Tom Harrison Group feat. Cleveland Watkiss @ Pizza Express Jazz Club 3rd February 2016
Photo: Courtesy of Ben McDonnell
Venerunt, viderunt, vicerunt – They came, they saw, they conquered. On Wednesday 3rd February, 2016 the Tom Harrison Group came to the Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, saw the intimidating and expectant full house and conquered all before them with a masterly performance of musicianship and vocal dexterity in the form of featured guest Cleveland Watkiss. This was the fourth date of an eight date tour, with positive media reviews and public appreciation having followed the quartet from their previous three locations of Bristol, Kenilworth, and Hastings. On this auspicious evening which marked Tom Harrison’s first appearance as a bandleader at the esteemed Pizza Express Jazz Club the powerhouse quartet of Harrison (sax), Daniel Casimir (bass), David Lyttle (drums) and Cleveland Watkiss became a quintet with the addition of virtuoso pianist Robert Mitchell.
Together The Tom Harrison Group proceeded to pay full and proper respect to the music and memory of two legendary composes, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Mr Harrison got proceedings underway. “It’s a real pleasure to be here and to be working with these great musicians all week. I just want to say before we start, one of my favourite Jazz records growing up was Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers – Two Night’s At Birdland. I was just so inspired by the live feeling of those albums and the spirit they had, they were great musicians. And I kind of always wanted to record a live album myself, so here it is; I hope you enjoy it”.
Well, Mr Harrison got his wish and ticked off at least one item from his bucket list. As for the audience they definitely enjoyed the quality musical fare offered up by this highly competent group of musicians. Set One opened with Duke Ellington’s sublime composition ‘My Little Brown Book’ which none other than John William Coltrane had previously recorded. However, the fact that Harrison was willing to take on this and the other revered standards and apply his own individual voice to them is a testament to the innate passion and high esteem he has for the past masters of the Jazz genre.
Another Ellington classic followed in the shape of ‘Take The A Train’ with an ebullient Cleveland Watkiss adding his vocal prowess to the mix. Harrison has made no secret of his love of the works of Billy Strayhorn. His previous gig at the Spice of Life as part of the London Jazz Festival 2015, although being in the main a tribute to saxophonist Sonny Fortune, Harrison made sure to work in a couple of compositions by Mr Strayhorn. This evening at Pizza Express Jazz Club was no exception with honours being shared between both Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. So it’s no surprise to see that Harrison made sure he included in the Set List one of his most favoured Strayhorn tunes ‘Chelsea Bridge’. And having now seen him perform it twice in a live setting it is fast becoming one of my favourites.
The goodness kept on coming in the form of Duke Ellington’s ‘The Minor Goes Muggin’. This jaunty and infectious little ditty was performed with exuberance by the five band members with vocalist Cleveland Watkiss peppering the tune with his now legendary Jazz vocal scatting; even finding time to instigate crowd participation via some fun call and response. The capacity audience were more than willing to comply. As it transpired, this mini cameo served as a teaser for the next Ellington tune ‘Caravan’ in which featured guest Mr Watkiss’ finely honed vocal technique, control and delivery was showcased via a masterful solo performance’. Tom Harrison confessed that he definitely did his homework on Ellington in preparation for this gig having ordered and listened to over one hundred of The Duke’s CDs. As they say Perfect, Prior, Planning, Prevents, Poor, Performance.
Photo: Courtesy of Ben McDonnell
The solo performances continued at the start of Set Two with the main protagonist Harrison taking to the stage front and centre for a measured and emotive solo sax version of Duke Ellington’s ‘Warm Valley’ which received a rousing round of applause from the knowledgeable audience. Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Johnny Come Lately’ was given the full treatment by the Tom Harrison Group with the spotlight turning onto Harrison’s regular touring/musical sparring partner and band leader in his own right, drummer David Lyttle. Lyttle, wearing his trademark Trilby hat, complete with green ribbon to remind us of the Irish Heritage set about metering out a blazing drum solo. His unique drum technique is reminiscent of none other but himself.
Throughout all the tracks performed pianist Robert Mitchell’s consistent application and concentration on the Steinway grand piano was befitting to a musician of his calibre. When he open’s the throttle and shifts into sixth gear there is no finer sight on the ebonies and ivories. A most convincing and enjoyable performance was rounded off by two more Ellington tunes, ‘Solitude’ and The Intimacy Of The Blues’. The latter tune brought to the fore one of the most in-demand bass players on the Jazz circuit in the form of Daniel Casimir. A regular fixture in bands led by Jean Toussaint, Clark Tracey and Camilla George, Casimir is the real deal. The perfect pacing and cadence of his three-minute introductory double bass solo set the tone for his fellow cohorts to join in and eventually bring the tune home to a rousing finale.
The sign of a great gig is when you leave the audience baying for more. The Tom Harrison group definitely left the audience hungry for more of the same. And on the evidence of this fabulous performance, it won’t be long before the management at Pizza Express, Soho are calling Mr Harrison’s phone requesting he and his amazing band to come back and grace their venue for a second session. Like many who had gathered to witness the performance, I’m so pleased that it was documented for future release as a ‘Live At…’ album. Definitely a ‘must’ purchase.
Michael J Edwards
Danga Quartet (Lyte Records)