If I was a compere l would be stood before you, arm stretched towards stage left, gleefully announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome on stage my new find, Mr. Tom Harrison." Sadly, others beat me to it. Tom Harrison was introduced to me a while ago and I only got around to listening to his music recently. I was nuts to miss out on this player earlier. Already, he has positive reviews on Jazzwise and Time Out. It is not just me, other people are realising the talent that is Tom Harrison and this past year has been a game-changer. Tom comes from Cardiff and lives in London, not that either of these two things should be held against him. His music has a universal appeal. He has made an appearance on BBC TV, completed a major tour and now Unfolding In Tempo is released on an unsuspecting public - but one which will undoubtedly welcome it.
The CD is a celebration and reinterpretation of the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and was recorded live at London's Pizza Express, Soho and Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham during Harrison's successful tour last February. Artists featured alongside Tom would not be out of place in a Who's Who of British jazz musicians including vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, (who has sang with Stevie Wonder, The Who, Wynton Marsalis and Bob Dylan), 2015 MOBO Award nominee David Lyttle, (who has worked with Joe Lovano, Talib Kweli and Soweto Kinch) and Steinway artist Robert Mitchell. Harrison spent a long period studying Ellington's music and sound preparing for this project. He found it challenging to try to develop music that already has such a place in the history of jazz but aimed not to re-invent the music but capture the feeling behind the songs. Harrison's tour featured a number of great tenor saxophonists, among them Jean Toussant who played with Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis to name just a few. So given the credentials of this young player, expectations were high - and not in vain. This CD is full of little touches and surprises.
Take The A Train opens with train sounds before the sax eases its way in over station announcements and then the vocals of Cleveland Watkiss rise above the music, gentler compared to the original number but this is fine. This is easy on the ears and Cleveland does with the melody what he will, developing a scat section in the middle section, along with various train noises inserted, to remind us this is indeed still Strayhorn's 'A Train'. A trippy, happy variation of the song, tinged throughout with the groups own sound and exploration of the music, along with a few quirky little interceptions which make it their own. The sax section is deftly and expertly delivered and if Tom Harrison found the encapsulation of Ellington's sound a challenge he needn't have worried - he keeps the feel whilst treating the listener to a section of sheer brilliance. Daniel Casimir's bass solo is also worthy and delivered over much hand clapping and solid support from Robert Mitchell on piano and David Lyttle on drums.
Things Ain't What They Used To Be starts with bass and hand claps and develops into the rhythmic familiar tune, yet in the hands of these guys it turns into something virtually original and the slow-down sleazy entrance of the sax is very clever and changes the feel completely, emphasising the bluesiness of the piece. Harrison's development of the sax solo is superb and this is followed by a lovely percussion/bass dialogue before the song is taken to completion with the re-entry of the vocals. My Little Brown Book is another bluesy number and is enjoyable and delivered with aplomb, the vocals soft and the sax completely riveting. The lovely tempo changes and swung timings are swapped like delicious candies between the vocalist and musicians. The middle sax, then piano, then bass interlude is impressive.
Solitude is given a collective treatment by the group and the version is good. The Intimacy of The Blues is everything it should be , building from the quiet bass line introduction to the dappy, slightly sleazy (but not too much) vocals and piano. This number is full of fun and adds a touch of mischief to the album and includes some interesting narrative from Watkiss, adding to the reality of live recording. The Minor Goes Muggin is a fine interpretation with much clapping, encouraging and sliding about the notes - a lot of scatting and jungle sounds - a great reference to the period in which it was written when Ellington introduced players James Miley and his muted trumpet growls - here, whilst there are just not the number of musicians to recreate the original Ellington recordings (and no attempt to do so) there is terrific interaction between the musicians, the vocals and not least the audience - huge fun and Watkiss' vocals excel, along with a rip-roaring sax interlude from Tom Harrison. A track with changes, rhythm, calls and armloads of atmosphere.
Warm Valley closes out the CD and Tom plays an almost true version of the Johnny Hodges' recording with Ellington - but, of course, with his own inimitable twists. He hits the notes with less glissando and yet still interprets the tune perhaps as Ellington wrote it, with emotion and beauty. There is not a lot to say other than this track is beautiful, played with true feeling and possibly the highlight of the album. Recorded live, there is complete silence until Harrison hits the last note - which, in itself, is a tribute to the quality of the playing. His loose-reeded notes, his rapidity of ascent and descent hold the audience spellbound.
Throughout the CD there is careful reverence for Strayhorn and Ellington's music whilst lifting sections and arranging them to emphasise and add tills and twirls from the sax. Whilst none of the music is meant to be copies of Ellington's recordings, I found myself comparing, which is a trap of reviewing rather than soaking up this music live. There is a lovely reflection of the big band format with intersections building up to the solos - and not just from the sax. The piano and drums all get their moments in the sun and there are the vocals of Cleveland Watkiss which add a certain 'je ne sais quois' in terms of quality and interpretation. When you consider how familiar Ellington tunes are and how many different recordings have been made, both instrumental and vocal (compare the recordings of Solitude (My Solitude) of Marylin Corino and Ella Fitzgerald, for example, or the later recordings of Minor Goes Mugging with Tommy Dorsey compared to the first ones) and when you further consider the fact that even Ellington re-interpreted his own numbers, there can be no 'definitive' Ellington/Strayhorn. But what this gathering have done with their music is good, the playing exceptional and as vehicles to show off the phenomenal talent that is Mr. Harrison, the choice of numbers is really good, although I have a feeling Tom could interpret a whole shed load of music and it sounds more than good. The added bonus is the fun element so prevalent here and the reactions of the appreciative audience really give the sense of how much this music lifts the spirit.
If you like Ellington and Strayhorn, you will like this, if you like great playing, you will like this. Actually strike that. If you like music you will like this. Simply, a great album.
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Tom Harrison Sax
Cleveland Watkiss vocals
Robert Mitchell piano
Daniel casimir bass
David Lyttle drums