Tom Harrison - Unfolding in Tempo
(Lyte Records LR038. CD review by Jon Turney)
Ellington is, of course, inexhaustible - any jazz musician worth their salt will have moments when they want to dive into his work. Altoist Tom Harrison has gone deeper than most, immersing himself for three years in the compositions, the orchestrations, and sounds of the great instrumental voices who performed them.
Thus imbued with Ellingtonian spirit, he went on the road with a group he reckoned could honour that tradition while refreshing it – and this CD documents two of their very recent live shows, in Cheltenham and and London.
It’s a small group, so this isn’t about the orchestration, but “trying to capture the feeling behind Duke’s songs”, as Harrison puts it. On the whole, the band succeed admirably. Cleveland Watkiss combines star power with charm, and deploys vocal styles from Calloway to McFerrin with gusto. The leader leaves lots of space for everyone else, but contributes several fine alto features. The electrifying Dave Lyttle on drums – on whose Lyte label the CD appears - and suitably Blantonesque bass from Damiel Casimir have rhythmic energy to spare. And Robert Mitchell on piano, who was absent when the band played a nonetheless memorable gig in my home town, fills out the sound here with some wonderfully Dukeish piano.
It’s very much a live recording: not all the transitions are seamless, and there are a few longueurs. Watkiss’ back-and-forth scat with the audience – game though the Pizza Express crowd are – works better if you are in the room, and two such episodes on one CD is probably one too many. But he is in such splendid voice everywhere else – especially on a straight ballad rendition of Little Brown Book, and a wistful reinvention of Solitude – that it hardly matters. Other highlights include a slow-building piano solo on Sy Oliver’s The Minor Goes Muggin’ that develops a tremendous head of steam, aided by insistent hard swinging from Lyttle.
The six long tracks, and one short one – a beguiling solo saxophone Warm Valley to close – do indeed capture the spirit of Ellington, and of Harrison’s project, very well. And there will be more chances to hear them develop the work live when the band tour again in the Autumn.
Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol. jonturney.co.uk. Twitter: @jonWturney
Live dates for the quintet include the album launch at the Vortex on October 15th, and a London Jazz Festival show on November 18th. FULL LISTING ON TOM HARRISON' S WEBSITE