Words by Anna Whittaker / Pics courtesy of Tom Harrison & Cleveland Watkiss
Jazzlines at The Red Lion in the Jewellery Quarter; it becomes clear this is a place for the jazz regulars of Birmingham. I arrive bang on time to find nearly every seat taken, and myself to fit somewhere in between the hipsters and middle-aged aficionados.
(My last jazz gig was in a tiny standing room only dive in Copenhagen. Before that it was the complete opposite, Maria Schneider orchestra at Symphony hall, massive, seated, multiple instruments – and that’s just per musician. A real queen bee set-up).
Tonight is the first night of the Tom Harrison and Cleveland Watkiss‘ tour, their ‘Ellington Project’. My plus one and I thought it would be a quintet but there is no pianist. No matter, as Cleveland Watkiss can do things with his mouth that go so far beyond beat boxing; he’s practically a walking orchestra and vocalist wrapped up in one – that explains the awards.
If you’re not an ardent jazz fan you may find this weird to the point of funny, but if you love jazz you will stare at Watkiss in disbelief as he takes scat singing to a whole new level, then slides back effortlessly into vocals blending easily with Tom Harrison‘s twirls on his faded alto sax. Harrison might look straight out of school, with the addition of stubble, belt, and braces, but clearly has the lung capacity of a blue whale and makes the thing sing.
With the accompanying drums and double bass, Harrison and Watkiss’s ‘Ellington Project’ is a showcase of some fantastic pieces from the Duke himself. Tonight kicks off with ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’, with accompanying train brakes sounds from Watkiss. Percy Pursglove and David Lyttle are the double bass and drums, respectively.
Continuing the legends of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, next up was ‘My Little Brown Book’ by Strayhorn. The piece finely illustrates how Tom Harrison has put a great collection of musicians together for this project and is proper familiar improv jazz (if improv can be familiar) around the theme of well known and lesser known jazz classics.
Yes, we’re admiring the skill, yes, we’re tapping our feet and fingers, and then just as we think we know how this is going to go, the musicians do something more experimental on the drums or Cleveland Watkiss kicks into the bass solo with whatever instrument he is feeling right then. This project is not to simply play covers, but their own interpretation of historical jazz foundations, as Harrison echoes and ping pongs with Watkiss‘ vocals.
Song three is a bit more up tempo (you could dance to this, if there was room, or a dance floor) moving smoothly into swing from more mellow jazz, with similar adaptability to that shown by Ellington throughout his 50yr career. At this stage we’re treated to a bit of audience participation, led confidently by Tom Harrison‘s Mum and a team of the regulars. We are graciously given a few chances to get it right but “basically it needed sorting out”, as Cleveland Watkiss tells us. Both effort and laughter ensue and we almost get it, until the complicated bits where we all remember why this is not our day job.
As the set continues we find ourselves holding our breath and wondering when Tom Harrison will breathe, as the bass and the venue hots up. Tonight’s gig is, after all, upstairs in an old pub and looks like a larger version of your great auntie’s lounge without the lingering smell of cigs. Were this venue bigger you could argue out a bit of a wooden dance floor and a regular to take you round swing-style in his brogues.
Next up ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ (written by Duke Ellington’s son Mercer) and what Tom Harrison says rings true, “the more well known it is the more creative you have to be”. Duet vocals and sax turns to trio with the trumpet and soft brush additions with Lyttle on the cymbals. Cleveland Watkiss takes over as the double bass (with his mouth of course) so Percy Pursglove can get his hands on the trumpet, but I imagine they could also do vice versa. So what we have now is basically four blokes playing, or sounding like, about eight instruments.
I think whatever set up Tom Harrison put together would be good, but this ensemble bring that bit more experimentation and fun to your usual dive pub jazz gig (no offence to The Red Lion – I love a proper traditional dive pub).
Then ‘A Flower is a Lovesome Thing’ gives a nice bonus beyond Harrison‘s latest album – Unfolding in Tempo, should you wish to part with your tenner (I did. I’m listening to it now on my plus one’s surprisingly good sound system, with a rather nice Tempranillo. And yes, it’s worth it).
David Lyttle makes his cymbals sing like a harmonic on the violin (I checked this later and Lyttle agreed a harmonic is the closest description) or a piccolo’s highest note, bringing another orchestral section to this version of a classic – leaving Watkiss to sing the melody with moody echoes from Harrison to compliment. “An acquired taste”, says my plus one. Jazz in general or this particular interpretation? Jazz apparently, but by the end of the first set he concedes “they are rather good”.
Set two, after we refurbish with moderate amounts of alcohol, rolls straight into ‘There May Be Trouble Ahead’ – one I like to comedy sing at any appropriate moment. Watkiss astounds us again with three sounds at once that honestly make you check if he’s using a sampler. You can’t do that naturally… yep, he is, it’s on the mic stand.
Moving to the slightly less well known with ‘Upper Manhattan Medical Group’, another Billy Strayhorn which to me epitomises the sound of New York streets. On the aside, I doubt there will be many who haven’t heard of Duke Ellington, but Billy Strayhorn..? His long term (and apparently unpaid) collaborator maybe less so, but Strayhorn is the composer of many of these great tracks and tonight’s ensemble delivers them with a whole bunch of tricks.
Duke Ellington’s ‘Solitude’ follows and possibly draws a tear from some of the audience – I’m not admitting to anything. Tom Harrison displays considerable humility given his palpable talent and hands over to David Lyttle for a drum led, ‘The Intimacy of The Blues’. Harrison plays mini tambourine that looks like your mother’s old icing sugar sieve, then back on the sax, as joint vocals and sax in unison carry the main melody.
My plus one likes this, it’s a bit tidier. We get our missing pianist after all as Watkiss briefly takes to the keys, which may be the only instrument he can’t impersonate. Then there’s a flourish of a double bass finish from Percy Pursglove, whose calluses must be large enough to have their own names.
If you want traditional jazz in the style it has been played in for decades, the ‘Ellington Project’ may not be for you. But if you’re happy to let your imagination run loose then Harrison, Watkiss, Lyttle and Pursglove will transform classics – perhaps in a way you’d only find in a little room, in a proper pub, featuring your great auntie’s carpet. And for afters… silk sheets style sax and double bass encore. Serious but friendly, and enough fun to make you smile whether you’re a scat singing newbie or an old jazz hand.
For more on Tom Harrison, visit www.tomhrriosonsax.com
For more from Cleveland Watkiss, visit www.clevelandwatkiss.net
For more from Jazzlines, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit www.thsh.co.uk/whats-on/org/jazzlines
For more from The Red Lion UAB, visit www.theredlionbirmingham.com