and Vaughan.
During the interval I noted the presence of Tony Kofi in the club, offering his support for his colleague’s new project, something that was good to see.
The first piece of the second half was unannounced but got the proceedings off to a lively start with Lockrane on flute, Vaughan on electric piano and Prime at the drums the featured soloists.
“Afro-Harping” includes a cover of Freddie Hubbard’s charming tune “Little Sunflower” which saw Lockrane delivering the familiar melody on alto (I think) flute – this man had more flutes on stage than you could shake the proverbial stick at. He’d also led his Big Band at the Spice of Life earlier in the day, let’s hope he had Monday off! Solos her came from Bzhezhinska and Lockrane.
The album also features Andre and Dory Previn’s theme from “Valley Of The Dolls”, a feature here for the leader who demonstrated the almost orchestral capabilities of the harp, a quality that also distinguishes the “Inspiration” album.
Next came another film theme, Luis Bonfa’s “Black Orpheus”. Ashby was particularly adept at arranging popular tunes but this was a Bzhezhinska adaptation in the Ashby style featuring an unaccompanied harp intro and with features for Prime on hand drums, Lockrane on alto flute and Vaughan on acoustic piano.
In many cases Ashby’s arrangements had been transcribed by Vaughan, who essentially acted as Bzhezhinska’s MD for this project. A case in point was “Come Live With Me” from the “Afro-Harping” album, played as an ensemble piece with buoyant bass and drum grooves underpinning a strong melody.
The quintet completed their programme with the final track from “Afro-Harping”, an arrangement of the Bacharach/David song “The Look Of Love” with Lockrane featuring on both flute and piccolo and sharing the solos with Bzhezhinska on harp and Vaughan on electric piano.
The quintet remained on stage to play a deserved, but unannounced encore, with a vibrant bass and drum groove fuelling solos from all five members of this highly accomplished band.
This had been a lengthy, value for money performance packed with excellent playing and a fascinating collection of tunes. The presentation by Bzhezhinska mixed charm and wit with interesting and informative details about Ashby’s life and music. Next year’s Ashby inspired recording will be awaited with much interest.
I’ve wanted to see Bzhezhinska play since being hugely impressed with “Inspiration” and I’m pleased to report that she and her excellent band didn’t disappoint. This wasn’t one of the high profile EFG LJF shows but it proved to be something of a personal Festival highlight.
My thanks to Alina and Nolan for speaking with me after the show. Like Steve Rubie at the “Six” Nolan was running around manning the mixing desk, helping out behind the bar, looking after the band and the guest list etc. etc.
Sure they’re running a business, but club owners such as Nolan and Steve are some of the great unsung heroes of British jazz, providing places for top quality jazz musicians such as Elftet and the Bzhezhinska group to play in. Well done, gentlemen, and thanks too to all the musicians who helped to make this first Sunday of the Festival such a memorable day.