This year’s London Jazz Festival is going to be huge. With an amazing selection of gigs, workshops and events held all over the city, none are set to be bigger than Cleveland Watkiss’ celebratory concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 19th.
Watkiss’ illustrious career in music has seen him working in jazz, reggae, rock, drum ‘n’ bass, garage and soul, as well as performing and collaborating with a large array of musicians, including; Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Art Blakey, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, Robbie Williams, The Who, Maxi Priest, Pete Townsend, and many more.
To most people, he is perhaps most notable for co-founding the influential Jazz Warriors, which has seen him dubbed one of the most exciting male jazz singers in Britain. As well as being voted for best male vocalist for three consecutive years, Watkiss is also a highly influential Music Educator, working as a voice coach and consultant for many colleges and Universities around the country.
Your interest in music started at a very young age and you have enjoyed a long career spanning many genres of music. What first inspired you about music and who really turned you on to music?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing! I can recall times where I’d be (in my cot) singing along with the radio. I must have been around 3 or 4 years old. My Father (who died when I was nine) was a lover of great music and was a big fan of the great Jazz Pianist Oscar Peterson. He was also a regular atRonnie Scott’s jazz club. Since both my parents were from Jamaica, we heard all the new sounds coming out of the island around that time such as Ska and Bluebeat. So my dad was the spark that first inspired me in music.
You started your career on the reggae scene, but soon found a passion for jazz. What is it about jazz which so appealed to you and what is it that makes jazz such an enjoyable medium to work in?
Jazz, as with classical music, requires that you become a virtuoso master performer on your chosen instrument, but with Jazz you are also required to become a master improviser. Great Jazz is also about giving to a situation i.e. what can I do, play or sing to make the others sound good.
Jazz is a great fusion of two cultures African/Blues and European/Classical Music, and is a strong statement to the idea of democracy. It acts as a melting pot where I can put all my influences such as Reggae, Indian, Pop, Opera, Drum and Bass or folk music from all around the world, stew them together and tell my own stories.
Music does so much to inspire and motivate kids. Do you think music is catered for enough in schools and taken seriously enough by the government?
I don’t think that school’s or the government really see or understand the real power of music, or appreciate its role alongside Maths, English or Geography.
As well as the parent’s, I think it’s also a school’s responsibility to develop the natural skills that each and every child possesses. Sure, that’s gonna take a lot of resources, but to me that’s what is really required so each child gets a fair start.
I heard you talking about your understanding of the communal and spiritual purpose of music. How do you see music’s relationship to politics and society and what purpose do you think it plays?
I’ve often heard that music and politics don’t mix; well now I know that is just a BIG lie!
Music has always had a way of being informative or story-telling, and can sooth the heart and mind (as it did for Saul when David played the harp). A lot of the music coming out of Jamaica in the 70’s had very strong political and historical messages. Historically music was always communal and spiritual; something that was just part of the daily activities like eating and talking. I think it’s time we get back to that.
You’ll be running vocal workshops at your old school as part of the festival. What’s the philosophy behind your teaching? Do you really believe that anyone has potential in music?
Singing is a natural ability that ALL can do, albeit to varying degrees. I don’t believe in this nonsense of a person being tone deaf. I always find it’s usually some block that a person has, and they just need motivation and encouragement in the right direction so their voice can be freed. Children need affirmation and to be inspired by greatness, not mediocrity. Jazz as an art form, with improvisation at its centre, is the perfect music for kids to learn and study. As children, we are all natural improviser’s but this gift is not always understood so it gets lost.
During my first year of secondary school (Brooke House in Hackney), we had a fantastic music department with, pianos, brass, drums, percussion. Sadly, from our second year onwards it vanished with government cutback’s being the cause. This was a massive mistake as I believe a musical education is as important if not more than, Maths, English, and Science.
It’s taken a real long time but I think the educational bodies are tuning into this truth more so these days.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline or other things you really aspire to achieve?
I would like to explore Jazz Opera! In 2007 the great pianist and composer/broadcaster Julian Joseph along with Mike Philips wrote ‘BRIDGETOWER’! It was a fantastic opera in which I played the lead. I would really love to explore this area some more.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to about the festival this year, and if you get the chance who are you most looking forward to seeing yourself?
I will be performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the 19th November! It’s a special birthday concert with various special guest musicians I’ve been working with for many years, so I’m looking forward to catching up with them all.
This interview was originally conducted for Spoonfed.co.uk here: http://www.spoonfed.co.uk/spooners/samgould-5043/interview-cleveland-watkiss-1666/
Portico Quartet have been riding a pretty high wave recently. Having been hailed as one of the most exciting bands in a new wave of contemporary music and as ‘a phenomenon in the making’ by the Independent newspaper, they’ve enjoyed continued success over the past couple of years with a unique sounding take on classical, London jazz and world music.
In just a couple of years they have gone from unknown buskers in London, to widespread acclaim and success, and have just finished recording their much anticipated second album. Their debut album ‘Knee Deep in the North Sea’ was crowned Time Out’s Jazz album of the year in 2007, and was subsequently nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
I caught up with them to chat about their new album, busking and the sound of the Portico Quartet to come…
Your first album ‘Knee Deep in The North Sea‘ was received with great acclaim. Was the album‘s success and your nomination for the Mercury Prize a surprise? Did you think you had a chance of winning?
We’ve always had a strong and positive reaction to our music, which stemmed I think mainly from having a different and unusual sound, so the Mercury nomination was the continuation of a response that started a couple of years earlier when we were busking on the south bank. In this respect it was a gradual progression and after a while you begin to think ‘yeah, why not. Why couldn’t we win?’
You busked for a long time down at the Southbank before recording the first album. Was this an important process in developing your sound, and what sort of progression did your music take? Was it an important aspect in moulding the band into a cohesive group?
Absolutely. We would play one or two ‘normal’ gigs a week and then do maybe 5 hours busking on a Saturday. This, in terms of hours playing, is like 7 gigs a week! So it got us really tight and instilled a good work ethic. Busking is a no-expectation performing environment and so was a fertile space for us. It dissolved the boundaries between practice and performance. We also sold over 10,000 copies of our home-made demo and played to many more people, so when we gained some media coverage, some seeds were already sown.
So you‘re currently recording your second album at Abbey Road Studios. Are you feeling any of the alleged pressure of the difficult second album?
There’s definitely more expectation. Recording at Abbey Road with John Leckie amps things up somewhat, but that’s more exciting than anything. The pressure increases but so does our ability to deal with it. It’s been a really exciting experience that we’ve all been able to enjoy.
How would you describe your second album? Is it similar to the first or have you made any conscious effort to expand?
The new album is deeper than the first. There are less catchy melodies, but it’s more adventurous and feels a lot heavier. Having said that, it’s still very much us and our sound. We all want to keep expanding as musicians and want to keep challenging ourselves. The production is a lot better on this record and we all think it sounds amazing so we’re really happy with the direction the album has taken.
The hang was such an alluring instrument and considered such a central feature of the Portico Quartet sound. Does it still feature heavily in the work on the new album?
The hang is still a big part of what we do. It remains an exciting instrument and one that we can use to create backing sounds and rhythms, as well as to create building harmonies.
Is there any method to which you are approaching the production of the second album? Has it come about largely though experimentation and jamming, or has there been a strong element of ‘song-writing‘?
There has been a strong element of both. We spent December 08 to April 09 playing in our rehearsal space at the bottom of our garden. We would often play quite free, just jam ideas and then craft some structure to them afterwards. Sometimes we would find a nice melody or tune and then experiment with that on different instruments. There was also a lot of in-between too, where we would create parameters for us to improvise within, and thus it would alter our relationships to one another.
You have been described as part of a new wave of jazz groups that are reportedly taking jazz in a new direction and reinvigorating its image. How do you feel about this? Is it something you‘ve been aware of?
Not really. I don’t feel the association very strongly, though I take it as a complement. We just make the music we feel like.
I‘ve heard you say before that you are deliberately not playing in a‘jazz‘ way. In many ways you‘re a tighter band with all elements contributing to the unique sound of your music. What is it do you feel that makes you distinct?
It’s not that we are ‘deliberately’ not playing jazz. We just play what feels obvious and follow our own threads and it’s just not really jazz. Certainly not in a rigid, static definition. The hang is really a sound that makes us distinct, and by combining this with contemporary and classical influences, alongside jazz and dance and world and rock etc. we just create something which we feel really happy playing.
Have you considered using a vocal element in your music and how do you feel this would work?
It is something we have considered. The right vocalist will work a treat. That’ll happen when it happens. There is something ‘unsaid’ about our music which is important, so a voice could work amazingly, but lyrics and narratives I feel would ‘fix’ our music. I like the open interpretation non-lyrical music has. But it all depends on who’s doing it and how they do it. There’s no reason why it couldn’t work.
This article was originally written for Spoonfed.co.uk here: http://www.spoonfed.co.uk/spooners/samgould-5043/portico-quartet-1462/