mon 04/03/2024

Cleveland Watkiss 60th birthday celebration, Queen Elizabeth Hall review - seismic pulse, emotive words | reviews, news & interviews

Cleveland Watkiss 60th birthday celebration, Queen Elizabeth Hall review - seismic pulse, emotive words

Cleveland Watkiss 60th birthday celebration, Queen Elizabeth Hall review - seismic pulse, emotive words

Mainstay of London jazz scene pays homage to his musical roots

Boundless artistry: Cleveland Watkiss

Whether performing with the ground-breaking Jazz Warriors big band (which he co-founded in the 1980s) or Marque Gilmore and DJ Le Rouge in Project 23, taking the lead roles in Julian Joseph’s jazz operas Bridgetower and Shadowball, or emceeing one of the legendary Metalheadz nights at Blue Note, Hoxton Square, Cleveland Watkiss has been one of the most unfailingly creative, daringly protean artists on the UK jazz sc


For his 60th birthday celebration as part of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, the award-winning vocalist, actor, composer, broadcaster and educator performed his acclaimed take on the Great Jamaican Songbook. From the bone-shaking power of Fatman Sound System to the sweet-toned vocals of 1970s reggae greats such as Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and Delroy Wilson, reggae is an integral part of Watkiss’s musical DNA, and the Songbook pays fulsome homage both to the music’s golden period and to his own Jamaican roots.

A brace of equally powerful duets showcased different aspects of Watkiss’s boundless artistry

Watkiss’s outstanding band featured collaborators old and new, with the seismic pulse provided by drummer Dan Barnett and bassist Delroy Murray, with guitarist Brandon Murray completing the rhythm section. In addition to keys/percussionist Orphy Robinson and pianist Phil Ramacon, a four-piece horn section featured Jason Yarde on sax (and horn arrangements), Byron Wallen on trumpet, fellow Jazz Warrior Ray Carless on tenor, plus James Wade-Sired on trombone.

The evening opened with one of several cuts by Gregory Isaacs, with Watkiss communicating the Cool Ruler’s uniquely plaintive style in “If I Don’t Have You”, lit up by a stratospheric trumpet solo from Wallen. Dennis Brown’s "You and Your Smiling Face" allowed Watkiss to explore the burnished bottom end of his range, bringing a soulful intensity to the vocal line which was tellingly harmonised by the horns. Johnny Clarke is credited as the founder of the modern dancehall style of singing, although he never achieved the same international recognition as Brown or Isaacs, and his “African Roots” saw Watkiss and band locking in tightly on the emotive verses (“We’ve been taken away from Africa / More than 500 years ago / But one thing they didn't take / Is the roots out of my mind”).

With Derek Richards's archive footage adding immeasurably to the overall effect, other highlights included the classic “Cool Operator”, penned by one of Jamaica’s greatest singer-songwriters, Delroy Wilson, the hymn-like incantations of Bobby Melody’s “Jah Bring Me Joy in the Morning”, the Isaacs hit “Night Nurse”, plus the huge slabs of sound carved out in Dennis Brown’s potent “Revolution”.

A brace of equally powerful duets with special guests showcased different aspects of Watkiss’s boundless artistry, the first an a cappella vocal exploration of Dennis Brown’s “Here I Come” with vocalist Sahra Gure – recent winner of the 2019 Musicians’ Company Young Jazz Musician Award and one of the singers that Watkiss has mentored at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance – which saw Watkiss creating loops of stacked-up vocal lines. The opening of the duet with cellist and vocalist Ayanna Witter-Johnson, The Abyssinians’ “Declaration of Rights”, in which Watkiss weaved vocal sounds around Witter-Johnson’s resonant cello double stops, proved one of the evening's standout moments, with the duo channelling their balsamaceous vocal qualities to moving effect.

Further concert dates include NCEM, York (28 November 2019), The Stables, Wavendon (31 January 2020) and St. George's, Bristol (13 February 2020). 


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