On the face of it, a group of young British jazz musicians touring the country ‘raiding’ Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s back catalogue might seem a little anachronistic. If most of Duke’s compositions were immortalised by the man himself, what else could be said about them?
Alto saxophonist Tom Harrison appears to have faced this question head on, and has assembled a top notch band to breathe new life into Ellington’s extensive canon. So, sitting – or standing – alongside Tom tonight were the inventive David Lyttle on drums, the immovable Daniel Casimir on bass, the impressive Robert Mitchell on piano and the irrepressible Cleveland Watkiss on vocals. But not for them a bland rerun of standard standards: instead two sets of remarkable reinvention, honed by more than a fortnight on the road and buoyed up by rave reviews.
‘My Little Brown Book’ began in deceptively languid fashion yet transformed into a hard bopping scorcher when the full band kicked in, with enough room for blistering solos from Harrison and Casimir.
For ‘Take the A Train’ Cleveland Watkiss improvised a vocal narrative based upon his journey here this evening. “Dashing through wind and rain”, wishing he’d “taken the A Train to Cheltenham.”
Pianist Robert Mitchell turned the intro of Strayhorn’s ‘Chelsea Bridge’ into a classical fugue. Harrison’s alto wore its heart on its sleeve as Casimir rooted the band with judiciously placed sustained tones and Lyttle skittered about his kit with brushes, palms and stick tips.
Sax and voice melded together seamlessly on ‘Minor’ prior to Cleveland’s lengthy scat, eliciting an enthusiastic call-and-response from the crowd. The rest of the band followed suit telepathically.
Cleveland Watkiss then employed technology to construct a vocal one-man band from bottom to top. And to the ensuing loops he ingeniously hooked up Ellington’s ‘Caravan’.
Robert Mitchell sat out for the closing number of the first set: a bluesy take on ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ with a solid bass groove and another acerbic alto solo from Tom Harrison.
Tom delves deep into Ellington and Strayhorn’s oeuvre for this project, drawing inspiration from Duke’s influential band members like Johnny Hodges. Tom’s unaccompanied rendition of ‘Warm Valley’ was an affectionate and touching tribute.
Strayhorn’s ‘Johnny Come Lately’ once again saw Harrison and Watkiss sharing the melodic line leaving Robert Mitchell to scale even greater heights during a scintillating piano solo.
Watkiss employed his digital box of tricks once more for Ellington’s ‘Solitude’, laying down a bed for the rest of the band to play over sparingly in an abstract manner. Perhaps not what Duke would have envisaged for his ballad, but one would like to think he would have approved.
Strayhorn’s ‘Intimacy of the Blues’ – the last tune of the tour – was introduced with faux sadness. But there was no hint of melancholy in either David Lyttle’s animated drum solo or the effusive ensemble playing that wrapped up the show.
The gig was recorded as it happened, so if it eventually finds its way onto CD, I’m sure most of the audience will be keen to snap it up for their collection.
©2016 Julia Price