It’s been a difficult day for the jam band community, as word spreads about the passing of multi-instrumentalist Kofi Burbridge. The Tedeschi Trucks Band keyboardist/flutist passed away on Friday at the age of 57, following years of ongoing cardiac issues.
In addition to his former bandmates and collaborators, our deepest condolences go out to Kofi’s brother, Oteil Burbridge (Dead & Company, Allman Brothers Band). If you were to ever ask Oteil who his biggest musical influence was, he’d say his brother Kofi. He is the reason Oteil started playing drums, and then bass: to jam with his older brother who displayed immense talent during their childhood. They went on to play together in Knee-Deep, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Frogwings, and Tedeschi Trucks Band together, and cherished the opportunities to collaborate deeply.
Back in 2013, Oteil posted a heartfelt tribute to his big brother on his blog.
Its tribute time again and I think before I go into my Bass guitar heroes any further that I have to take the time to pay homage to my first musical hero, my big brother, Kofi. He was the first musician that I saw play on a regular basis, my biggest influence, and my most important teacher. Fortunately, I’m getting to play with him again on a regular basis.
They discovered my brother Kofi had perfect pitch when he was around seven years old. My parents were naturally elated and I’m quite sure my dad had him learning classical music and transcribing solos by all his favorite jazz musicians in no time. I think my dad’s only religion was music. He is a disciple of a myriad of styles. Growing up we heard Jazz, Classical European, Gospel, Classical Indian, Opera, Folk, Country, R&B, and other styles on a daily basis. I think music was the only thing on earth my dad trusted and felt was totally honest, besides my mother. Deeply hurt by the racism of the culture, politics and religion he grew up within the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, he found his spiritual and emotional refuge in the commitment of his musical heroes to their craft. He actually played flute and wanted to be a professional musician himself but thought it too risky to raise a family with that career. He had one of the most interesting record collections I was ever exposed too. It wasn’t until I saw some of my friends’ parents’ record collections that I realized what an expert my dad was and how deep his passion really was for it. I had taken it for granted as with so many other things.
Imagine my dad being told by Kofi’s music teacher that his seven year old already has perfect pitch. I’m surprised it didn’t make him reconsider his atheo-agnosticism. It still seems like magic to me and most other mere mortals. I have relative pitch which means I can distinguish the interval between any two pitches, but I can’t tell you what the exact notes are, much less if they are in or out of tune! That’s what people with perfect pitch can do. They are a rare occurrence in humans. Well by nine years old Kofi was sitting in with major jazz musicians like Donald Byrd and Ron Carter. He went off to music school in North Carolina at fourteen years old. That seemed like another country to me. Kofi was in the newspapers and on television in Washington, D.C. and was always amazing teachers and peers alike for as long as I can remember. Naturally, he was my hero and I always wanted to be like him but although I exhibited a talent for music my parents felt they were taking a huge risk with Kofi as it was and didn’t want to gamble like that twice. Fortunately for me, I didn’t realize just how much better than most people Kofi was so when I was practicing that was the standard I was holding myself to.
I can still hear the sound of Kofi practicing his classical flute exercises in my head. Its one of my earliest memories of childhood. He was equally at home in the classical or jazz world. His talent combined with being exposed to and absorbing such complex music at such a young age revealed a young composer as well. One of the songs we recorded for Jimmy Herring’s first solo record was a song that Kofi wrote when he was in the tenth grade! I still want to record all of that old stuff that he wrote in high school and college. Its still really challenging music. I learned harmony and rhythm from learning Kofi’s originals that he wrote as a teenager. Each song was like a semester of music school. Kofi had a secret though, he always wanted to be a keyboard player. Not just a pianist, a keyboardist. Kofi was and still is a huge tech head. He was in love with synthesizers and computers from the first. Anyone that knows Kofi knows how into sci-fi he is. He was into the Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlen, and Arthur C Clarke book. Naturally, he was totally into Star Trek and any kind of sci-fi on television. You can imagine what happened when he got his first laptop. This is a man that reads instruction manuals for fun!
Kofi loved jazz and classical but he also loved funk and rock. Keyboardists like George Duke, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Jan Hammer were some of Kofi’s favorites because they were fearless about exploring the latest technology through electric and electronic keyboards. They withstood criticism from purists and pressed on into new territory inspiring young minds like Kofi and myself. How lucky for me to have a brother that not only had such knowledge of the history of music past but also a passion for all things new and cutting edge. When he got his first synthesizer he was consumed with creating new sounds that were opened up to him. Later when he got a keyboard that could sample sounds and do sequencing he would create entire songs all inside the keyboard. You should hear some of the Straight Ahead Jazz stuff he did all inside his keyboards. I cut one of those songs on my first record. Its called Inside Outside. Maybe one day he’ll let me post the version that he did in his keyboard on the web so people can hear it. That’s probably the hardest stuff to recreate electronically but his drums tracks are swinging as hard as ever.
Kofi was so patient with me, giving me the keys to unlock the harmonic mysteries when I was young. I was a drummer and understood rhythm well but harmony was a whole other ball game. He used the music of Stevie Wonder and Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire to teach me Jazz harmony because we all were singing those songs with the radio. Learning Kofi’s music taught me about odd time signatures, harmony, and composing, among other things. Now that we are older and playing together on a regular basis again, I’m hoping to record Kofi’s music from the various stages of his life. He has a library of compositions ranging from Funk to Jazz, Fusion to outer space music. Hopefully, we can also explore his other “secret” passion which is doing music for an animated sci-fi series or video game. He’s never followed the path assigned to him. He’s been on another road that we couldn’t see and he’s still following it. It’s a beautiful street to walk, bike or drive down if you have the time.
Rest in Peace, Kofi Burbridge. There will be few spirits, minds, humor, and talents like yours to follow.