Date: September 10th, 11th, & 12th 2015
Venue: WoW Café Theater (NY)
Concert review by Dawoud Kringle
On the weekend of September 10th, 11th, & 12th 2015 (an auspicious occasion) NYC’s WoW Café Theater hosted master singer / songwriter Kosi’s (nee’ Akosua Gyebi) musical and theatrical tribute to Abbey Lincoln. She was joined by Brendon Biagi (tenor saxophone), Aron Marchak (guitar), Christopher Hall (bass) and Isaiah Pierce (drums).
It is fitting that the show should be at a theater. This was not your usual jazz show, although it completely contained the whole of jazz performance. This was Jazz Theater. More than an enhanced evening of sitting in a club and listening to a good jazz group, it was possibly the beginning of a new genre of jazz performance.
Kosi opened with Lincoln’s contemplative ballad “Learning How to Listen,” and performed it as a duet with Marchak. This was the beginning of Kosi’s career as a solo performer; the stripped down, minimal (yet masterful) accompaniment, and completely honest and unadulterated song. Her stage presence was casual, and connected with the audience on a personal level. From the opening notes, she pretty much owned the audience.
In her monologue onstage, Kosi made mention of this being the “Post Abbey Lincoln Era of Jazz.” She described her experience of tracing her own musical lineage back to Billie Holiday. As an eloquent underscoring of this, recordings of Abbey Lincoln interviews were masterfully interspersed into her monologue and into the transitions between songs throughout the show. The first of these led into a cover of “Strange Fruit.” This song, while having been covered again and again, carries a responsibility to convey a very dark and shameful period of US history. Kosi’s interpretation was sad and almost terrifying; as if the voices of her ancestors were telling the story. She rode this vibe as she went into “Driva Man” that began in 5/4, and shifted into an uptempo blues shuffle. This would foretell the dominant presence of the blues throughout the whole show.
After this, they segued into “Africa.” It began with Kosi reciting poetry over a musical backdrop. Their approach to Coltrane’s composition, to which Lincoln wrote lyrics, paid proper homage to both masters. It was also an eloquent statement of what is part of an inner essence of jazz and all great African American music; the triumph of joy and dignity over suffering and humiliation. This was a quite fitting follow up of what preceded it, and its spirit brought closure and an end to tragedy.
The name of Thelonious Monk was invoked on an audio clip of another Lincoln interview. With this deft set up, “Blue Monk” was explored with the same swagger and confidence as a group of friends out for a night on the town. It was a blues – or more specifically within the context of jazz, another facet of the blues – and they made sure you understood that fact.
After an intermission, they returned. A clip of Lincoln ushered in her song “Down Here Below”. Here, Kosi was a sultry jazz chanteuse whose performance was quite moving. The vocals began as a delicate entreaty and ended as an impassioned cry.
The blues was explored from a different angle on “Hey Lawdy Mama”. Kosi transformed, musically, and visually, into a tough, sexy, two-fisted extroverted blues singer. Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone both had their way with this song; and this night, Kosi had her way with it.
Another change in her stage persona followed. Donning a “church” robe, and reciting a powerfully moving poem, she displayed a very different musical side in Lincoln’s “Story of My Father”. This was both gospel and spiritual jazz. Kosi’s performance on this was astonishing in its emotional depth. Listening to this, you not only knew, but felt the whole history of a family and of a people.
After another costume change in the dark, they continued with the next two songs, “Elder Washington,” and “Harlem Shaman.” They were composed, respectively, by Salim Washington and Beavin Lawrence, with Kosi writing the lyrics. The compositions were amazing, and the whole band did the potential and inner spirit of these beautiful songs justice.
The evening concluded with Lincoln’s “Wholly Earth.” It is an eloquent statement of deep truths, both observed and extrapolated, expressed with unbridled joy. It was also a fitting endgame to a profound musical and theatrical journey.
I would be terribly remiss in my responsibility as a music journalist if I omitted mention of the truly magnificent band that graced the stage. They proved themselves to be masters of their craft. Marchak‘s approach was deceptively understated, and at the same time subtle in its aggressive purveyance of musical imagination. Biagi was the quintessential jazz saxophonist; classy and cool while making no secret of his chops and musicality. Hall‘s impassioned bass playing added marvelous textures to an already impressive performance. Pierce‘s drum work was lyrical and always full of surprises. As they played and took their respective solos, there were more than a few times their musicianship elicited gasps of amazement from the audience, and even among themselves. Not a bad note was played, not a mediocre musical phrase was heard.
The music and performance this night was, to my ears and my heart, the true spirit of jazz. The real essence and soul of the music was conjured to real appearance in that small theater. But the thing that mainly separated “Ghosts Appearing Through the Sound” from what would have been only a great jazz performance was the theatrics working with the music to make a coherent statement. Kosi and her group didn’t use cheap gimmicks, nor did they go all out like Sun Ra or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. They didn’t need to.
Kosi knows how to make the music stand on its own; regardless if she’s in a large production on a large stage, or sitting in a chair singing and playing her guitar in a coffee shop. This night, she took you step by step through the history of a people. Her vision succeeded in not only a description and demonstration, but an actual and real visceral experience of an important part of African American culture.
Jazz audiences do not realize it yet, but on this night, Kosi proved herself to be one of the rightful heirs to the Holiday / Lincoln / Simone legacy, and a visionary leader of the “Post Abbey Lincoln Era of Jazz.”