Choose your own stuff, or play standards? – A question for any jazz musician. The answers leave you exposed in different ways. Self-penned compositions can be thin. But the standards you choose invite comparison with all the greats who have played them before.
Alto sax player Tom Harrison has taken on the second challenge in its extreme form, devoting his new project entirely to the works of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. As it’s often unclear exactly who wrote what, lets just say that together they are undoubtedly the greatest jazz composer. And their tunes evoke an orchestra that always featured some of the greatest players.
You aren’t going to get far with orchestral sounds with a quartet, which is what we have tonight, but there are definitely Ellingtonian features in the sound. Harrison can channel Johnny Hodges – who promoter Ian Storror recalls hearing play with Ellington at Colston hall in 1969! – when he wants to, as he proves on Chelsea Bridge. And the astonishing Cleveland Watkiss on vocals can do pretty much anything, including muted trumpet now and again, as well as using an electronic box to loop up a whole rhythm section for a solo tour de force on Caravan.
The rest of the time, he focuses on vocal lines – sometimes with lyrics (so A Flower is a Lovesome Thing becomes A Flower is a Lonesome Thing), sometimes without. He exudes the kind of confidence you need to use the vocabulary of scat singing without sounding lame, as well as harnessing a full range of more up to date voice techniques, from McFerrin onwards, and generally projecting delight in the work.
Watkiss’s transfixing stage presence, helped a lot by what is currently the best sound system in any Bristol jazz room, is matched by the hugely talented Northern Irish drummer and frequent Harrison collaborator Dave Lyttle. He has imagination and drive to spare and catches the ear constantly in the way that Jack DeJohnette or Joey Baron do. The foursome is rounded out tonight by up and coming bass player Daniel Casimir, who has the deep tone that points irresistibly to the origins of modern bass playing in the short spell Jimmy Blanton sparred with the entire Ellington Orchestra.
It’s the first night of a short tour, and already clear that this project is something special. The selections are mainly well-known ones: Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, Solitude, Warm Valley. (No Lush Life, although a passing mention of the title prompts a tantalising unaccompanied foray by Watkiss in between numbers). They are all sound fresh and rich, whether played straight or, like Take the A Train, given startling new treatments (even the train noises are musical), with lyrics, or without.
They’ll be back in this part of the country in a week, playing in Cheltenham on Feb 8, with a stop at the Pizza Express in London midweek. Both those dates, I think, feature Robert Mitchell on piano, which will add another whole dimension, and will be recorded for release later this year. That’s one to look forward to. This was an evening full of joy, and a great way to round off Storror’s remarkable run of January gigs.