top of page

Album Interview Jazz Wise

By Jane Cornwell 


Alina Bzhezhinska and Tony Kofi Altera Vita BBE BBE779ACD/LP (CD, LP, DL) Alina Bzhezhinska (hp, perc), Tony Kofi (ts, perc, kalimba) and Muriel Grossman (tanpura). Rec. 29-30 August 2023


Three rings on a singing bowl, and Altera Vita unfurls slowly, languorously, into being, a sonic lotus flower in a spiritual jazz garden planted by the likes of Pharoah Sanders and Alice and John Coltrane.


This spare, superb duo album might have come from on high, such is its soul-cleansing timeliness, the way it transfixes the listener across six tracks whose intentions, spelled out after opener 'Tabula Rasa: Blank Slate', are titled like offerings ('Anima: Breathe'; 'Audite Me: Hear Me').


The symbiosis between harpist Bzhezhinska and tenor king Kofi has long been clear to all who've experienced their previous collaborations, most notably with the former's HipHarp Collective. But this recording takes both further. Laid down over two fecund days at London's Fish Factory Studios, Altera Vita sparkles with the sort of improvisational magic expected of players at the top of their game, with passages changing form, finding flow, conjuring shapes and angles, in ways surprising, soothing, thoughtful and rousing.


The harp's percussive prowess is echoed by details from chimes, bowls and kalimba thumb piano, and the instrument is determinedly presented on a par with the sax - which weaves golden lines through the more meditative string passages (deftly enhanced by tanpura drone on 'Audite Me') while delivering sunbursts of power on the eponymous closer, a Kofi-penned homage to Sanders involving elegant call-and-response. Astral travelling indeed. Jane Cornwell


Jane Cornwell talks to Alina and Tony about their new collaboration… Is there a story behind the title track, ‘Altera Vita’? Tony: We'd both met Pharoah [Sanders] in 2017 when we all performed a concert commemorating John and Alice Coltrane. When I heard that Pharoah had passed away [24 September 2022], I wrote this piece soon afterwards. We only practised the last phrase. It's a statement of the unity for our voices, with the harmonic note at the end reflecting the vibration of the travelling soul. We recorded it as a single and the overwhelmingly positive response suggested that we should go back to the studio and continue the journey.


Has your working relationship changed through this project? Alina: Altera Vita was created at the right time. Tony and I have worked on many different projects together and have co-created two albums deeply inspired by Alice and John Coltrane, and by Dorothy Ashby’s commitment to the jazz harp and to civil rights activism. The intensity of the music and our personal values and characters played a role in shaping what we have to say. This is an organic response to what is around us, and how it affects us. We also wanted to pay tribute to Master Pharoah Sanders.


What was the intention behind using hand percussion instruments and tanpura drone? Alina: All of them are deeply rooted in our traditions - both African and Eastern European. Tony loves playing kalimba, this magical sound that connects him to his ancestors. Opening the album with the sound of the bell brings the listeners to the present moment. As in recordings by Alice Coltrane, tanpura creates a meditative vibe to support the music.


Tell me about some other tracks and their messages. And why the tenor? Tony: 'Tu Vides: You See' is about bringing to life our inner vision. 'Audite Me: Hear Me' highlights being open to communication, and to being heard yourself. Playing exclusively on tenor saxophone meant I drew on influences from greats including Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler.


In what ways does the album showcase the versatility of the harp? Alina: The harp is an orchestra in itself. Playing in a duo allows for endless experiments. The harp is a vulnerable and exposed space; I'm listening to Tony’s bold playing and matching my sound accordingly. Tony told me early on to use my chops and experience and just play. That’s why the music on this album is so honest. Tony describes it as a cry of the soul.


How do you feel your musical partnership has progressed and how is it evidenced on the album? What do you hope people will take away? Alina: Our friendship and musical partnership has been taken to another level now we're working as a duo. We both make an effort to be humble and patient with each other. We have many years of respective experience as band leaders but the music we create as a duo is helping us to be better people and value each other even more. The album is like a pause button to make us reflect, re-set, be present. It's a reflection of general human experience - but also, of our two lives. Mine and Tony's. It expresses everything we've been through separately and together: love, loss, friendship. Even more love.

bottom of page