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Album Review: “The Great Jamaican Songbook, Vol.1” – Cleveland Watkiss. Words: Sammy Stein

Multidisciplinary artist Cleveland Watkiss’s energy and drive are behind many music projects, and he has proved inspirational for upcoming talent on the music scene. He has worked with Wynton Marsalis, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra, Art Blakey, and countless others. 

His new album ‘The Great Jamaican Songbook’ is released, coinciding with a tour (dates below). Watkiss recently won the Ivors Composer Award for Innovation, and his impact is felt across a broad spectrum of genres. Co-founder of the Jazz Warriors Big Band and known for his work with Julian Joseph – the outstanding pianist I recently saw in concert, Watkiss is both a respected solo artist and a key member of many musical projects, with performances across the UK and internationally. 

Watkiss became the voice of Goldie’s Metalheadz label nights at The Blue Note and curated residencies at dance events. He also worked alongside US innovative drummer Marque’ Gilmore and DJ La Rouge as a member of the first live drum and bass band, Project 23. 

Watkiss has followed a journey that has led him down diverse and interesting musical paths, making him impossible to pigeonhole or box. The Great Jamaican Songbook Vol 1 is a project close to Watkiss’s heart and is a roots-reggae-oriented album with tracks by Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, Delroy Brown, and others, detailing the evolution of Jamaican music and culture. Most of the numbers are respectful to their originator and given a unique interpretation, with a spotlight shone on rare gems from the Studio One, Coxsone Dodd, and Tuff Gong labels.

On this album, Watkiss has surrounded himself with exemplars of the UK jazz, pop, reggae, and funk scenes. They include Orphy Robinson MBE (Savanna, Andy Sheppard, Nigel Kennedy, Robert Wyatt, Courtney Pine and many more) on keys; Byron Wallen ( Byron Wallen 4tet, Chaka Khan, Hugh Masekela and more) on trumpet; Ray Carless (Skaaville Allstars, Michael Arkk) on tenor sax; Delroy Murray (Total Contrast, Tongue ‘n’ Cheek)  on bass; Phil Ramocon (Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs, Phil Collins and many more) on keys; Alan Nolan Weekes ( Jazz Warriors, Courtney Pine, Maxi Priest, Rico Rodriguez and more) on guitar and Carl Robinson ( Cee Lo Green, Finley Quaye) on drums.

I asked Orphy Robinson how he came to be involved with the project and his thoughts on the music. He told me, “The idea came about through a conversation with Cleveland. I was bemoaning the fact we were always being asked to do music from The Great American Songbook, especially after I had co-produced with Nigel Kennedy on his ‘Kennedy Meets Gershwin’(Warner Classics 2018) album. As great as that music is, I thought that Cleveland should be singing the songs of ‘The Great Jamaican Songbook,’ and I could be celebrating the music of the Jamaican Vibraphone player Lennie Hibbert. We laughed and then realized that it was a really good idea. That led Cleveland to put together this impressive archive of music, and, of course, we had an amazing resource of first-class musicians who shared the love of the music and had similar cultural backgrounds, having grown up around Hackney during the 1960s and 1970s. We are the first generation Windrush, so this music was an important soundtrack to our lives. It’s been sheer joy producing the ‘Great Jamaican Songbook’ with Cleveland.

The album’s opener is a beautiful working of Gregory Isaac’s ‘ If I Don’t Have You,’ a number that shows Cleveland Watkiss’s artistry – not to mention that deep chest timbre he drops down to every so often. The track is respectful to the original yet has a take which is all Watkiss. The sax solo from Ray Carless’s sax is gorgeous, lifting, rising, and sighing across the top, while the guitar of Alan Nolan Weeks and the drums solo from Carl Robinson add textures and layers of sound.

‘Curly Locks’ is tongue in cheek and tells the story of someone who does not meet with approval because of his dreadlocks, and Curly Lock’s dad no longer wants her to play the boy with dreadlocks. She, however, writes to him and makes him feel better. She has ‘two roads before her,’ and he wonders what choice she will make. The backing singers sing repeatedly ‘ my daddy doesn’t want me with a dreadlock man,’ suggesting she made her choice. Watkiss’s take of this Junior Byles number is more upbeat than the original but, again, stays mainly true to the rhythmic arrangement

Dennis Brown’s ‘Joy In The Morning’ is given a soft, laid back treatment by Watkiss, who delivers this in style before’ ‘What Is Man’ takes a retro feel complete with Watkiss introducing the music sections and shows us he can skank, scat, riffle and roll with the rhythm and how. His musicians support and roll right with him, creating a oneness that brings the song to a close.

Delroy Wilson’s ‘Cool Operator’ is smooth as silk and a song of desire; Watkiss does the number proud and delivers rich, sumptuous vocals, underpinned by rhythms that introduce subtle tempo changes and pullbacks on the tempo that maintain interest. 

Isaac’s ‘Babylon Too Rough’ is presented with emotion, and the words can be heard clearly ‘Them a walk, them a loot, them a shoot, Babylon them a brute, them a walk, them a shoot, them a loot, but we know evil by the root so….’ There is a glorious trumpet interruption with a slurp of sound dripping in from the brass section while the reggae rhythms remain steadfast. Towards the end, the pattering of the percussion under the vocal lines adds a different take and injects a unique feel to the number.

‘The Paragons released ‘Only A Smile’ in 1967, but Watkiss takes the song and gives it an energised, modern twist. The brass section is as tight as a drum on the number, and the vocals are strong. The lyrics are laced with warnings about how a guy will leave the woman, just like the singer did. 

‘Humanity’ bursts into life with its layered arrangement, steadfast rhythm, and delightful percussive lines. The horns triumph in unison, the vocals are superb, and the backing uplifts this track, everything coming together beautifully. Cedric Constantine Congo Myton used to sing ‘Humanity’ acapella, and it is good to hear the number filled out as it were with harmonies, instrumentation, and well-worked arrangements, which does both the song and the vocal lines justice. Coming from the 1970s when Myton wrote with Lincoln Prince Thompson, recorded by Prince Lincoln and the Royal Rasses, the music has lost nothing over time, and Watkiss again pays the original due respect while making his own interpretation.

 ‘Night Nurse’ sees the Isaacs song worked into a strong number ‘tell her it’s an emergency, there is a patient by the name of Clevie. Night Nurse, only you can quench’ ….’ Oh, the pain is getting worse’…. ‘she’s the only prescription for me, the only remedy,’ whines the vocalist as he longs for the comfort of his love. There is a gorgeous trumpet solo, and the number is fun and uplifting.

The great Jamaican Song Book’s tribute to Burning Spear’s ‘Red Gold And Green’ finishes the album in exuberant style, with brilliantly worked rhythms and clear lyrics. The Lion is destined to rule Africa and Burning Spear knows just how to tell a story – 47 years after its recording, the original has lost none of its effect, and this version too is effective with its additional vocal tones and lines. 

Listening to the music on this album, you get the sense of the curator trying to encapsulate the development of Jamaican music in just ten tracks – a considerable feat – and it makes sense to call this volume 1 because there is so much more to come from this diverse, rich culture. This is just Volume 1, and Volume 2 already feels like it is a must. 

Tour details

26 March – London, Boisdale Canary Wharf – album launch 

6 April – Taunton, Brewhouse 

8 April – Poole, The Lighthouse 

9 April – Bristol, Beacon 

10 April – Exeter, Phoenix

29 May – Salisbury International Arts Festival 

10 June – Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Jazz Festival 

17 June – Nocturne – Live at Blenheim Palace, a reggae day with headliners UB40 featuring Ali Campbell 

22 September – Cambridge Junction 

30 September – Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London

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