December 1, 2021

Xhosa Cole – ‘K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us’ – “exciting debut of a talented sax player with a band to match”

STONEY LANE RECORDS 30th July 2021

Xhosa Cole’s debut is superb – contemporary but with a handle you can grab if you’ve heard anything from the fifties onwards in jazz land. The opener is the single, ‘Zoltan’, and it sets the bar high, combining little balletic marches, out there sax runs and playfully inventive drums. This is a terrific band, and the choice to play seven standards is a brave one, inviting comparison with renowned previous performers. The cockiness pays off, the band are never found wanting and it is no surprise that Xhosa won the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year in 2018 as well as the Jazz FM Awards Breakthrough Artist Of The Year in 2020.

The title ‘K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us’ is inspired by something trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie said about Louis Armstrong – ‘no him, no me.’ Cole explains, “this album acknowledges the shoulders on which all of the musicians in the band stand as one”. The band is a quartet and all get their time to shine. Trumpet is handled by Jay Phelps, bass by James Owston and drums by Jim Bashford but you’ll know that from the sign-off shout outs on the final track.

Second track, ‘Blues Connotation’ starts with some tasty free jazz noodling before the drums add a backbone. The exploratory noodling takes form but never stops reaching out, which does honour to its composer’s free yet accessible approach (Ornette Coleman). The drumming is, again, exemplary, keeping a smart beat, while constantly playfully inventing and messing about. Plinking piano sees Rogers & Hart’s ‘Manhattan’ in and invites warm, soulful sax to expand on and tug at the melody delightedly.

‘Played Twice’ is a joy of interplay; the band forming a group-mind in interpreting Thelonious Monk’s classic. Xhosa comments: “There is no composer like Monk and there is no pianist like Monk. The depth of his groove coupled with his harmonic commitment and integrity makes for one BAD musician! I’ve learned so much trying to prize open his compositions – you have to mine for the abundance of gold and treasures he’s left humanity.” ‘On A Misty Night’ is another classic by a pianist but arranged to allow the sax a greater lead on Tadd Dameron’s Bop original, harvesting its composer’s lyric gift.

‘What’s New’ is a song burnt into the late night sensitivities of anyone who loves torch songs. Cole learnt it via Ella Fitzgerald, whereas I favour the never darker Sinatra version from ‘Sings For Only The Lonely’, but whichever was your gateway, this is more of a smoky late-night club noodle around memories of devastating versions. It allows solos from everyone and the bass here is a particular stand-out. From gentle melancholy, it’s a jump (literally) to a cover of Lee Morgan’s ‘Untitled Boogaloo’. Pumping, like trumpeter Morgan, this serves as the swan song, where Cole gets to shout out to his band and the guests that he’s had (Soweto Kinch and Reuben James).

As a whole, this is an outstanding debut, full of glimpses of every member of the band shining, tied into a commitment to accessible grooves and a gifted lyric saxophonist showing what he can do in service to a tune.