Alina Bzhezhinska is a harp player from Lviv in Ukraine. She studied in Poland, Germany and the US, before settling in the UK – for seven years she was a harp tutor at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, but eventually she moved to London and became more involved in jazz music. She released a critically acclaimed debut album, Inspiration, in 2018, and has played with modern luminaries like Kamaal Williams (on his excellent album Wu Hen) and sax maestro Shabaka Hutchings. This year she released Reflections, an album which acknowledges the influences of the harpist Dorothy Ashby as well as the music of both Alice and John Coltrane.
I’d not come across her until I heard her being interviewed on Cerys Matthews’ 6 Music Sunday lunch time show a few weeks ago. It’s an excellent show by the way, featuring music from around the world and over the decades. Alina and her band, the HipHarp Collective, played a couple of songs, which I really liked, and the conversation was fascinating. It was mentioned that she was playing King’s Place, in King’s Cross in September and afterwards I bought a couple of tickets for the show. I promised my wife Kath it would be worth coming along!
The concert was scheduled for seven, on Sunday. We had a lovely Thai meal beforehand at Supawan, on the Caledonian Road. I think I’ve mentioned it before – highly recommended. The show was an opportunity to showcase the new album, which Alina and band played through in sequence, cutting the last two songs, but playing a tribute to the great saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders who died, aged 81, at the weekend. He played with so many different artists, but the Coltranes were foremost amongst them. And only last year he starred on the brilliant Floating Points album Promises, which I made my album of 2021. The tune they played for the encore was called Astral Travelling, which felt appropriate.
It was a wonderful show. A superb band, with at different times through the two sets, a string section, trumpet, saxophones, percussion, and of course the solid base of electric bass and drums. And then Alina, centre stage. In a sense her harp played the role a piano might play in a band like this normally. But, of course, it had a different feel – more delicate, dreamier. It’s such a beautiful sound, one which I associate through experience with religious services at the school where I was a governor and Irish music, often the two coming together. And of, course, in the pop world, there is Joanna Newsom, whose 2006 album Ys brought something new and distinctive to the genre.
On the more upbeat numbers the harp mostly played a supporting role – its subtle variations were at times upstaged by the drums and bass, or the soaring sounds of the sax and trumpet. Alina played a few solos of course, and it was always fascinating to watch her fingers move across the strings even when you couldn’t fully hear the sounds coming from them. But on the slower tunes, notably John Coltrane’s “Alabama” – a lament for the people of that state who were killed during the struggle for civil rights in America – the instrument really came to the fore, weaving its magical spells. The interplay with Tony Kofi’s soprano sax on that song was a thing of great beauty. It was the last tune before the interval; just before it came another Coltrane song, “Afro Blue”, with vocals from the Scottish jazz singer Niki King and some drum pyrotechnics from Adam Texeira. Towards the end of the show we reached one of my favourites, Paris sur le Toit, which has something of a hip hop beat, and definitely a feel of that great city. Alina described how she’d written the song on the Eurostar, on the way back from Paris. I think it was the first song of hers that I’d heard, on that Cerys Matthews show. There are two versions of the tune on the album, one with a jazz-rap vocal – partly in French.
Throughout both sets Alina took the trouble to introduce each song, describing its inspiration and the joy she has in making music. She avoided the topic of the Russian invasion of her country until the final applause of the show; tonight she just obviously wanted to focus on the launch of her new album, Reflections. She was clearly touched by the reception she and her band received from the audience – these must be such challenging times for her and anyone from her country, and to experience people coming together to celebrate her music must be a wonderful, if temporary antidote. In the longer term, we can only hope that creation once again trumps destruction in Ukraine.
So, give Reflections and Inspiration a listen if you get the chance. And while you’re at it delve into sounds of Pharoah Sanders, one of the great saxophonists, a man who brought real spirituality to his art. Rest in peace, Pharoah.
(The first photo below is what Alina called the “core band”, though the trumpet and saxophone played an integral part. Adam Teixeira is on drums, Mikele Montolli on bass and Joel Prime on percussion. The two violinists and cello player I don’t know the names of. Alina referred to them by first names only, so I assume they were brought in for the album launch.)
Looks like a great evening for you and Kath, and Supawan was a fine place to start. I also greatly enjoy the stylishness and intimacy (and excellent acoustics) of King’s Place, which I think is a superb – if sometimes overlooked – addition to London’s cultural scene. I’m on their mailing list, but simply don’t get there as often as I should….
As for Alina, her music sounds fascinating, and I will certainly explore her more. Ditto Pharoah.
Definitely worth it.