Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Tony Kofi. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Tony Kofi: – I grew up in Nottingham which is the midlands of England. I was born there with six other brothers. (no sisters) My parents always had jazz records around before we were born and would play them every weekend, I must have heard Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong’s music before I really knew who they were as jazz icons. I suppose I was always fascinated with music from childhood but when I got to school they wouldn’t allow me to partake in music, reason was I just wasn’t good enough or didn’t have the focus. So I went through my school life not doing any musical activities, but at 16 I had a really unfortunate life threatening accident (fortunate for me) that made me want to pick up an instrument, whilst I spent months at home recovering I thought to myself what if the teachers were wrong? I kind of hand this epiphany, like a calling to take up an instrument, the rest (as they say) is history.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
TK: – I got my sound by listening to Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane Benny Carter, and Ornette Coleman etc. As I was self taught (because I couldn’t afford tuition) I thought the best thing to do was to have an ear pleasing sound because my brothers hated the squeaks and shrill sounds coming from the bedroom, they used to through shoes at me as I practiced, so I was hard pressed to please their ears first, they were my barometer to let me know whether I was playing with a good sound or a bad one, so sound came before technique if I wanted those shoes to stop flying in at my head. Lots of listening and playing long tones.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
TK: – Like all things, it was about trail and error for me, I’ve always heard jazz as a language and as my family originates from Ghana which makes me bilingual, I learnt jazz the same way which is how it was originally passed down through generations of musicians, the theory side came later, I always knew that I had to learn my basic scales and arpeggios in order to get around my instrument. I remember one musician asking me how did I learn the language of Be Bop so fast and I answered that I just hear it like a spoken language, you have to keep on listening, be in it to win it.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
TK: – I was extremly focused as a teenager, once i knew what i wanted to do for the rest of my life, nothing would ever deter me from becoming a musician, it was written in the stars i thought, all i had to do was reach for it and take it, with hard work of course.
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
TK: – I become very still and silent, that’s part of my ritual and personality, if you become still and calm you can be in the moment, not thinking about the past or the future but being right there in the present moment. It’s a good feeling, something I picked up as a child at school, I used to watch all the kids running around all crazy, fighting, jumping running, and I’d stand perfectly still and listen to my breathing, always felt good to do that.
JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?
TK: – I think my sound is always evolving throughout the years and because I’ve always thought that sound is the first thing that people hear it’s always kept me mindful that whenever I perform I must communicate with my sound, not my technique. That’s what attracted me to the masters; their sound is their signature. As for the musicians Alex Webb (piano) whom I’ve done many projects with was the brainchild for this project, we put our heads together and both came up with the one musician that we both admire, Cannonball Adderley, to me Cannonball has not been honored when it comes to the jazz historians, they do documentaries on Miles Davis, Trane, Monk, Ornette but no one ever mentions Cannonball Adderley. As for the other musicians (Andrew Cleyndert, Alfonso Vitale and Andy Davies), I’ve played with them in various combinations so it wasn’t too difficult to choose who best to suit this project, after our first rehearsal I knew because they all played with so much dedication and soul.
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
TK: – I think you need both but if you’d ask me to choose one then it would be soul every time. When you play with soul and passion it really touches people and crosses all language barriers, that’s where the spiritual side and sincerity shines through.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
TK: – Definitely, they are there to see you, they are the paying customers. It’s like a ritual, they’ve come to hear you speak the truth and you can’t deny them of that. They give you the vibe and you can play off that. When we recorded Another kind of Soul the audience were right there with us, feeding me with good energy and I gave them back 200% of myself, it’s all about give and take when I perform, I like to send them home happy, and if they buy my albums then they’re taking a part of me home with them.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
TK: – I was once subbing a couple of concerts for Oliver Lake in the World saxophone quartet and after the concert was over I went home and thought nothing of it, but then I was called back a few months later to join the original members and when they introduced me at the end of the concert David Murray said and the newest member of the WSQ is Tony Kofi, the shock on my face was priceless. I spent 6 glorious years with them. One of the most amazing rehearsals was to rehearse in Ornette Coleman’s house in NYC and a week later record with him sitting right next to me in the recording booth. I’ll be here all day if I have to tell you my other great stories.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
TK: – I think jazz has become much hipper with many of the younger generation already digging it and loving it. I teach in two jazz academies and it’s full of young musicians, and they’re all very hungry. There’s a few in there who are chasing my crown and want to play and sound like me now and they’re 11-13 years old, trust me this music will be passed on to the next generation, it’s not something I worry about.
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
TK: – For me it’s all connected to what we do and how we live our lives now, I feel music in a very spiritual way to my soul, it’s like I’m crying, the ultimate way of self expression which is very synonymous to how we live in these times. I feel constantly switched on and very blessed that I can express how I feel through music.
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
TK: – I would change that we jazz musicians are better paid and not have to struggle so much. With Covid19 upon us we are struggling the most because a large part of our livelihood is live performance, if we were better paid then many of us would not be seeking funding from various organizations to help us out.
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
TK: – I still listen to all the old jazz classics, which never goes out of fashion. I also love classical music, country and western and the music of today, music that my children are listening to so that I can look a bit more hip to them when I know who’s performing the songs.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
TK: – I say honesty; I truly love to play from the soul, whether it’s my own compositions or someone else’s. I will express the way I feel, which is why it comes out with my own signature style of playing
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
TK: – I’d definitely love to go back to 1945, back to the era of Be Bop, just thinking about it gets me all excited. Can you imagine how it must have felt and sounded to hear Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell? All those amazing musicians carried so much magic and I sure would have loved to be a part of that. Sighhh!
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
TK: – What do you think of the music scene in our present moment? Do you think they are too many genre’s that divide the name we call jazz? Why are there some many jazz festivals around the world but hardly have any jazz artists performing there? Sorry that’s more than one but I have many questions.
JBN: – The music scene in our present moment many and varied, hard to understand. Yes, of course, they are too many genre’s that divide the name we call jazz, it is bad! The many jazz festivals around the world but hardly have any jazz artists performing there, because it willow business, unfortunately …
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
TK: – I take life one day at a time, from moment to moment, I’d like to think that I’m a part of the solution, not the problem, that I’m a part of something very special and will leave my mark in this world before I head off into the next life.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan