By Sammy Stein
Lol Coxhill was an English saxophone player, largely known for playing soprano and sopranino saxophones. He began playing aged 15 in 1947 and later in that decade, organised club sessions where he introduced music from the jazz coming from the US. He later toured with musicians in America. Back in the UK, he played with Otis Spann, Jack Dupree and many other musicians. Coxhill was unconventional in so many ways. Rather than a permanent trio, quartet or collaborator, he played with a host of different combinations across his career; many of them were long-lasting, but some less so. He even busked to make ends meet whilst he studied music in London. This led to gigs in clubs.
He played with Carol Grimes, Steve Beresford, Tony Coe, Steve Miller, Derek Bailey, Mike Oldfield, Django Bates and Hugh Metcalfe, to list just a few. He was eccentric and held a place in many jazz enthusiasts' hearts. A Coxhill gig was rarely as billed.
Coxhill was known for his banter with the audience and his wry sense of humour. He would sometimes introduce his music by saying, 'what I am about to play, you may not understand,' and sometimes he would stop during a performance to explain something to the audience and occasionally because he lost interest in the piece he was exploring. In the early 1970s, Coxhill was busking, something he returned to when times got hard - and the DJ John Peel came across him on London's South Bank. He signed Coxhill to his Dandelion label and Ear Of The Beholder was a double album that included Coxhill in collaborations with Ed Speight, Robert Wyatt and others. He was part of the London Musical Collective during the 1980s and was known for his pleasant singing voice as well. He played across genres, never limited or dictated to and was an original. He played with diverse groups including The Damned, R & B bands, ska, punk and performed straight-ahead jazz as well as improvised solo concerts.
Coxhill was a unique musician and performer. One of his traits was to switch from fierce improvisation to a remembered melody or song - explaining why he did so - or not- to the audience.
On 29th June 1985, at a performance at Gibbs Jazz Club, Cardiff, Nick Lea made a recording on the second night of a two-night booking. Coxhill talks to the audience, explains and introduces numbers, changes his mind and also blows the listener away with his playing. Nick says, "I was working at the club and had been bowled over by Lol's playing the previous night and asked him if I could make a private recording of the concert. He agreed, and two copies of the recording were made; my original and a copy for Lol. The concert was recorded very simply using a radio/cassette recorder which I had at home, and I used 2 mics; one in front of Lol and one suspended from the ceiling above him as he played.
I mentioned this recording to George Haslam of SLAM Productions and sent him the cassette to listen to. George liked what he heard and transferred it to digital files and took these to a studio Oxford with a view to releasing the material on the SLAM imprint so that this wonderful music could at last be heard."
Track 1 is a spoken introduction and an insight into how Coxhill created a dialogue with the audience. He tells how he accepted a list of requests from the management largely to be nice, but there is no guarantee he will play any of them - but then again, he might. He even explains why he takes his glasses off before playing. The first musical track,'Unconfirmed', is just over 12 minutes of free and sublime playing. Coxhill swoops and soars, adds intricate and evolving phrases which follow the scales and changes are introduced with almost every breath. Covering the entire range of the soprano sax, Coxhill shows not only the diversity of this instrument but just what it can do in the hands of a virtuoso.
Jimmy Van-Heusen/Johnny Mercer's 'I Thought About You' is given the Coxhill treatment resulting in a delicious exploration of every variation of the theme imaginable and probably some unimaginable. Barely recognisable, the tune is hidden beneath layer upon layer of Coxhill's masterful improvisations, yet there it is, emerging now and again, still apparent and still held in the mind of the musician who so dexterously delivers his variations.
'Track 4 ' is a dialogue where Coxhill tells how he was offered a sopranino saxophone that cost too much, so he stuck with his 1920s original. He then launches into a short, fierce, and intricate display before introducing 'My Old Sopranino', a track not, Coxhill explained, dedicated to those he did not enjoy working with. He also explains the dialogue is there to help people get closer to the music. The track finally begins with Coxhill demonstrating the beauty of a sopranino, veering from familiar phrases to crazed rock-infused motifs and squealing rises, falling away to the lower register and once again returning to melodic phrasing. A gentler, relaxed middle section gives way to a hefty change of pace before a return to the frenetic speed of Coxhill's delivery.
'Still For Bunk' is introduced with a long narrative about a (fictitious as it turns out) sax player Coxhill knew called Bunk Funk who thought he would walk with God. Coxhill comments that Bunk should find out if he could walk with God soon as he is very old before apparently receiving a message that Bunk died the day before. The number itself starts with melodic, deeply expressive, carefully phrased offerings, laced with snippets of ' Nearer My God To Thee' before Coxhill stops and tells the audience he just made the story up, apologises and says he will begin the set again and can they forgive him? 'Nit Picking' more than deserves the audience's forgiveness. It is full-bodied and full of intrigue, little rivulets of sound introduced, improvised around and delivered with a light touch. ' Beyond The Rainbow' is a play on the familiar song of a similar name, which can be heard at times through the looped, sped up and slowed down improvisations around the tune; it seems Coxhill takes two bars at a time, improvises the heck out of them before eventually moving to the next two. Clever and decidedly immersive, especially as the latter half is freer with superb intonation, returning to the last 2 bars of 'Over The Rainbow' to finish.
After a brief dialogue where Coxhill states he has been asked to play 'Stranger On The Shore' by some and not to play ' Stranger On The Shore', by others, 'No Stranger' turns out to be five and a half minutes of energy-driven improvisation with subtle references to the number he was asked not play/not play. Travelling at speed, Coxhill melds and forms improvised phrases around the tune. 'Stranger On The Shore' emerges pure and sweet from the sopranino in the middle section before Coxhill lubricates the channels of improvisation with his slick delivery once again. So, he manages both to play and not to play 'Stranger On The Shore'
'Juan For The Road' is an adventurous journey of a track, veering from melodic phrasing to snatched improvised episodes. Coxhill seems to snatch a related note from the key and work with it before discarding this idea and taking off in another direction. Characterful and atmospheric, the pauses offering as much texture as the notes themselves. As the noise of the audience grows in the closing stages, there is a sense of Coxhill in the zone, that other place where music can take you and this is reflected in the soaring quality of his playing.
This live recording is special and offers an experience that is different and unique. It is said no jazz performance is ever the same, and with the added flourishes of genius which Coxhill adds to both his repartee and his music, enjoyment is guaranteed. It would be impossible to repeat the performance. One of his jokes in the narrative is that he is billed as a unique musician. 'but,' 'he adds,' they never said I was good'.
I think anyone listening to this would beg to differ.
More info at SLAM Productions.