Album reviews

Cleveland Watkiss – ‘The Great Jamaican Songbook Vol. 1’

Cleveland Watkiss – The Great Jamaican Songbook Vol. 1

(Cdubya Music. Album review by John Stevenson)

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On hearing the Norman Granz-produced Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book for the first time, Ira Gershwin quipped, “I didn’t know how good our songs were until I heard Ella sing them”.

Though Cleveland Watkiss MBE isn’t singing American standards, the veteran London singer, DJ and actor of Jamaican heritage breathes new life into ten songs from the Caribbean island’s vast roots reggae and ska/rocksteady repertoire on The Great Jamaican Songbook Vol 1. This music has certainly stood the test of time and is deserving of canonisation.

With the exception of Burning Spear, the vocalists whose music is featured on the album are no longer with us.

Watkiss’s readings of songs by artists such as Delroy Wilson, Gregory Isaacs, Alton Ellis, Prince Lincoln and John Holt, however, greatly enhance the brilliance of their work.

Watkiss (co-founder and charter member of the influential Jazz Warriors big band of the 1980s) repeats child prodigy Delroy Wilson’s philosophical question, What is Man?, and improvises a witty ‘toast’ in the middle of his rendition in the mode of Dillinger or U-Roy. His take on Wilson’s popular Cool Operator is also skilfully done.

Orphy Robinson’s sophisticated vibraphone intro heralds Gregory Isaacs’s classic, Babylon too Tough.

Robinson and Phil Ramocon share keyboard duties, Alan Weekes plays guitar, Carl Robinson thrills with authentic ‘one-drop’ drumming and Delroy Murray is the bass player of the session. The horn section comprises three of the UK’s finest – trumpeter Byron Wallen, tenor saxophonist Ray Carless and up-and-coming young trombonist James Wade-Sired. One should also hasten to mention the fine contribution of backing vocalist Ava Joseph.

The spirit of Prince Lincoln (of Royal Rasses fame) is brought to life on Humanity. We get a taste of the influential rocksteady era in The Paragons’ Only a Smile.

Having performed with an staggering array of artists and musicians over the better part of 40 years (including Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Mittoo, Keith Richards, Wynton Marsalis, Art Blakey, Sly & Robbie, Talvin Singh, Bjork, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra and Abdullah Ibrahim to mention a few) , Cleveland Watkiss’s rich artistic experience is readily discernible.

In sharp contrast to its heyday of the 1970s and 80s, much of reggae these days enjoys limited radio airplay and is only captured live on niche performance circuits in the UK, US and Europe by older audiences in the main. Watkiss should be applauded for his deft curatorial instincts and long-standing embrace of the music.

We eagerly await Volume 2!

The Great Jamaican Songbook Vol. 1 is released on CD, digital & vinyl on 25 March 2022


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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