Cleveland Watkiss and Django Bates: The Art and Craft of Song

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Metropolitan and provincial Britain have often been seen as two separate, sometimes antagonistic, entities. [think of terms such as ‘metroplitan elite’ or ‘country bumpkin’]. However, many residents of the capital do not view the countryside with any sense of superiority; indeed, most city dwellers feel that they have a lot to learn from her and those who live there.

Cleveland Watkiss has an interesting and deeply moving story to tell on the subject: “When I was nine, my father passed away, my teacher took several of us to Somerset, where I spent six weeks vacation.” , he recalls in a square of a Zoom call. “I was traveling in Devon and Cornwall, and we stayed in a pub, she [the teacher’s] the parents owned a pub in Bridgewater. For a nine-year-old from Hackney, it changed his life.

The singer – of Jamaican descent – also had his first gig there, doing “that gritty voice of Louis Armstrong” that charmed everyone, and he learned folk songs such as “Blackbird”, which he can still quote line for line in a convincing West Country blur.

It turns out that this part of the world was also not unknown to pianist Django Bates.

“Cleveland called me out of the blue and told me I thought we had a West Country connection,” he reveals in the other Zoom square. “The first time I went, my parents attached a sidecar to a bicycle and rode with two children to Cornwall.

“This place has been a common thread throughout my life. My mother went to Mevagissy, a small town where they fish for mackerel in the morning and you can buy it for 26p or something later in the day, ”he continues. “It became a place where my kids and I could escape from London and the chaos that I brought into our lives at one point. It was truly an oasis. You need something to balance the chaos. crazy about London.

These stories are important because Watkiss and Bates largely embody the eclecticism and creative possibilities of the capital, and they are also international artists with damn passports (Bates currently lives and works in Switzerland). Yet their affection for the West Country [they are pictured above, as children – Cleveland with the paintbrush, Django at the sewing machine – in a composite photo created by Nick White] is one of many links they can explore at their next King’s Place concert as part of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.

Watkiss has created dazzling art of wordless vocals, against all manner of rhythms and textures, whether Caribbean, Asian or Brazilian, while Bates has brought his unique lateral thinking to everything from bebop-inspired trios to orchestras to multifaceted.

Every man is known for his excellent recordings made between the 1980s and the present day – think Watkiss’ Blessing in disguise and Happy Victory Songbook and Bates’ You live and learn (apparently) and The study of touch – as well as a wide range of activities ranging from work to opera (Watkiss in Julian Joseph’s Bridge Tower) to dance (scores by Bates for the British choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh).

Belonging to large groups such as Jazz Warriors (Watkiss) and Loose Tubes (Bates) has been instrumental in their development, and now, decades later, every artist has become a highly respected educator committed to nurturing new generations of musicians.

Watkiss is Professor of Vocal Studies at Trinity Laban and Bates Professor of Jazz at HKB, Bern, Switzerland. They pass on years of invaluable experience.

Connected as they are through class homework, Bates and Watkiss also shared a scene together almost 10 years ago. In 2013, the latter and his longtime collaborator Orphy Robinson hosted an event at St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury and Bates made an appearance.

“We realized it was Louis Armstrong’s birthday… it must have been July 4th, so we thought we had to sing ‘What A Wonderful World’. It was very spontaneous in the midst of chaotic times … we had a rehearsal. We agreed to do, by contrast, “I Have Faith In These Desolate Times” by Terence Trent D’Arby.

The playful 60-year-olds shake their heads at how prophetic the song would be for the current state of the world, but they also agree that looking too far ahead, certainly for the sake of control, may be something to be avoided in a creative context. or as Bates explains, “People want to know what’s delivered. Well, I like that feeling of not forcing the shot … just letting it take its time. Watkiss adds: “You are entering your old age and you are confident that the music will take care of itself. You don’t have to force anything… don’t be afraid to let it happen.

Spontaneity and the spirit of adventure being crucial for both artists, it goes without saying that they are not too precise on the concert setlist. Yet one thing they are more than happy to discuss is the particular richness of the piano-voice format, which is a model that has been used successfully in a myriad of genres, be it pop, soul, classical. or jazz. The sonic range offered by the keyboard, with options for chords, melody and counter-melody, coupled with the expressiveness and subtleties of the human voice can create music of great depth, and every man can. testify, having had the opportunity to work with gifted exhibitors of each other’s instrument – think Watkiss and pianist Nikki Yeoh, and Bates and singer Sidsel Endresen.

“When you are sitting at a piano and a singer is singing a word and you have the sound of their voice, their emotion, which is much clearer than when it is filtered through an instrument. It’s straightforward, if there’s pain there, you feel it because it’s a totally physical instrument, ”Bates explains. “And there are so many different ways to answer that. And then you also have the text, the words they sing.

“You have Nina Simone’s classical orchestral vocal accompaniment, and then how do you accompany Sidsel Endresen? Just make sure nothing is ever cluttered because her voice is so vulnerable. And then you have Randy Newman accompanying himself in a way that I really love…. very sarcastic, very heavy ironic lyrics lightened by this groovy piano playing. For me, it’s just to listen to the singer and listen to the words and color that picture. When you press the piano’s sustain pedal, the voice already enters the piano and resonates. (It’s music) ”

Watkiss also paid special attention to the mechanics of the instrument during his career.

“The keyboard is something that I have studied for many years,” he says before smiling. “And I’ve always thought about it in terms of writing and understanding harmony. It’s a tool, just for navigating the composition and working on things. I have always had a love for the piano. It’s so bare and open and organic and pure in the sense that the voice is bare next to the piano. There’s that intimacy, one thing that appeals to you when it comes to these two particular instruments (put together).

There are also attitudes to consider. The artist’s state of mind matters a lot.

“I love the idea of ​​playing with music, we always try to find that point of joy in music,” he says before I decide to mention another stellar piano-voice duo. “Yeah, I think Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin… the way they play, they’re not afraid of being dumb, if you will, just being vulnerable in the moment.

“I like it when everything is not locked and there is a serious and intense atmosphere. It’s because as musicians we’re serious about what we do anyway, but I like that balance of humor. I always thought Thelonious Monk was extremely humorous. His compositions, sometimes I listen to them and I burst out laughing. Wow! How did he get to this rate? How did he come to this ‘Nutty’ track?

“So yes, we sit down at the table and then display all of our merchandise as clearly as possible.”

Bates shares the memory of seeing Corea on stage and indulging in some of the boisterous audience participation that McFerrin is known for. He invited everyone who dared on stage to play the piano even though some clearly couldn’t and Bates wasn’t sure whether a sophisticated music master had “gone to the circus a little bit.”

Yet there was a much bigger picture of mortality that no one was at all aware of.

“Chick died unexpectedly suddenly and I was like ‘wow’ in his later years he met as many people as he could, now it all makes sense,” Bates said in a voice tinged with sadness. “It was about reaching out to other people you don’t know. Perhaps the generosity is even more important than the quality of the music.

As is the will and determination to overcome the challenges that all artists face at different points in their careers, despite the high esteem in which they may be held in certain circles. Bates points out that he hasn’t had a concert at the London Jazz Festival in over two decades and now, as the world tries to establish some sense of a ‘new normal’, he has the chance to perform. with one of his equally esteemed peers.

There is a distinct feeling that he wants to enjoy the moment as much from a human as from a musical point of view.

“Why try to do something complicated when you can just sing songs with another person?” What do you need? A piano and a microphone? If you can’t have a piano, if you can’t have one, then we’ll both sing. There is something to be done, as Cleveland puts it, “vulnerable”. I love this… beautiful word.

And that might apply to all of us given that we’re not quite in a post-pandemic world. Thinking about the place of culture – but also of health and employment – is not out of place. Bates expresses his disappointment that there has been very little fanfare for 2021 as the 75th anniversary of Arts Council England, an institution which can be, and has been on many occasions over the years, a force for the good.

“Nobody talks about it,” he said sarcastically. “Who cares? Oh, that’s just art.

Watkiss takes over in a fairly transparent way and makes the case both for his duo partner and for anyone who thinks that the creative act is about more than attracting an audience to a place. “It’s our lifeblood,” he says. “This is what we hold on to in these times. We trust the arts. It won’t save the world … it would have done it a long time ago if it could have. But it’s a respite, it just gives us hope, it allows us all to continue.

Cleveland Watkiss and Django Bates’ Arts and Crafts are at Kings Place (Hall One) on November 14 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Find out more: efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Jazz side magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today


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