The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Xhosa Cole
K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us Nick Roseblade , August 18th, 2021 07:55

After a string of standout collaborations, the twenty-four year old saxophonist really lets rip on this debut album, finds Nick Roseblade

In a very short period of time saxophonist Xhosa Cole has amassed a strong body of work. As well as being the BBC’s Young Jazz Musician in 2018, his tracks on Bobbie Gardner’s 2018 tribute to Birmingham for-Wards blew everyone else way. Considering that album featured contributions from Pram, Grandmaster Gareth, and Justin K Broadrick shows just how strong that contribution was. His improvisation album Autumn Conversations, also in 2018, with EIF showed he was happy to play with non-jazz musicians. In 2019 he stole the show on Soweto Kinch’s The Black Peril album, and his work on Rachel Musson’s I Went This Way took that album to somewhere else entirely. All this feels like it has now been eclipsed by his debut album K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us.

The title references a Dizzy Gillespie quote about Louis Armstrong, “No him, no me”, and at its heart K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us is a love letter to the music Cole loves. Each track is a re-interpretation of a formative love. The album opens with Woody Shaw’s ‘Zoltan’. Cole used to sit with a friend by the Edgbaston Reservoir listening to the album and trying to work it out. ‘What’s New’ was one of the first jazz songs Cole remembers hearing. All the romance of the original is still there, but it feels like a totally different track.

The first thing you notice about K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us is how great the playing is. This feels almost redundant to mention as Cole’s quartet is made up of Jay Phelps on trumpet, James Owston on bass, and James Bashford on drums, but it has to be said. The playing is fluid, but it has this ability to sound jarring at times, too. During opening track ‘Zoltan’, around the halfway point, Phelps and Cole just go at it. Both soloing their guts out, while Owston and Bashford keep everything progressing. At first it sounds like a wonderful cacophony, but after repeated listens their interplay is divine. Then everything comes together for the main motif at the end, before its gracefully petters out.

Ornette Coleman’s ‘Blues Connotation’ is up next. There is a lovely bounce to the playing. It’s infectious and makes you want to get moving. Even if it’s bobbing your head, tapping your foot or full-on dancing in your living room on your lunch break.

The standout track is the album closer. Lee Morgan’s ‘Untitled Boogaloo’. Everything about ‘Untitled Boogaloo’ is sheer unadulterated fun. You can tell the quartet is having a blast playing. Throughout the song we are introduced to the players. They have a little solo then slot back into the track. There is an additional player on the track: Soweto Kinch. He is introduced as “The Master”. When this happens the band just let rip, unlike anything we’ve heard on the album so far. The music goes up a notch. It is a fitting way to end an explosively entertaining album.

Whilst listening to K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us, it’s easy to forget the Cole is still only twenty-four years old. His musicianship is glorious yet measured. When he plays ‘What’s New’, you can feel the romance flowing from his horn. Yet, when he wants to let rip and trade notes with Phelps, it’s with a firm understanding of his own abilities, his bandmates, and what the song needs. He shares the spotlight well, whilst delivering the killer notes when it’s his turn.

K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us also makes me think of Sun Ra. Now, the way I’m thinking of Ra might not be how you imagine. Yes, they were both exceptional jazz musicians, but from different ends of jazz’s spectrum. Ra went out there into the cosmos releasing Afrocentirc/futuristic albums. The reason why K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us reminds me of Ra is because of the title of a 1980 documentary called A Joyful Noise. Throughout Cole delivers a joyful noise. Every track permeates positivity from every pore.