Koko Jones has a story to tell. On Who’s That Lady, her new album dropping from Motema Music on November 18, the percussionist reveals her hidden abilities as a lyricist and songwriter. While building on the artistic excellence and percussive brilliance of her previous world-jazz releases, Tenth World and Tenth World Live!, Who’s that Lady delves deeply into the 1970s and 80s soul and R&B crucible which first formed the percussionist and producer’s prodigious musical vision, and at the same time renders a timeless musical narrative of this extraordinary woman’s past, present and future.
In a career spanning four decades, Koko has performed and/or recorded as a first call percussionist for some of the most well known names in pop, R&B, jazz, house and African music. Her resume and discography includes the likes of Whitney Houston, The Isley Brothers, Carlos Santana, Angela Winbush, Raul Midon, Marcus Miller, Randy Weston, , Jose Feliciano, Buddy Miles, Clarence Burke, Louie Vega, Luisito Quintero, Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, DJ Kenny Dope, Archie Shepp, and Reggie Workman. Her two albums on Motema (released as Kevin Jones) – Tenth World (2005) and Tenth World Live! (2008) – drew major kudos from critics and audiences alike. Koko’s always uplifting performances have been praised as having a “genre-crossing platform, energy and relentless grooves” (All About Jazz); as being “a feast for the ears” (Global Rhythm magazine); and as “a very special blend of Latin, soul, world, and jazz.” (Jazz Times).Writing about Tenth World Live!, the reviewer at Jazz.com went so far as to remark that “At the ten minute mark, I swear you will feel the urge to rip off your shirt, throw yourself to the ground and writhe in the beauty of it all.”
A musician first and foremost, Koko – who was previously known as ‘Bujo’ Kevin Jones – is a transgender woman of color. That identity, as integral to her being as is her musical talent, has propelled her to a parallel role as an activist and a voice in the trans community. In addition to Koko’s ground-breaking work as an interventionist at the Center for HIV Education Studies and Training (CHEST) at Hunter College, where she is a part of T-Talk, a project delivered by trans women for trans women that seeks to reduce sexual health risk, substance use, and internalized stigma affecting the community, she frequently speaks at events, and recently gave a TEDx talk at Seton Hall University and delivered a lecture on Current Issues in the Trans Community at Columbia University Teachers College. She is also an active member of Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC). The November release of Who’s That Lady happens to coincide with the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20; several tracks on the album reflect either personal or universal issues facing the trans community: “Why” honors those trans individuals who have lost their lives due to violence or suicide and “Turn It” pays tribute to the heroes, past and present, who strive for civil rights, justice and equality. “I’m Free” celebrates the joy of reveling in who you really are despite societal norms and constraints. And “Xtravaganzas” pays homage to the House of Xtravaganza, one of the most important cultural institutions in the trans community.
With Who’s That Lady, Koko brings these two elements of her identity – the expert side artist and the charismatic bandleader – into perfect musical alignment. Moving beyond the instrumental world-jazz that marks her Tenth World releases, Koko here calls on her early soul influences, creating a vocal driven album with a cast of players firmly rooted in jazz, crossover jazz and R&B: producer Onaje Allan Gumbs (Cassandra Wilson, Phyllis Hyman, Gerald Albright); vocalists Derrick Dupree (Gloria Gaynor), Mike Hammond (Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, Kelly Price, 50 Cent, Incognito), and Myoshi Marilla (former co-host of The BETJ List); keyboardist Jesse Fischer (Ryan Shaw and his own band, Soul Cycle)and bassist Kenny Davis ( Freddie Hubbard, Cassandra Wilson, Abbey Lincoln, Diane Reeves, Art Farmer and with Kevin Eubanks in the Tonight Show Band). Together with her extended group, Koko delivers a dozen groove driven tracks that serve as powerful aural vignettes revealing the fascinating trajectory of her intersecting musical and personal life.
Who’s That Lady opens with the disco-era redolent beat of “Xtravaganzas,” Koko’s tribute to the legendary House of Xtravaganza, the most publicly recognized “house” to emerge from the 1980s NYC ballroom scene, and an on-going cultural influence in the areas of dance, music, visual arts, fashion, and community activism. The opening riff of “That Lady” is immediately recognizable to music fans of every generation; Koko and band’s version of the Isley Brothers’ rock-funk fusion cover of their own earlier single (“Who’s That Lady,” which appears later on this album as well), is just as funky and soulful as the 1973 original, courtesy of Mike Hammond on vocals and the relentless groove of Koko’s propulsive arrangements for her expert band. “I included ‘That Lady’ out of my deep respect and love for Ronald, Rudolph, O’Kelly, Ernie and Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper, and to honor the years that I created music with them, which were very formative years for me,” explains Koko.
A casual listener to Koko’s original “Why” might take the song for a 1970s style R&B ballad; in fact, “Why,” featuring interchanging lead vocals by Koko, Derrick Dupree and Myoshi Marilla, is among the most personal and poignant tracks on the album. “Intimately, this is a song about something that happened to me early in my transition, when I was brutally beaten,” says Koko. “But it is dedicated to all of those who suffer senseless violence due their gender, sexual or racial identity.”
As if to echo Koko’s own ability to move forward despite that traumatic event, Who’s That Lady moves forward with a positive, upbeat groove on Whitney Houston’s Top Ten hit, “Love Will Save the Day.” That affirmative attitude is one that has long been a stabilizing force in Koko’s life journey, instilled by her early adoption of the Buddhist path. “In Buddhism the ultimate goal is happiness. I often equate it to love, she explains. “It is a two-fold path. You might say that you cannot achieve this absolute happiness without love for others as well as self love. It has been easy for me to love others but difficult to have self love. Like a mother’s love it is unconditional and the one thing that we cannot live without.” Derrick Dupree’s “Get on Up” is a reggae-tinged funk paean to that same message.
Michael “Moon” Reuben’s lilting guitar opens Koko’s anthemic “I’m Free,” which quickly unfolds into an exuberant Afro beat influenced romp that supports the whole album’s theme of the importance of being free to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. “Sometimes the bonds that hold us back are of our own making, inside our own minds,” says Koko. “I’ve often found that music is the key to releasing me from those bonds, so I wrote this to capture the freedom that music can bring.”
“Decatur Avenue Stomp,” another of Koko’s originals, is the album’s only instrumental track, and it showcases the astonishing percussive chops that led to her early – she was working professionally by the time she was 13 – and ongoing success. “Decatur Avenue was the street I grew up on and where I enjoyed endless days and nights of jam sessions,” recollects Koko. The song also features the incredibly talented Kevin Louis (Jimmy Heath, Kermit Ruffins, Nicholas Payton, Gary Bartz, Will Calhoun, Mos Def) on trumpet and drummer Jerard Snell (Jennifer Holiday, Glenn Jones, and the Elements of Life band) who is featured on the percussion breakdown with Jones. Both Jerard and Koko have, for the past 14 years, been known as a “dynamic duo” of sorts, lending their percussion prowess to the bands of Gloria Gaynor, Chops the Band and Louie Vega. Also contributing to this “jam” of a song is the solid bass support from Mamadou Ba (Leni Stern, Regina Carter.)
Koko dedicated “Turn It” to Sylvia Rivera and to Marsha P. Johnson , who were at the center of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. “In their honor, it’s also dedicated to all those fighting for justice and equality around the world,” says Koko.
The haunting, rhythmic “Yemaya, Parts 1 and 2”, written by vocalist Christelle Durandy of CoCoMaMa, are based on a traditional African Yoruba chant in honor of the orisha (goddess) Yemaya, who Koko describes as “the nurturer, the ocean, the essence of motherhood and a fierce protector of children.”
Koko’s composition, “The Treasure Tower,” is inspired by a Buddhist reference: ‘No treasure tower exists other than the figures of the men and women who embrace the Lotus Sutra.’ Those words, attributed to the founder of Soka Gakkai Buddhism, represent the center of Koko’s driving life force. Koko says that the song, which features an outstanding vocal performance by Myoshi Marilla, “reminds me that everyone possesses the treasure tower within their own lives and that, in the end, the heart – and nothing else – is what truly matters.”
Who’s That Lady concludes with its title track, which was written by the Isley Brothers in the 1960s, and is the precursor to their much more well-known “That Lady.” Koko and band offer up a smooth, Latin-tinged version of the song, one which the percussionist also dedicates to the Isleys, with who she toured for years; however, more than merely paying tribute to that rich piece of her history, the track truly encapsulates the spirit of Koko’s re-emergence as a solo artist. “Who’s That Lady?” The answer lies within the words and grooves on these twelve delightful and powerful tracks.
A native of Englewood, New Jersey, Koko grew up in a household immersed in jazz, soul, gospel and blues, from Charlie Parker and Lou Rawls to Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson, along with the pop and R&B legends of the times. Reportedly, Koko’s grandmother, Maggie Walker Jones, once played with (and maybe even recorded with) Bessie Smith. The arts of all types were nurtured in the Jones household and piano lessons were a requirement, not an elective.
Jones traces her percussion expertise to the age-old ‘academy of the streets.’ Over the years she has evolved an increasingly comprehensive approach to her instruments, commanding respect from artists such as the Isley Brothers, Whitney Houston, Winard Harper, and Reggie Workman.
Immersed in drumming since the tender age of 10, Koko literally learned to play by the seat of her pants. Neighborhood drummers were prone to testifying on front lawns and park benches, hand drums and various percussive enhancements in tow; their massaging, pulsating, skin-on-skins thoroughly hooked the impressionable youngster. Among these master drummers were Marvin “Bugalu” Smith (Sun-Ra, Archie Shepp, Mal Waldron), Earl “Buster Smith (Eric Dolphy,Sun-Ra), Karl Potter (The Isley Brothers, Pino Daniele) and Babatunde Lea (Pharoah Sanders, Leon Thomas), who all spent time with her and made a long-lasting impression on the young Koko’s life.
Along with jazz, Jones also was magnetically attracted to Latin music, particularly the Latin Soul sounds that permeated the New York/New Jersey byways during the late 60s/early 70s; sounds by Nuyorican artists like Joe Cuba, Joe Bataan, and assorted Fania soul-seros, and especially the bands of Mongo Santamaria and Tito Puente. “I can remember watching Mongo on television when I was around 12 years old. I became a permanent fan.” She became immersed in Afro-Cuban flavors through the influence and teaching of fellow percussionists Babatunde Lea, Steve Kroon, and Richie “Pablo” Landrum, who taught the youngster at one of New York’s premier music academies, Jazzmobile. However, it was a trip into the city with Babatunde Lea and Thelma Mwandido, to a rehearsal of Tanawa Drum and Dance 1976, led by Congolese griot-musician Titos Sompa, which hooked Koko on African rhythms, song and dance.
Koko has always continued to be an “eternal student of the drum” by constantly seeking to increase her percussion vocabulary with studying various genres of drumming and percussion. In addition to having recorded eight albums during her thirteen years with the Isleys, Koko’s percussion prowess can be found on recordings by Charles McPherson, Archie Shepp, Omar and Angie Stone, Babatunde Lea, Winard Harper and Joey DeFrancesco as well as by House music icons Josh Milan and BLAZE (Kevin Hedge), Louie Vega and Kenny Dope to name just a few. Koko has also graced the bandstands of Archie Shepp, Benny Powell, T.K. Blue, Randy Weston, Hilton Ruiz, hip hop artist Q-Tip and many, many more. She is perhaps most proud of her work with Tenth World, the band she created with pianist Kelvin Sholar, Brian Horton, Jaimeo Brown, Kevin Louis and Damon Warmack. Tenth World’s music represented a clear turning point in the development of Koko’s vision and ability to bring talented players together. “The creation of Tenth World was a distinct snapshot of where I was at that time, and the musicians that I had the pleasure of collaborating with brought the most heavenly sounds together.” Koko has not ruled out a reunion of some configuration of this band to record once again in the future.