Two figures from whom Alina Bzhezhinska has gained inspiration are fellow harpists Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, who in the 1950s and 60s found themselves in the disadvantaged position of being black, female (in a male-dominated business) and playing an instrument not readily accepted as belonging to jazz.
Both struggled and overcame obstacles, gaining great respect. These were some of the things that Alina spoke about in a pre-concert Q&A session at Victoria House, Leamington Spa on 5th May, an event in association with the previous week’s International Jazz Day. She has an engaging manner when describing her life, influences and work and the audience gained an insight into it, enjoying the opportunity to ask questions.
Material by Coltrane and Ashby was featured in the concert that followed, along with original compositions by Alina and by bassist Adrian Litvinoff, whose band Interplay performed with her and saxophonist Tony Kofi. Starting with Alice Coltrane’s Wisdom Eye, segueing into Blue Nile, on which pianist Neil Hunter’s striking solo stood out, the programme included several Coltrane-associated numbers – Gospel Trane and Journey In Satchidinanda (Alice); Dahomey Dance and Naima (John); Contemplation (McCoy Tyner) – the harp central to the rhythm and framework of the performance, its full range of glissandi, sweeps and arpeggios being used. Hunter’s keyboards complemented the harp appropriately throughout the evening, whether in a Tynerish acoustic style or as an electric piano/organ, as on Dorothy Ashby’s Action Line.
Tony Kofi took solos on most; winding mesmeric patterns on soprano or roaring in with soulful and forthright tenor, an interesting comparison to the more laid-back, adroit and circumspect approach of Alan Wakeman. Alina sat out on a couple of numbers – Slow Flame, a Litvinoff-penned composition, had a particularly wistful mood, with subtle, sensitive solos from Wakeman on tenor and trombonist Richard Baker, conjuring up images of lonely bedsits and deserted streets; it could have been the soundtrack to a 60s film. The more assertive Spanish Steps had a hard-bop feel, Kofi’s authoritative tenor blazing.
Both Litvinoff’s bowed bass and the busy percussion of Dave Balen supported the ethereal, celestial harp of Journey In Satchidinanda with horns duly adding to the atmosphere, before the band ripped into an uptempo encore and members of the full-house audience gave a standing ovation.
Alina Bzhezhinska & Tony Kofi with Interplay, Victoria House, Leamington Spa. 5th May 2019.