In heaven, if there is one and we get to go there, all gigs will be like Jazz in the Round, the monthly series now in its tenth year at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone. It was good to be back in that intimate space for the first time since the start of the pandemic, among an audience encircling the young Birmingham-based saxophonist Xhosa Cole, whose debut album, K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us, is one of the year’s highlights.
Last night Cole brought a new band, a trio completed by the double bassist Josh Vadiveloo and the drummer Jim Bashford, and a repertoire which he announced would be devoted to the compositions of Thelonious Monk. Then he fooled many of us by starting with a Monkish tune of his own devising before moving on to a highly wrought version of “Played Twice”. Already the trio was revealing itself to be a finely balanced mechanism in which even drum solos become conversations.
The obvious comparison would be with Sonny Rollins’s classic 1957 Village Vanguard recording for Blue Note with Wilbur Ware and Pete LaRoca. Tenor, bass and drums can form an austere, unforgiving format, but Cole, Vadiveloo and Bashford made it seem welcoming, not least thanks to the care put into the arrangements. “Evidence”, already the most staccato of jazz tunes, was made even more so, but without forfeiting a powerful sense of flow. “Pannonica” added the tiniest hint of vaudeville to spice up a tune whose strolling A section is as close as Monk ever came to writing a pop tune (before he added a defiantly chromatic middle eight).
It’s no disrespect to the bassist and drummer, marvellously agile and responsive throughout, to say that the dominant memory of the evening was provided by Cole’s lengthy unaccompanied reading of “Round Midnight”, which grew directly out of “Played Twice” and began with the sound of clicking pads. Supple and full of life, unhurried but rich in variations and allusions, employing subtle hints of multiphonics in a wholly relevant way, Cole’s solo sometimes evoked Monk’s own habit of adding arpeggiated flourishes to his solo piano improvisations, relishing the sense of decoration without losing the thread of continuity.
Unexpectedly, it reminded me of the first version of “Round Midnight” that I remember hearing, a feature for Johnny Griffin on Lookin’ at Monk, a 1961 recording by the two-tenor group Griffin co-led with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. I think Griffin, one of the great post-bop tenorists, would have admired not just Cole’s impressive technical command but the poise, maturity and warmth with which the 25-year-old found new life in a very familiar tune.
* Xhosa Cole’s K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us is on the Stoney Lane label.