by Ian Mann
April 12, 2022
This isn’t a jazz album, but nevertheless it’s a damn fine record and still a recording that I can happily recommend to any fan of good music.
“The Great Jamaican Songbook Vol. 1”
Cleveland Watkiss – vocals, synthesiser, arrangements, Orphy Robinson – keyboards, vibraphone, Phil Ramocon – keyboards, Alan Nolan Weekes – guitar, Delroy Murray – bass, Carl Robinson – drums, Ray Carless – tenor sax, Byron Wallen – trumpet, James Wade-Sired – trombone, Ava Jospeh – backing vocals
Singer Cleveland Watkiss (born London 1959) is something of a ‘Renaissance Man’ who has explored a wide range of musical genres. Jazz listeners will know him best as an imaginative and versatile jazz vocalist who first came to prominence as a member of the Jazz Warriors big band before eventually embarking on a solo career. He has also collaborated with pianists Nikki Yeoh and Julian Joseph and with saxophonist Steve Williamson. Watkiss currently leads his own quartet, fronts the UK All Stars quintet and also performs solo shows under the name Vocalsuite, which finds him live looping his voice to create “orchestral vocal soundscapes”. With improvisation remaining a vital ingredient no two Vocalsuite shows are ever the same. He is also working on a new duo collaboration with pianist and composer Django Bates.
In addition to his work as a jazz singer Watkiss has also performed as a drum and bass vocalist and MC and has also starred in the musical theatre production “Trench Brothers”, written by composer Julian Joseph and librettist Tertia Sefton-Green.
He has also appeared in the contemporary operas “Shadowball” and “Bridgetower”. The latter tells the story of the black violin prodigy George Bridgetower (1778 – 1860) and was composed by Julian Joseph and librettist Mike Phillips. Watkiss plays Bridgetower and the ensemble features a ten piece jazz band packed with stellar names alongside the LSO St. Luke’s Community Choir. Further details of Watkiss’ current projects can be found on his website http://www.clevelandwatkiss.co.uk
His versatility has found him working with a wide range of artists across the fields of jazz, rock, pop and classical music. His website lists the following;
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, Bob Dylan, Jackie Mittoo, Keith Richards, the James Taylor Quartet, Art Blakey, Sly & Robbie, Abdullah Ibrahim, Stevie Wonder, Patife, the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, Nigel Kennedy, Carlinhos Brown, Robbie Williams, Joe Cocker, The Who, Branford Marsalis, George Martin, Julian Joseph, Bocato Big Band, Lisa Stansfield, Courtney Pine, Janet Kay, Maxi Priest, Soul II Soul, the London Chamber Orchestra, Kassa Mady, the BBC Orchestra, Goldie, Cassandra Wilson, the Kenny Wheeler Big Band, Sugar Minot, Talvin Singh, Bjork, Pete Townshend, the London Community Gospel Choir [LCGC] and many many more.
He is also an acclaimed educator who teaches at schools, colleges and universities across the UK and holds a professorship at Trinity Laban.
A frequent prize winner his awards include Best Vocalist at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards (2017), the London Jazz Awards (2010) and the Guardian Jazz Awards. He was also a nominee for Best Jazz Act at the 2017 MOBO Awards. In 2018 he was awarded an MBE for his services to music in the Queen’s New Year Honours list.
Released on his own Cdubya imprint “The Great Jamaican Songbook Vol. 1” is Watkiss’ ninth album as a leader. It’s a recording that pays homage to his Jamaican roots and traces the history of Jamaican music through the songs of some of its most celebrated practitioners, among them Gregory Isaacs, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and Delroy Wilson.
The album teams Watkiss with a core group featuring Orphy Robinson on keyboards and vibes, Phil Ramocon on keyboards, Alan Nolan Weekes on guitar, Delroy Murray on bass and Carl Robinson at the drums. On the majority of the tracks this line up is supplemented by the horn section of Ray Carless (tenor sax), Byron Wallen (trumpet) and emerging trombone star James Wade-Sired.
As one would expect from a such a stellar line up the playing is excellent throughout, but despite the presence of such jazz talent this is essentially a roots-reggae record. Co-produced by Watkiss and Orphy Robinson the album was recorded at Zak Starkey’s studio by engineer Jon Gray.
The programme features ten songs, commencing with the bass heavy sounds of Gregory Isaacs’ “If I Don’t Have You”, which features Watkiss harmonising alongside backing vocalist Ava Joseph. The vocals and dub grooves are augmented by the work of the horn section with saxophonist Carless sharing the instrumental solos with Weekes, whose soaring guitar also brings something of a rock influence into the equation.
“Curly Locks”, written by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Junior Byles features a skanking, feel good groove, Joseph’s vocal harmonies, and places a greater reliance on keyboards in the arrangement.
Bobby Melody’s “Joy Bring I Joy” features the core group and allows a little more solo space to keyboard specialist Ramocon. Watkiss’ breezy vocal embodies the joy of the title.
The horns are back to add a punchy sassiness to Delroy Wilson’s “What Is Man”, which includes an enjoyable ‘toasting’ episode mid tune with Watkiss sounding as if he’s enjoying himself immensely.
Also by Wilson “Cool Operator” veers into the realms of lover’s rock, albeit with a sturdy rhythmic undertow supplementing Watkiss’ silky vocals and Joseph’s answering harmonies.
Arguably the stand out track is Watkiss’ take on Gregory Isaacs’ “Babylon Too Tough”, which brings a political element to the music and celebrates the Rastafarian lifestyle. The arrangement features Joseph’s backing vocals, the growl of Wallen’s vocalised trumpet and the sound of Orphy Robinson’s vibes.
Watkiss’ arrangement of Dennis Brown’s “Only A Smile” features an irresistible horn enlivened groove and his own confident vocal.
“Humanity” by Lincoln Thomson (aka Prince Lincoln of the Royal Rasses group)) combines political comment with feel good grooves to good effect, with the horns again complementing the rhythmic drive of the core group.
Perhaps the best known song on the album is Gregory Isaacs’ salacious “Night Nurse”, which Watkiss makes gleefully his own with an updated lyric, his vocals augmented by a Rico-like trombone solo from Wade-Sired.
The album concludes with Burning Spear’s hard hitting “Red, Gold and Green”, a paean to Rastafarianism and the Pan-African movement.
As I’ve said this isn’t a jazz album, but nevertheless it’s a damn fine record. Watkiss’ love for, and knowledge of, his chosen material is obvious throughout and he sings with confidence, assurance and great technical skill. His band perform superbly throughout, the irresistible grooves of the core group augmented by the work of the excellent horn section. Ava Joseph also enhances the tracks upon which she appears.
I’m no reggae expert but I do have some knowledge of the genre and have previously heard and enjoyed the music of a number of the artists that Watkiss pays tribute to on this album, notably Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
Other reggae artists whose work I have enjoyed include King Tubby, Culture, The Mighty Diamonds, Peter Tosh and, of course, Bob Marley & The Wailers.
The fact that this album bears the suffix “Vol. 1” suggests that there is more to come from this project, and I for one would welcome hearing it. Watkiss’ arrangements breathe new life into these songs and there isn’t a single duff track on this album. A bit more background information about the chosen material as part of the album packaging would have been welcome, but this is a minor quibble which is no reflection on the music itself.
I think I’m correct in stating that with the exception of Winston Rodney (aka Burning Spear) none of the artists that Watkiss pays tribute to are actually still with us. This makes the album all the more timely as this type of classic reggae has becomes increasingly marginalised in recent years, rather like jazz in that regard.
This may not be a jazz album, despite the allusions to the genre implicit in its title, but it’s still a recording that I can happily recommend to any fan of good music. Watkiss has also been touring with the project and I would imagine that an evening in the company of Watkiss and this material would be a highly enjoyable experience. Upcoming dates include;
29 May Salisbury International Arts Festival
10 June Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, as part of their Jazz Festival
17 June Nocturne - Live at Blenheim Palace, a reggae day with headliners UB40 ft Ali Campbell
22 September Cambridge Junction
Further information at http://www.clevelandwatkiss.co.uk
Volume 2 will be awaited with interest and anticipation.
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