Tony Kofi’s full-bodied sound, clear articulation and committed attack carry the immediacy and impact of the established masters of the jazz saxophone. And like them, he plays at full stretch, whether rampaging over a hard-edged groove or gently warming a ballad with a perfectly balanced vibrato.
But though the Nottingham-born saxophonist wears his traditional values on his sleeve, there is nothing retrograde in his overall approach or performance. Kofi has a strong personal voice, and his improvisations, like the tunes he writes, tell stories and have emotional purpose. And, as was clear at the Vortex, there are contemporary flourishes to Kofi’s choice of rhythm and harmonic pathway.
This passion and commitment have secured his reputation not only in the UK – he is currently touring the repertories of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus alongside headlining his own bands – but, without much fuss, internationally as well. The saxophonist is a first choice for South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, tours regularly with American saxophonist David Murray and has recorded with Ornette Coleman.
This two-set Vortex gig presented a largely original repertoire, mostly drawn from the album Future Passed; the only cover was a second-set modal romp through McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance”. Kofi’s tunes have clear lines, contrasting themes and strong structures to blow on. Latin grooves swing in the bridge, new-school beats give way to a calypso lilt and long modal playouts fade to a whisper. With organist Anders Olinder in the holding role, Kofi could take full advantage of drummer Winston Clifford’s relaxed polyrhythmic ping, sharp accents and on-the-beat chatter.
The evening began with Kofi unaccompanied, rippling bucolically to introduce the township-inflected “Suibokuga”. Friends were namechecked – “Soul Food” and the disturbingly downbeat “Blue Pavel” – while his family were a constant source of inspiration. The warm, wistful ballad “A Song for Pappa Jack” was for his late West Africa-born father, the playful “Jubilation” for daughter Boo, and the funky “The Brotherhood” for the six brothers who threw shoes at him while he learnt the saxophone. Full of twists and double-tempos, it ended the evening with a cascade of Kofi phonics, a climactic roll and the sharp crack of Winston Clifford’s snare.