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Recent Live Reviews

Wynton Marsalis & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Hackney Empire, London

Reviewed by Kevin Le Gendre

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Given the crippling costs of keeping 15 musicians in gainful employ, big bands are largely a thing of the past. But this sumptuous performance by Wynton Marsalis’s stellar unit was a reminder that an orchestra remains a vital resource to any jazz musician. It offers both power and precision. Since the early 80s the New Orleans trumpeter has been exploring and extending the heritage of acoustic jazz, using 30s swing, 40s bebop and 50s post-bop as templates for his own creations and this final night of a five-day residency at various venues in London presented a panorama of those vocabularies. There were arrangements of legends like Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson and Jackie McLean and there were also original pieces by JALCO members such as saxophonist Ted Nash. His Dali suite, set in the tripwire time signature of 13/8, was a highlight for the intoxicating swirl of the horns, which culminated in Nash’s alto becoming a dramatic echo to a stabbing improvisation by trumpeter Marcus Printup.

However, the presence of British guest musicians also raised the bar. Vibraphonist Jim Hart, tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint and pianist Julian Joseph all took hard swinging solos and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss was imperious on an express train rendition of McLean’s “Appointment in Ghana”, in which his scat choruses revealed a timbral richness and phrasal trickery that had the horn players nodding in approval. In a delicious passage of his solo, Watkiss quoted the first part of the theme of Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys” at lightning speed before twisting its harmony in an entirely new direction. Yet what became apparent throughout the evening was the relevance of big band music to other genres, simply because of its enormous sonic range.

On slow passages the ornate, rippling textures evoked ambient music, on faster numbers, as the brass plunged deep into the low register, there was funk aplenty, and when the whole ensemble was in full flow, there was a soundtrack in search of a movie. Decked out in sharp suits and seated in three rows under the Hackney Empire’s proscenium arch, Marsalis’s orchestra indeed offered a big-screen spectacle for eyes and ears alike.


Paul Bradshaw – Straight No Chaser Nov 2009

After scanning the programme for this year’s London Jazz Festival there was only one session I had to check - Cleveland Watkiss’ 50 at the QEH. If there’s one person that embodies a genuine London jazz sensibility it’s Cleveland and as part of his birthday celebrations this unique vocalist and Jazz Warrior was definitely intent on taking his audience on a journey.

As the editor Straight No Chaser for nigh on 20 years I commissioned numerous features on Cleveland. He was there in the beginning and there at the end. It was the vision that he - and a host of other world class UK musicians billed to play at his 50th - were committed to, in terms of linking the jazz to their own cultural reality, which became a crucial factor in our launching Chaser in the first place. Our lives were entwined. I wasn’t planning to write about this session, I was simply planning to sit back and enjoy! But as the lights went up I felt compelled to put something down on paper… on-line… so here we go.

As we waited in the dark for a burst of applause to get into the hall, the warm melodic groove of ‘Spoken Word’ filtered through the heavy doors. Once in there, we were launched back in time to the early Eighties and Blakes in Soho. Cleveland was sharing the stage with pianist Simon Purcell’s swinging band JazzTrain. Cleveland sparred effortlessly with trumpet player Steve Sidwell while Gene Calderazo’s drums were absolutely killing.

Punctuating each section of the show, while the stage was re-aligned for different musical configurations, we were treated to a backstage projection of the singer talking about different aspects of his prolific career. It was different. It was littered with characteristic humour. Images of early influences graced the screen – Dennis Brown, The Wailers, U Roy, I Roy. We learned that his first pro-gig was in the musical Hair. He put the jazz influence down to his dad and history shows that it’s Cleveland’s ability to connect the jazz tradition and the “Songbook” with ever changing sounds of the underground – from roots reggae to drum & bass - that makes him totally unique.

Each turn of this concert provided testimony to his restless and creative spirit. The vibe of those original Jazz Warriors sessions at Atlantic in Brixton was locked into a joyous rendition of Pharoah Sanders’ jazz dance classic, ‘You’ve Got To Have Freedom’ that featured Adrian Reid, Mark Mondesir, Jean Toussaint, Orphy Robinson, Byron Wallen, Jason Yarde, Brian Edwards and Larry Bartley. A black & white film played behind them conjuring up the past with images of Warriors not present…. Mamadou Kamara, Philip Bent, Courtney Pine. To say that the Jazz Warriors changed the face of Britain would be no understatement.

Cleveland happily shared his birthday honours with be-bop veteran and fellow singer, 82 year old Sheila Jordan and then, after an intermission, proceeded to confound the audience appearing onstage dressed a la 17th Century. It was left to the piano vituoso Julian Joseph to explain that the attire and the nature of this character resided in Bridgetower - an opera he’d written and in which Cleveland had performed.

Aside from the jazz circuit Cleveland has constantly engaged in London’s ever evolving clubland. He was a regular at Talking Loud & Saying Something/ Dingwalls and was a fully fledged member of Goldie’s Metalheadz crew. His Project 23, with Marque Gilmore and DJ La Rouge (guesting on turntables at Cleveland 50!), highlighted his commitment to putting his own stamp on the drum ‘n’ bass scene. It was through the Warriors and through the club, Anohka, that he developed a working relationship with young, master percussionist Talvin Singh. This relationship was beautifully conveyed at the QEH through a trio setting where the singer engaged with Talvin’s rippling tabla riffs and the sublime, pristine rhythms and melodies of Tunde Jegede’s kora. It was down to the spoken word of Vayu Naida to lift this trio to brand new heights.

Spoken world also found its way into the set via playwright and novelist Bonnie Greer and then it was down to beat boxer Schlomo, who joined Cleveland, trumpeter Byron Wallen and drummer Shaney Forbes, to articulate a whole other approach to rhythm and sound. The impact of these performances along with those of stellar pianists Jason Rebello, Alex Wilson (you are b-a-a-ad!) and Nicky Yeoh (beautiful duets) will resonate with me for time to come.

The spirit of exchange is an elemental force in this music and Cleveland Watkiss – Jazzman, Junglist… Outer-nationalist! – reflects his roots 100%. Hackney was in the house at the QEH, Believe! A refusal to be boxed into any one genre underpinned the whole session. As we drew to a close the slightly twisted Cuba-Brasil collision on ‘Torch of Freedom’ had Cleveland and Heidi Vogel enjoying a freewheeling lyrical exchange over a sweet montuno. It provided the perfect place to call it day and sent us off happy into a windswept November night.

Paul Bradshaw – Straight No Chaser-Nov 2009

Live Jazz Blog
The Song Goes On
Sunday, 15 August 2010 05:05
Saturday’s early set felt surprisingly introspective for the last night of this year’s Brit Jazz Fest. Cleveland Watkiss sang with his eyes closed much of the time, and only after several tunes did he speak softly to the audience. He was at most communicative on Wynton Marsalis’ ‘Supercapitalism’, acting out its frantic refrain “Gimme that, gimme this, gimme that”, relishing the sudden mood changes as Mark Hodgson’s double bass swaggered into sleazy half-time.

Watkiss’ thoughtful, diverse selection of material included songs by Cat Stevens (‘Into White’), Betty Carter (‘Amazon’) and Neal Hefti (‘Lonely Girl’). He is a singer alert not just to lyrics but to the full repertoire of vocal sounds: his scatting recalled some of the great bebop vocalists, while his use of percussive sounds and quasi-African sounds on the closing tune owed something to Bobby McFerrin. Touted in his early career as a British answer to McFerrin, Watkiss lacks McFerrin’s superhuman intonation, but they share similarities in tone and an adventurous, fluid approach.

Following Watkiss was his old friend and fellow east Londoner Talvin Singh. The pioneer of Indian electronica had brought his computer onstage – for checking Facebook, he joked – but hardly touched it except to add some subtle atmospheres behind his tabla playing. He was joined by Soumik Datta, a virtuoso on the sarod, shorter and earthier-sounding than the sitar; by percussionist Pirashanna Thevarajah; and by Rekesh Chauhan, whose keyboard playing provided a harmonic bed for the others to improvise over. Singh and the impressively fleet-fingered Thevarajah alternated solos before joining forces with a driving percussion rhythm, the closest thing to a flamboyant moment in the spacious, meditative set.

The final element was the jazz trumpet of Byron Wallen. His impassioned Harmon mute trills over a contemporary Indian raga created the kind of stylistic mesh that Singh has always gravitated towards. In this instance there was no hint of contrivance: when trumpet and sarod started trading licks on a composition by Datta it felt like an act of translation, two languages saying the same thing. Wallen was only just getting underway when time was called on the set and the audience were ushered out in preparation for the second house – a somewhat anticlimactic cut-off to an intriguing collaboration and a thrilling week.

Jazzwise– Edward Randell

March 2009 gig reviews by Chris Parker

Cleveland Watkiss Trio

Vortex jazz club: Friday 27 March 2009

Singing with just bass (Mark Hodgson) and drums (Shaney Forbes) for company is a somewhat risky business, requiring sharp ears and quick musical reflexes, but Cleveland Watkiss has always been blessed with these advantages, so is able to seize and hold an audience’s attention solely with the power and versatility of his voice.

At one point in the proceedings, he asserted that, despite frequently singing in other styles, he loved jazz so much that it was in his blood and would be till he died, and listening to his extraordinarily flexible and wide-ranging voice swooping and scatting through the likes of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Black Nile’ (from 1964’s Blue Note album, Night Dreamer, with the dream band of Shorter, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman and Elvin Jones) and Thelonious Monk’s eccentrically jaunty ‘I Mean You’, this was easy to believe, but Watkiss is also a fine interpreter of outright standard material.

‘Moonlight in Vermont’ and ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’, for instance, both received adventurous but respectful treatments from Watkiss, their tunes and lyrics providing him with almost unlimited scope for the melodic and verbal improvisation in which he specialises.

Hodgson and Forbes were whip-smart in support, ever ready to step in and trade phrases both with each other and Watkiss himself, and with the singer interspersing his songs (which included some intriguingly fresh originals) with warm, informal chat, this was a thoroughly entertaining, relaxed but musicianly performance.

Review of the night

Calstock Hall Friday 5th December 2008

“In the beginning there was Rhythm.” (Genesis 1:1, The Musicians’ Bible)

go shh crr burr go shh brac cur sht sht goo burr

ting shtooo crack hoo whhooo, shting

go shh crr burr go shh brac cur sht sht goo burr

So begins Cleveland Watkiss’s concert.  He steps on to the stage, impeccably clad (tall, dark and handsome) and starts to make percussive sounds with his mouth.  A barely discernable movement of his right foot, and these initial percussive sounds are laid down as the first part of a loop, over which he improvises another set of bass-type sounds: then another, and then another, till he is including sounds from the top of his range, like a muted trumpet searing above a rhythm section.  His foot varies the levels of the loops, either gradually, or collectively, suddenly, creating different textures, with an African feel (a one man Ladysmith Black Mambazo, if you can imagine that).  The music climaxes, then begins to fade away, leading back to the beginning sounds, then the silence from which it grew.  Muted applause (almost itself part of the first track) — this is going to be an extraordinary concert.

The second piece begins with the vocal sound of a double bass, a more jazzy sound, but moves towards a rap-based soundscape, possibly based around the sentence, “What, where you live?” - nothing is overt, nothing is obvious as the rhythms complexify against, and with, one another, before the polyphony shifts into an original interpretation of an old song, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (missing some of the verses and a little jumbled up). Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright have already eclipsed Cohen’s own version of this song (which is a little low and slow, even by his lugubrious standards).  Watkiss gently integrates the audience singing the chorus into the overall sound, then it’s over, and, summoned from the wings, his band join him on stage.

He talks very little between tracks, probably because he is building up a musical sequence that would be interrupted by too much chatting.  The first combined song reverses the usual order of things, setting out with a scat (improvised vocal line to nonsense sounds, an idea initiated by Billie Holliday and taken further by Ella Fitzgerald (and Louis Armstrong)) and then becoming the lyrics, Moonlight in Vermont, an old standard with abstract imagery about moonlight over ski slopes.  By now we are beginning to realise that the two musicians he has bought with him are in the exceptional category too: bassist Mark Hodgson and drummer Shaney Forbes.  Mark opens the next track with some agile double-stopping (allowing us to reflect on the vocal “double bass” intro Watkiss had started with earlier), and the drummer gets a chance to shine: Shaney Forbes is as good a drummer as I’ve heard - not too loud, popping and hissing up when there’s space, and, more importantly, subsuming himself back into the sound when that’s what’s needed, adding more gentle percussion sounds (beating a drum with his hands, for instance) as well as holding the rhythm like a conventional drummer.  A version of No Moon at All contrasts with the previous lunar reference, and the songs continue a humorous metaphor on artistic daring: “let’s jump over the side”.

The second half begins with a song with the refrain “gimme this, gimme that”, which makes me reflect on a recent report that a Walmart employee had been crushed to death in a sale-rush in America (remember the American mothers fighting for cabbage patch dolls, a one-time “must-have” Christmas present).  This is a track by Wynton Marsalis, called Super Capitalism, its punchy rhythms ideally suited to this rhythm section.  The concert continues, people are standing up at the back to dance.  But all good things must come to an end, and after an encore, the concert is over, one of the most innovative Calstock Hall has put on.  It was billed as jazz, but went well beyond any conventional definition of this already broad term.

He denies having perfect pitch, but if you ask him to sing an A, an A is what you get, without reference to an instrument.  His vocal range is phenomenal, from a low D flat to a high fluting note a song thrush would be proud of.  His first influence, the one which convinced him to pursue this career, was Bobby McFerrin (Be Happy!), but the pull of more avant garde artists, such as Steve Reich, for instance, is also apparent.  Cleveland Watkiss could croon for a living, but the man is, first and foremost, an artist.



Cleveland Watkiss in Barnstaple (review)

So did Cleveland Watkiss have a five or a 25 octave vocal range? At the end of his astonishing set he just smiled and said very gently “I don’t know.”

This world-class musician had just treated us to a breathtakingly brilliant performance which, thanks to a combination of his innovative improvisations with his command of technology, took us on a sublime orchestral journey the like of which none of us will have experienced before.

The sheer mental and emotional dexterity of Watkiss’ performance floored a packed house – or rather church – with layer upon layer of musical magic woven seamlessly, one subtle sound-frond into the next, from dozens of on-the-spot recordings Watkiss made as we actually listened and watched.

The process was extraordinary, the result was extraordinary and actually, as anything from Watkiss’ variations on Chopin to Bob Marley filled a remote, country church on an icy, foggy December evening, the whole situation was extraordinary.

But this element was by design – that a church would enhance both this performer’s solo sound and that of his trio – also an incredible treat.

Certainly the sound was ethereal, other-worldy and goosebump-generating – okay, heavenly.

And few can have left feeling the same as they did before they entered.
We’d all been Watkissed.

And it’s true, prior to the gig the music-man had promised we’d never be the same.

“I always start my show with something improvised, and completely fresh and new,” he’d said.

“And they (the audience) are going to be part of that. They’ll never hear or see that experience ever again.”

No. And we’ll never forget it, either.


‘From an opera to a hurricane in the blink of an eye’

Ivan Hewett reviews Cleveland Watkiss at Vortex

Cleveland Watkiss is such a restlessly curious musician, it’s hard to know where to place him. He has sung with the Who and gospel choirs, he has appeared in straight-ahead jazz contexts and in drum and bass, he has worked with video artists, DJs, Indian percussionists, Japanese musicians. All these encounters have left their traces on him, as was clear from his solo gig at the Vortex.

To sustain a 90-minute vocal set without visible support is no mean feat. But Watkiss had invisible support, in the form of technology. What Watkiss gave us was not songs so much as vocal mixes, constructed layer by layer with the aid of samplers.

A number typically began with a kind of repeating bass, sung once by Watkiss and “captured” by a digital recorder. This was then played back repeatedly, like a ground bass, while Watkiss sang another line, which was similarly captured. And so the process continued, until we were bobbing in a sea of vocal sound emerging from the speakers.

It’s a magical technique, and therefore easy to abuse. It’s all too easy to let the technology do the work. Watkiss triumphantly avoided this pitfall, partly by ringing every possible change on the repeating bass idea. Never have I heard the basic “three-chord trick” varied in so many ways, by adding surprising off-beat accents and witty mixtures of vocal “notes” and percussive vocal “noises”.

Then there was the astounding variety of sounds that Watkiss brought forth. He can be a plucked bass, a snare drum and a wailing gospel singer, all in the space of a few seconds.

Just as important was the virtuoso way a reference to one musical style would morph into another. This worked so well because it was done in a spirit of play, with none of that portentous solemnity you get with self-conscious musical fusionists such as Nitin Sawhney.

It was fun to hear an “African” number turn into a duet for two operatic sopranos, and even more fun to hear a jazzy song turn in surreal fashion into a vocal imitation of a hurricane, with Watkiss clinging comically to the Vortex’s walls for support.

It was hard to miss the reference to the tornado that had struck just a few miles away.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Watkiss earlier on spun some ecstatic variations on a Chopin prelude that had us all spellbound.

‘One line good - but six lines just incredible’

The Independent

Cleveland Watkiss/Nikki Yeoh | Spitz, London

Sholto Byrnes on jazz
Sunday, 28 January 2001

Cleveland Watkiss is the nearest Britain comes to having an answer to Bobby McFerrin. He can switch effortlessly from lead to bass lines, falsetto scats, human beat box and has a percussive range to rival Al Jarreau. Teaming up with the young pianist Nikki Yeoh he was the mainstay of a remarkable evening at the Spitz in London’s Spitalfields Market, one which required and fully deserved the hushed concentration of a chamber concert.

From the opening intro to the first number, Yeoh and Watkiss caught the attention of the audience, silent apart from the occasional clatter at the bar of the first-floor venue. These were not conventionally structured 16 or 24 bar pieces, but long, flowing explorations. If ever one wondered whether the two musicians were in danger of losing their way, the lie was given to the thought by the appearance of a tight unison riff. Always communicating, Yeoh and Watkiss let the balance sway between them, sometimes one dominating, then the other. This was no self-indulgent “free jazz” happening, however. To start with, it certainly wasn’t boring, which is about the kindest thing to be said about free jazz when it isn’t irritating or cacophonous. I was reminded of Keith Tippett’s work with Andy Sheppard, which they described as being “spontaneous improvisation” rather than free jazz. In the same way it felt as though Yeoh and Watkiss had all the freedom they wanted, but that they were creating a structure together simultaneously, a structure that was constantly evolving. Nothing was fixed, but nothing was random either. Like strands of cobweb drifting in the breeze on a lazy summer’s day, the way forward was not pre-determined; but there was always a logic and a grace in the paths they drew.

The time-keeping, not simple in this kind of exercise, was good. However loose the feel they kept together, such was the empathy between the two. That said, there were occasions when Yeoh was in danger of pushing the beat a bit too far. She is a fine player, with a great range. On some of the sections when they built up a groove there were echoes of Jason Rebello, and she was not afraid to use dissonance occasionally. But some of her solo passages were a little clunky. A more assured pianist would have made it sound easier, whereas at times it seemed that she was trying too hard and as a result didn’t really swing. It made one a little anxious, like a teacher willing his pupil not to make a mistake. These are all points that I’m sure she will clear up. Yeoh is younger and less experienced than Watkiss, and it would be unfair to expect her to be his equal. On a more positive note, the slightly brittle fragility of her playing contributed to the dynamic of the evening. Watkiss had to take on a stronger role than is typical in a piano/vocals collaboration. In an interesting reversal, he was often the one rooting what was going on. Root it he certainly did, with the aid of an electronic box of tricks which enabled him to sing a four or eight bar line, record it at the same time, and then sing another line on top of it. At one point he must have had at least six lines going. To record vocal tracks like this, while maintaining near perfect tuning, and doing it live, shows a very impressive technical proficiency. Just one slip and the whole flow could have been thrown. Watkiss is a quiet, modest man, and is clearly not one to talk the big talk about himself. But there was no concealing what he is when he sung, although that hardly describes the range of vocals he produced. He is a genuine virtuoso. His performance left those at the Spitz smiling and slightly dazed, in awe at what we had just witnessed.

Cleveland Watkiss @ BGAC, 16th October

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

Cleveland Watkiss

I went to see Cleveland Watkiss at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre as a fan of his voice, converted from seeing him over ten years ago at the Royal Festival Hall. His voice filled the auditorium, surrounding you with warmth, depth and melody. I went with this memory in mind and excited about hearing just his voice in surround sound multilayers.

The show opened with a Cleveland walking onto stage barefoot and very relaxed. He took command of the stage with his first tune Lets face the Music and Dance. And he did dance. His chosen instruments of technology – a sampler loop machine and a cordless microphone - enabled him to create a head nodding backing track and the freedom to move about the stage.
The second piece was more of an urban speed freak kind of tune with an electronic industrial element in vast contrast to the first track proving that, musically, anything is possible and that we should not limit ourselves in how we enjoy and explore music.

With just his voice as the brush with which to fill the blank canvass of the Bernie Grants Arts Centre’s black box venue, Watkiss orchestrates his vocals to paint diverse scenes in musical techni-colour displaying his vocal range in terms of pitch and agility. This project has clearly enabled Watkiss to satisfy his fascination of exploring the dimensions of the human voice. I sense there is more to come.

Cleveland Performs liveWatkiss strikes enough of a balance between banter with the audience, movement around the stage and some sing-a-long audience participation to not seem self indulgent and to draw us into the his world where he explores the possibility of improvised vocal play with serious musical virtuosity.

The gospel spiritual “Hallelujah” was so surreptitiously built on the sampler - Watkiss sang a long vocal line that you were not aware was being recorded. The tune had sweet chord changes that only became apparent when he began to sing the lead line and add harmonies. A clever well thought out piece of music.

He closes the show with classical number that has him imitating a German opera singer. He pulls it off tongue in cheek while still displaying his love for music and as a serious business that can be playful and entertaining.

His post gig interview with BBC3’s Kevin Legendre was done in a desert island disc style which revealed much more about Cleveland approach to his music rather than your average one to one Q &A. Cleveland informs us that his desire to do such a show was heavily influenced by his respect and love for the work and skills of Bobby McFerrin. And we hear hints of McFerrin’s style through out the show. Cleveland also hails Clifford Brown, Dizzie Gillespie and Duke Ellington as some his major influences.

In his rendition of Thelonius Monks Blue Monk Cleveland recreates that huge sound of the big brass band with complex and colourful arrangement of vocal parts including an intricate scat session, a double bass solo and amazingly precise imitation of a trumpet solo heralding the show his background as one of the original Jazz Warriors.

Watkiss goes from cosmic, industrial, deep blue spiritual, straight ahead jazz improv, to soul-funk gospel. In fact the show was a universal travel through time as well as around the globe displaying all the music that has influenced him through out the years of his vocal career.
The treasured tone and soul of Watkiss’ voice is so strong and with the tour of the Jazz Opera “Bridgetown” we can see Cleveland moves from strength to strength.

Written by Zena Edwards
October 2007

Bridgetower - Hackney Empire - Thurs 25th October

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007


A Jazz Operaby Julian Joseph and Mike Phillips

If there were ever two more contrasting words jazz and opera are two of them.  Even though I’ve been classically trained for a large proportion of my musical upbringing I can’t help feeling slightly negative towards Opera in general.  There’s something I find unsettling about the vibrato they use and the tone of their voices that for some reason sets me on edge.  So when asked to attend the opening night of Bridgetower I was slightly apprehensive – mainly because I didn’t want my own biases to interfere with the review of the night.  I was also secretly hoping to get my own aversion to Opera dispelled that night!

The band was filled with great jazz musicians from the Julian Joseph Big Band – players like Toni Kofi, Russell Bennett and Mark Hodgeson were just a few names to be picked from the hot list.  The overture that began the night was finger snapping and attention grabbing.  The pieces shifted quickly and merged into different genres and styles – subtly moving from into ¾ for a jazz waltz and out as easily.  There were moments where the band wasn’t as tight as it could have been, but with first night nerves and an almost packed house it was to be expected.  As soon as they were settled the band was red-hot.  Shifting easily and blending well together.  Leading Julian Joseph was able to add his gentle touch to the ivory keys and work his magic in the band.  It would have been nice to hear Julian featured a bit more, but as he was leading the ensemble through some tricky shifts it was understandable he wasn’t able to sit back and do what he does best.

The stage was pretty basic and with the band hoisted on the stage it meant that there wasn’t much room for the cast to move around during the show quite as much, but it did mean that the band was in full view and I could watch David Jean-Baptiste swapping effortlessly between clarinet and bass clarinet.  Still, the singers managed well to recreate different settings well in their limited space and though the props were few, it was ample to set the scene so the audience knew what was happening.

As I mentioned the music was superb, each member of the band working hard to carefully balance which must have been hard for Mark Mondesir on drums as he was so far above everyone yet he still managed to blend well with the band.  The lines between the band and the cast were blurred when Steve Williamson acted as Black Billy Waters and used his sublime soprano playing to link some of the scenes.  There was only one moments that the band lead the way a bit too far and almost drowned the vocalists, it was during a fast polyphonic movement and was probably due to the fact that the band was enjoying blowing than anything else.  For the most part the singers held there own and coped well with the complex charts they had been given.  Some of the harmonies were so complex they verged on clashing, only to resolve at the last moment – perhaps with a cheeky interjection from Christian Garrick on violin.  The lead vocalists coped well with the challenging material and although some words were lost within the layered music’s their ability to portray the emotion behind their lines was apparent and needed no words to explain them.  At times I felt that the chorus would have been better amplified but perhaps with a bit more confidence to belt the tricky words out the same effect might have been achieved.

The vocalists in Bridgetower have as many credits to their biographies as the band does – just reading the program is like glancing through a who’s-who of musical talent.  Abigail Kelly has won many awards including the Birmingham Conservatoire Prize and Frenz Hepburn was one of the six finalists for Operatunity.  Each singer brought their own style and sound to the jazz-opera.  Jonathan Peter Kenny’s impressive falsetto contrasted wonderfully with Hepburn’s rumbling bass lines.  For me the best vocal talent came from Hackney based Cleveland Watkiss and as he won ‘Best Vocalist’ in the Wire / Guardian Jazz Awards for three consecutive years I would hope so too.  There was something about his voice that just shone through.  When he sang a duet with Abigail Kelly you could almost feel the electricity and chemistry between the characters.

The whole night was about building textures and layers – Julian Joseph’s Big Band reduced to 10 players, the five lead vocalist and quite a small chorus meant that each of the intricate lines were heard and performed well.  It was almost like watching a tapestry being weaved.  With each thread working within each other to create a picture before you.  Due to my own slight misgivings about the whole opera genre part of me would have enjoyed the night perhaps slightly more if a gospel choir were used for the chorus or just jazz vocalists, but for the most part I was impressed by the music and style so could accept that opera can be made to sound good.

From the standing ovation given to the players from the stalls it wasn’t just me who thought this.  There was everything in it – great music, a chance to see some of the best jazz musicians play, good vocals and a bit of humour thrown in there just to spice it up for you!  But what impressed me most about this night was the atmosphere.  There was such a friendly relaxed atmosphere at the Hackney Empire that night that you could almost hear everyone willing the jazz-opera to do well and meet our expectations.  It did and it excelled further.

Rachael Forsyth

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