Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Connor Pope
I’ve not been to Handsworth for a gig before, and I’m not prone to moving much on Bank Holiday Sundays; but I’d travel pretty much anywhere to listen to Xhosa Cole, BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year 2018 play his saxophone.
Grosvenor isn’t elaborate but there are recent portraits by local artist Maryam Wahid hanging on the walls, as well as teas, coffees and patties which gives the space great energy. I’m not disappointed when the crowd is small and somewhat demure. This kind of jazz should be intimate, and with a spot quickly secured in the front row I’m ready to hang off every note.
The quartet brag Nathan England Jones on drums, Josh Vadiveloo on double bass, Steve Saunders on guitar, and finally Xhosa Cole on saxophone. It dawns on me that the musicians’ suits match their instruments, and I wonder momentarily if it’s deliberate or a jazzy accident.
Then, Xhosa leads on a relatively tame but still intricate number cascading his fingers gently up and down the length of his sax. Nathan’s drumming keeps perfect time whilst also building texture around Xhosa’s melody. Utilising switch brushes frequently, he never distracts from the clear crisp tones of the saxophone, but rather emphasises and enhances them at every opportunity.
Josh strums the double bass with both hands and Steve plucks his guitar expertly. The two play cleverly against each other, Steve’s eyes stuck to Josh’s bass, and Josh’s stuck to Steve’s guitar in return. The small glances and smiles grow amongst the quartet as the pace on the piece ebbs and flows, which makes it feel like there’s a game afoot. The musicians are passing rhythms and seemingly random but perfect notes between each other too cleverly for us to catch on.
Suddenly, the sound is stripped back and we are left alone with Xhosa and his saxophone.
He makes the melody dance with his impeccable musicianship. Breathy notes skip across each other almost entangled, fluttering, ascending and descending, holding the small crowd’s attention absolutely.
Xhosa lets out a soft ‘mmm’ reiterating our sentiments.
The next song ‘While My Lady Sleeps’ is a darker atmospheric piece which starts with Xhosa sat down, and Josh trailing his hands eerily along the neck of his double bass. The cymbal and guitar synchronise bringing in the rhythm and Nathan’s diverse ability on drums carries us away.
Xhosa stands up and delivers a long elegant note to the audience. This is the best Sunday I’ve had in a while, I think as the instruments individual sounds swim over one another.
The quartet’s final song is ‘Come Sunday’ – how fitting. I close my eyes and each phrase paints different colours and patterns in my mind. Sea blues and sunny yellows twirl and mix together to make deep forest greens. As the piece progresses, the greens warp into purple and then back to bright blue adding to my ever growing synesthetic collage.
Nathan’s eyes are closed too, I wonder if we were seeing the collage of sound.
‘Come Sunday’ is far smoother than ‘While My Lady Sleeps’, and the gentle rhythm seems to spread in all directions, softly filling the room with a warm glow. When Xhosa takes his place centre stage again the soft glow curated by Nathan, Josh and Steve is ignited by the golden saxophone.
Is not that the sound is lacking when Xhosa isn’t present, none of these musicians are lacking. It’s just the case that when Xhosa is playing his saxophone, the room is full of sunshine.
For more on Xhosa Cole visit: www.xhosacole.com
For more from Grosvenor visit www.grosvenorroadstudios.com