Award-winning jazz virtuoso Tony Kofi has mastered a new songbook – and a new instrument – for his latest standards project, as he told Rob Garratt
TONY Kofi could so easily have ended up a carpenter.
Working on a building site aged just 16, a freak accident saw the teenager plummet three floors, landing in a coma he may never have woke up from.
But when he came to three days later he had one simple demand – a saxophone.
“On the way down I thought ‘this is it,’” remembers Kofi today.
“Everything went into slow motion and I was seeing all these images of me doing things I’d never done – travelling the world, having a child, achieving awards – and playing the saxophone.
“When I woke up I thought ‘I’m here for a reason’, I quit my job and bought a saxophone.”
That was 30 years ago, and despite having been kicked out of his high school music department, he learned by ear from old LPs, eventually earning a scholarship to the prestigious USA jazz haven the Berklee College of Music.
Since that pivotal decision Kofi has lead a life in jazz, picking up numerous awards and playing with some huge names along the way, including Courtney Pine, Andrew Hill, Donald Byrd and Abdullah Ibrahim, as well as becoming one of a handful of Brits to join the landmark World Saxophone Quartet.
Kofi’s own recordings include 2004’s debut All Is Know, a tribute to jazz great Thelonious Monk, prepared after a decade’s careful study of the maestro’s music.
His studies climaxed with a six-hour marathon show of all 70 of Monk’s compositions, performed at the London Jazz Festival in both 2003 and 2007.
“When I first heard Monk I didn’t like it, it didn’t make sense,” explains Kofi, “but I wanted to know why, and the more I investigated the more I wanted to play his music.”
Meanwhile Kofi’s second album, Future Passed in 2006, pitted his searing sax alongside a soulful organ trio, while the classic-sounding The Quiet Truth – inspired by his son’s terrifying premature birth – earned Kofi the best instrumentalist title at the prestigious 2008 BBC Jazz awards.
But continuing to evolve, his recent gigs see the alto and soprano player embracing a whole new challenge – the tenor saxophone; an instrument he learned last year in manic a two-month rush ahead of a New York recording session with jazz legend Ornette Coleman.
As well as a new instrument, Kofi will is approaching a whole new set of material, leaving behind his own compelling compositions to focus on the standards songbook for the first time.
“A lot of people know me playing my own stuff, or Monk,” says Kofi.
“But standards are how I learned to play and I’m playing homage to the music that got me here in the first place.
“2011 is the year I will show people a very different side to my playing.”
A review of the Tony Kofi Quartet at Hideaway, SW16 2BF –
Plodding through the standards songbook is the jazzman’s bread and butter, keeping audiences sweet and rehearsals cheap.
But in two decades on the scene, Coulsdon-based saxophone stalwart Tony Kofi has neatly sidestepped well worn themes, instead building a reputation for his encyclopaedic knowledge of Thelonious Monk’s works (culminating in his great debut album, All Is Know), as well as his own striking compositions (displayed best on his last LP, BBC Jazz Award Winner The Silent Truth).Which made it an eyebrow-raising about turn when Kofi arrived at the Hideway, with his quartet, to shed some light on the darker corners of the standards tradition.
Taking to stage on the 61st anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death, Kofi played with such gusto and passion, it was as if the bebop pioneer was looking down on him from above. Roaring through bop numbers and ringing notes dry on the ballads, there was a daring dexterity to Kofi’s playing – yet he never lost sight of the emotional core of the music, with several moments of eye-closing, time-slowing transcendence. And there was a playfulness to his virtuosity, quoting everything from Can’t Buy Me Love, the Can-Can and A Love Supreme in his lengthy improvisations.
The band were up to the job, pianist Trevor Watkins playing uncluttered melodic phrases and short, snappy rhythmic runs. Bassist Larry Bartley provided an understated undercurrent, while behind the drum kit Rod Youngs played with great control and delicacy, darting around and implying, but rarely emphasising, the beat.
Always a soprano and alto player, Kofi recently took up the tenor, and he invoked the spirit of the instrument’s master – John Coltrane – on a brooding take on his Alabama, an ode to four young lives lost in a church bombing. Elsewhere on Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss his playing was at its’ most lyrical, while the evening closed fittingly with a hat-nod to Parker, a respectful run-through of his deceptively-chirpy Relaxin’ in Camarillo.