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ALL through the 1970s I would hear his birdlike and beautiful soprano saxophone sound flying over Hungerford Bridge and Charing Cross as he busked to captivated and lucky passers-by.
For Lol Coxhill was one of the great masters of his instrument in the post-Coltrane years, alongside Steve Lacy and Evan Parker, and it was only after he died in 2012 that his true stature has been fully appreciated.
A dedicated and committed virtuoso, I remember how he responded so positively when in 1980 I asked him to perform at a Jazz Against Racism concert I organised, and how soulfully he played.
Now, his old baritone saxophone confrere George Haslam, also the founder of the outstanding label, Slam Records, has produced as his final album, a solo concert Coxhill played in June 1985 at the Gibbs Club, Cardiff.
Featuring Lol on both soprano and sopranino saxophones, he unbears his heart and brain in a succession of supremely inventive and rhapsodic improvisations, interspersed with genial and witty monologues.
Within the swirling storm of his improvised notes, you suddenly recognise snatches of the beauty of familiar melodies, whether it is Over the Rainbow, Stranger on the Shore, Charlie Parker’s Confirmation, Jimmy Van Heuson’s I Thought About You, or back to New Orleans beginnings with Just a Closer Walk with Thee, or other self-discovered themes which spin off his breath like those of the birds flying over the Thames.
All through the album he attacks his notes in the way pioneer New Orleans veteran Sidney Bechet did with his soprano saxophone in his Paris concerts by the Seine.
I ask Haslam how he estimated Coxhill, having played alongside him.
He remembers his compering skills along with his musicianship in the “lovely quartet” with revolutionary trombonist Paul Rutherford and golden pianist Howard Riley.
“His sound was instantly recognisable,” says Haslam, “always focused and holding his listeners’ attention.”
Was he truly a busker at heart? I wonder.
“He certainly was a most accomplished busker,” agrees Haslam, “but much more, in his orchestral works and idiosyncratic improvisations.”
This new record shows his fusion of this astonishing power of improvisation and love of melody. It reminds me of his version of I Can’t Get Started on the 1990 CD A Big Honk.
I remember a gig with him when each band member was asked to feature a solo piece. When he was told it was a free gig, Lol said: “Am I free to play Autumn Leaves?”
“To me,” asserts Haslam, “his most compelling legacy, beyond his recordings, is the status he gave British musicians on the world stage — and for me personally, his huge inspiration.”
On Coxhill ’85 he muses to his Cardiff listeners: “I said I was a unique entertainer, I didn’t say I was good.”
“I won’t say that either, for words don’t suffice, only ears. I’ll just call him an unforgettable, brilliant people’s musician who never stopped creating his own kind of instant beauty, on any street, on any stage, on any bridge, anywhere,” Haslam concludes.
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