We speak to the leading lights of a new crop of jazz musicians changing the way the UK thinks about music. This week, multi-instrumentalist Xhosa Cole speaks to us about community, diversity and the charisma of Sonny Rollins.
How would you describe your personal style?
My personal style is majoritively storytelling and based off the many hand-me-downs that I have, as the youngest of three siblings, I’ve become well used to wearing other people’s clothes and often find myself in the clothes that people have gifted me or what I have pinched from other people’s wardrobes.
What brought you to jazz?
This is always a difficult question because jazz just ended up becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life. I think fate had a big part to do with my connection with this music, and it’s something that has kept on growing and becoming a part of what shapes my life and my outlook on life. I caught the bug quite early in school and ever since then I’ve been more and more obsessed with this music.
Do you prefer performing to a large audience for example at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall or in more intimate jazz club settings such as Ronnie Scott’s?
I think that, especially post lockdown, I’m just grateful for every opportunity that I get to play music. For me each venue, each space and each audience has a specific and very special energy. So whether I’m playing a community gig or playing the Royal Albert Hall, I treat them equally with the same amount of respect and commitment whilst taking the opportunity to celebrate life and celebrate this music with my fellow musicians and the crowd that love and engage in this music.
Tell us about your involvement with the community outreach arts programs in Birmingham…
I came up through many different community outreach and creative community ensembles within the Birmingham area, including ACE Dance and Music, The Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra, Jazzlines and the local music service, and so really, I’m a product of the hard work and commitment of many great educators and facilitators and feel that now that I have some of the resources to do so, it’s important for me to keep that wheel spinning. So we run some community gigs and I’m also heavily involved in teaching and mentoring the next generation of young musicians to come out of Birmingham, all who have a really great style, approach and keenness to grow and learn within this music.
What do you like most/least about collaborating with other artists/being a member of a quartet?
This music was made to be played together, it’s a real celebration of what community can look like, It is a bit of a model for how collaboration can look in all walks of our lives, it is the epitome of all the great things of humanity – democracy, working alongside and together with people, and then occasionally our egos get wrapped into the mix as well. So it can be a reflection of how we live our lives and how we engage with each other.
How has living in Birmingham inspired your music?
Birmingham is a hugely diverse area. One of my mentors always says that the area I am from, Handsworth, is like the Harlem of the UK and in saying so he means that we have a massive immigrant population that spans many generations; South East Asian, Afro-Caribbean, East African, Eastern European, Middle-eastern. And so we have this melting pot of communities and cultures that all come together and are sharing in this landscape and sharing our homes together, that has been a huge factor that has shaped my personal identity, and that personal identity is reflected through the music. There’s a lot of creative stuff happening in Birmingham so I was lucky to be exposed to many different forms of the arts in this city.
What other sources of inspiration inform your compositions?
My music is inspired by those that have come before me, some of my works celebrate the legacy of Mr Andy Hamilton, one of the great Tenor players of this country whose legacy lives on through myself, Soweto Kinch and Shabaka Hutchings as well as many many more. I love that this music is timeless and there are elements of this music that subconsciously or consciously reflect what has come before, and I’m hoping that it will reflect what is to come of this great community of jazz musicians in the future.
Do you have a favourite Jazz Album/inspirational jazz artist?
Sonny Rollins’ music is very precious to me, the way he plays the saxophone is something special, he’s got a vocal quality to the way that he plays that really reflects his character, his charisma and his identity. As well as being a fellow descendent of Caribbeans, a descendent of Africans, I feel a strong connection with his voice and the language that he uses in his music, and I’ve spent many many hours listening to Sonny Rollins and continue to do so, Many a time I have found myself learning little bits and bobs of what he plays, transcribing his solos, learning his melodies and tunes and something that people often say, is that my saxophone playing is very reminiscent of Sonny Rollins.
Do you have any plans to tour again? What does the near future hold?
We have got a new album coming out at the end of this year, on 11th November, called ‘Ibeji’ featuring seven percussionists from the African diaspora. It’s seven duets with lots of skits that run through the album that talk about the different percussionists approach to their music, their creativity, their identity, their heritage, their spirituality and is really an insight into some world class musicians, and was a great learning experience for me. We’re also in the process of organising a massive 37 date tour at the start of next year with a good friend Liberty Styles, a tap dancer based in New York, who is coming over to the UK and will feature with my quartet. We’re really looking forward to pulling that all together, so it’s exciting times ahead definitely.
What drew you to Black Eyewear?
A few weeks before Black Eyewear reached out to me, I was speaking to a good friend of mine, Rachael Cohen, and she hipped me to this website and I was just beaming from ear to ear about these great glasses that reflected all of these people that I was so familiar with, and to see their identity captured within these glasses. I was thinking oh there’s Alice, oh there’s Rollins, there’s Rowland, there’s Dexter. It was great and I just fell in love with the brand.
Explore Xhosa’s world:
All photography by Chaz Langley, shot on location in London, summer 2022.