“…Ornette like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis has changed a whole generation from cradle to grave. I was honoured to have the pleasure to rehearse with him at his loft apartment in NY. He told me some amazing stories about John Coltrane coming to his house to rehearse and take lessons from him….” – Tony Kofi
Photo: Courtesy of Steven Cropper
Saxophonist, composer, multi-instrumentalists, bandleader and music instructor Tony Kofi is a man who has made major waves in and around the UK music scene. Kofi’s past accolades include, winner of Best ensemble at 2005 the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, Winner of Radio 3 Jazz Line Album of the Year at the 2005. Furthermore Tony was voted Winner of the Best instrumentalist at the 2008 BBC Jazz awards as well as being nominated for a MOBO award in the same year. Little could he know that his incidental introduction to Jazz via a series of jazz workshops in Leicester would lead to him going on to receive a four-year diploma music scholarship from the esteemed Berklee College of music in Boston Massachusetts.
His resume reads like a Who’s Who of jazz musicians having played alongside luminaries such as Donald Byrd, Dr Lonnie Smith, Courtney Pine, Gary Crosby, Eddie Henderson, Julian Joseph, David Murray and the World Saxophone Quartet, Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill, Orphy Robinson, Cleveland Watkins and Harry Beckett to name a handful. Not to mention his fellow Sphinx band members Larry Bartley and Rod Young.
Michael J Edwards sat down with the talented and expressive saxophonist prior to his Sphinx Trio paying tribute to the late purveyor of Free Jazz, Ornette Coleman (the man who impacted Tony’s musical style as well as his life in a major way) at Vortex Jazz Club. Kofi talks with understandable passion about his friend and fellow saxophonist as well as his other influences. He also discusses his journey thus far and his future plans for 2016 and beyond.
Michael J Edwards: Greetings Tony Kofi, It’s a pleasure to sit down with you. Growing up in Nottingham was the Kofi household filled with music?
Tony Kofi: Yes it was, it always filled with music because my parents and my mum especially had seen Louis Armstrong as a child. He came to Ghana and she was following the motorcade; she loved the music. So when she came to England she bought a whole stack of records of Louis Armstrong. As well as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie holiday, Doris Day etc; so she had all the records and I remember being a kid and hearing this amazing music! But I never thought that I would end up playing this kind of music. But it was great, so for sure there was always music in our house; especially West African music.
Michael J Edwards: How many siblings do you have?
Tony Kofi: I’m one of seven children.
Michael J Edwards: Did your parents or siblings have any musical interest?
Tony Kofi: My parents didn’t but my younger brother did. So we’re the only two that decided to take it further. Basically, I really didn’t have a choice because I never did music in school as they said I didn’t show enough enthusiasm. So they threw me out of music and put me into woodwork. So I did woodwork but on the side I always loved and listened to music at home, but it wasn’t until I left school that I took music seriously and bought an instrument and started to practice. I started pretty late, in fact I was a carpenter at first. Then something happened and I thought, “I need a career change!”
Michael J Edwards: I understand that if it wasn’t for you happening on a jazz workshop back in the day ran by a certain Nick Hislam we may not be having this conversation?
Tony Kofi: No, because at the time my parents couldn’t afford lessons, so I never really took any formal lessons. Even to this day I’ve never really taken any saxophone lessons, I’m totally self-taught. What happened was I went to Jazz workshops to try and learn a bit of theory, because I couldn’t read music as I was self taught…It wasn’t until later when I got to Berklee College that I acquired all those skills.
Photo: Courtesy of Steven Cropper
Michael J Edwards: I understand you are a competent flautist, pianist and percussionist. Is this true?
Tony Kofi: I’m not really a pianist, I use the piano as a means of composing, but I wouldn’t say I’m competent in that I play loads of tunes, and dabble in the others but the saxophone is my major.
Michael J Edwards: What made you lean towards the saxophone as your preferred instrument of choice?
Tony Kofi: I didn’t choose the saxophone, I believe that the saxophone chose me. I seriously believe that! The energy of that instrument pulled me in. I did not set out to choose saxophone, I’m certain the saxophone chose me. That was it, I just gravitated towards it, the energy was there; it was as if it was all so easy. Not easy with regards to the practising and learning the scales because that was really hard; the easy part was the choice, the choice was right there for me… I could just say, “That’s it, that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life!”
Michael J Edwards: What part did George Carmichael play in your development?
Tony Kofi: George Carmichael is the person who helped me with my reading when I got my audition with Berklee College of Music. He helped me with my reading; he gave me classical etudes to play and stuff. He really, really helped me, so that was a transitional period in my life, he was something else, his energy was amazing and still with me to this day. His vibe was “Right! You’re going to America; you got to know something about theory.” So he pushed me in that direction, I owe him so much in terms of sound and energy. He passed away in 2014 but definitely not forgotten.
Michael J Edwards: When and why did you make the move to Boston to study alongside luminaries such as Billy Pearce at the Berklee College of Music and how did that accelerate your development?
Tony Kofi: Well basically I tried to get into some of the colleges and universities in England, but because I didn’t meet the grade requirements they said, “In order to get on the course you need to have achieved Grade 3 and over. What grade are you?” I said, “I don’t have any grades.” They said, “We’re sorry we can’t take you.” So I said, “Forget you!” That was the polite answer (Smiles). I used to buy this magazine called ‘Down Beat’ and it used to have these captions on the side which read, ‘Berklee College of Music’ and it highlighted the people who went there like Ernie Watts, Quincy Jones, Branford Marsalis etc., and I thought, “Wow!”
So I wrote to them (Down Beat) and they sent me correspondence back saying, “Can you send us a tape or recording of you playing three styles of music.” This was back in 1988. So I got my friend to record me playing three styles of music; a ballad, a bossanova and swing. I sent it back to them and they sent me another letter saying, “Would you like to come for an audition?” I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is real!” At that point of my life I had never ever left my home town, or my own country and they sent for me to come for an audition; they even paid for me to come over! So I went for the audition and I thought I had failed because the reading was quite hard.
That’s actually where I met Julian Joseph; as the connection between me and Julian Joseph. Basically I went there and auditioned and came back. Two months later I received a letter saying congratulations you’ve won a scholarship to Berkelee College of Music. And that was it, I never looked back since.
Michael J Edwards: Your resumé reads like a Who’s Who of Jazz musicians and during the nineties you played alongside many distinguished musicians such as Donald Byrd, Dr Lonnie Smith and other progressive artists – that must have been an exhilarating time for you?
Tony Kofi: It was fantastic because at the time I was touring with a group called ‘US 3’ in the nineties. Ed Jones and Byron Wallen were in that group as well and a few other people. It was a mixture of US rappers and jazz musicians. They had that famous song ‘Cantaloupe’ a version of the Herbie Hancock tune. We went out on the road and then there was a collaboration between US 3 and Dr Lonnie Smith which is floating around somewhere.
I met Donald Byrd when US 3 were in Brazil. But the most important part about that was he gave me a lesson in his hotel room. I still have the recording…he said it was okay to record it. So I’ve got a recording of Donald Byrd giving me a lesson on his concepts. Infact that period during that nineties was hectic. There’re so many people I could mention…Andrew Hill Big Band, Sam Rivers Big Band, World Saxophone Quartet, Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s Coltrane Configuration. In fact, we’re going out this year; we’re doing the music of Ornette Coleman with some strings. It’s part American and European band; so that’s going to be really exciting.
Michael J Edwards: Tonight here at the Vortex Jazz Bar your trio Sphinx are playing a set dedicated to the music of Ornette Coleman. Please expand on your introduction to and impact of Mr Ornette Coleman on your life?
Tony Kofi: Working with the World Saxophone Quartet I met Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Jamaaladeen Tacuma was a bass player who started out with Ornette Coleman when he was eighteen years old. When I worked with his band Coltrane Configuration he said he had a project that he wants to do dedicated to Ornette. He wanted to record an album in New York with Ornette on the album, and he said, “I want to use you as well?” I didn’t think anything of it at first until he called me up and said, “Tony it’s happening!” And I said, “What’s happening?” And he said, “The recording! I need you on tenor” I didn’t play tenor saxophone at the time, so I had to do some serious woodshedding on the tenor.
At the time I had agreed to do something for Serious Promotions at the Barbican when the Lincoln Centre All-Stars were here with Wynton Marsalis. We had to do something of a solo nature by way of collaboration with them. There was Byron Wallen, the late Harry Beckett; I think Soweto Kinch did something as did Jason Yarde. But I pulled out; because at the time that was happening I got called go to New York for a whole week. I had to rehearse and record with Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Justin Faulkner, Yoichi Uzeki (piano), Wolfgang Puschnig who played Shehnai and flute. I played tenor alongside Ornette (Coleman) with Jamaaladeen Tacuma bass. It was unbelievable; it was a great session and that’s when I had this epiphany of putting this trio together and calling it the Sphinx Trio.
Michael J Edwards: Why the Sphinx Trio?
Tony Kofi: I love riddles and I love the riddle of The Sphinx…. I read something which stayed with me, “What starts off with no legs and then two legs and then three legs?” The answer is: “A baby, a grown man and then an old man with a walking stick. And this epitomises the way that Ornette has changed a whole generation from cradle to grave. I rehearsed with him and the rehearsal was at his loft apartment. And man that guy was serious! He told me some stories about John Coltrane coming to his house to rehearse and take lessons from him…. He said how when he came to New York in 1959 everyone thought he was a joke. He had a lot of haters, but he also had a lot of people who believed in him. Everyone kept comparing him to Bird (Charlie Parker); obviously he came out of Bird but he had something so original, he had something beautiful going on.
He explained to me about harmolodics. Harmolodics is creating melody, harmony and rhythm simultaneously, it’s such a beautiful concept, obviously it’s much deeper than that but that’s the concept of Harmolodics. He was way ahead of his time, we had to catch up and keep up, people like Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Dewey Redman and Don Cherry they understood that. So I was like, “Man, now I get it!” And that’s why I had this idea of putting a trio together which expands into a quartet with Byron Wallen.
Michael J Edwards: As alluded to earlier your trio Sphinx i.e Larry Bartley (bass) and Rod Young (drums) are paying tribute to the music of Ornette Coleman evening. Was this a homage you’ve wanted to do for a long time and what can we expect?
Tony Kofi: Definitely I connected with these tunes straight away and basically I just thought, “Yes, why not?” But this is a stepping stone to where I’m going to start recording with Larry and Rod I am going to do a Sphinx Trio album. It won’t necessarily be the music of Ornette Coleman, but our own music, which is inspired by Ornette Coleman’s music.
Photo: Courtesy of Steven Cropper
Michael J Edwards: What do Rod Young and Larry Bartley bring to the musical table?
Tony Kofi: Basically, these two musicians are so organic and they bring a lot to the table. When I had this idea in the first place these are the two people I heard in my mind. I don’t have to tell them what to play, they know what play. It’s very easy for me and the way we interact with each other. Also, the way we harmonise and re-harmonise with it and re-harmonise with each other, it’s just beautiful!
Michael J Edwards: What music you are you listening to at the moment?
Tony Kofi: You know what I’m listening to everything. I listen to anything and everything, whether it is Jazz, Funk, Soul, or R&B, Classical or Hip-Hop. I don’t have a tunnel vision of what I listen to. I listen to anything and everything because music is universal and you can’t just listen to one genre of music… You have to move with the times; I’ve got kids and they listen to some amazing music and I’ve got to keep up with these kids you know. (Smiles)
Michael J Edwards: You’ve played a few times now at this venue as part of ‘Freedom – The Art of Improvisation’ run by your good friends Orphy Robinson, Cleveland Watkiss and Tori Handsley. What are your thoughts on the importance of these ‘Freedom…’ sessions?
Tony Kofi: I think we’re bringing this music, this self-expression of music to the wider audience. People think that music has to be structured to a certain level and I don’t believe in that. When people first heard Be-Bop, it was alien to them because it was so free. It had a lot of harmony; it had a lot of re-harmonisation which Charlie Parker, along with Bud Powell, Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and so on. I think that playing free music is only an extension of what Ornette Coleman brought to the world, there are only twelve notes so you can create whatever you want to create. And you know what; in years to come there might be another genre of music that’s going to send us into another stratosphere, because that’s what happened in 1959. I believe that the ‘Freedom… ‘that we have now will lay a path for a new wave of music, because we can’t close our ears to what is out there at the moment, to me it’s beautiful that we have such musical diversity out there.
Michael J Edwards: What advice would you give to young saxophonist and musicians making their way in the industry?
Tony Kofi: Don’t lose your ears, because a lot of musicians tend to have everything in front of them. If you go back to the generation of Bird, that music came out from within them. I saw an interview with Gary Bartz who talked about how music is backwards because now in most institutions it’s all about the reading music and charts and then they try to get a sound. If you learn with your ears now, then you can create your own sound like Ornette and Bird and all the cats that came from that era. So sound is very, very important. And this is where I’m coming from; I’m coming from sound first and then the others later, sound is number one. So what I would say to the younger musicians of today is don’t lose your ears. Use your ears, try to find your sound, then you can lay the foundations and build on top of that. I know Larry’s sound, I know Rod’s sound and I’m very accustomed to that. If I change one person it changes the whole dynamic because I’m used to their sound.
Michael J Edwards: Who are some of your musical influences on the saxophone and in general?
Tony Kofi: Of course Bird, Ornette Coleman, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy. There’s so many – Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon. I’m influenced by all those cats.
Michael J Edwards: What plans do you have regarding future recordings and future gigs for 2016 and beyond?
Tony Kofi: I’m going to hopefully be recording a Sphinx Trio album this year of original compositions and some non-originals. Hopefully we’ll tour it for the latter part of 2016 and 2017. It may be an independent release.
Michael J Edwards: Sounds very enticing. Thank you for your time Tony, looking forward to a sublime gig this evening.
Tony Kofi: Thank you Michael
Michael J Edwards