Three generations of great British jazz were celebrated this week at the Southbank Centre in a series of concerts marking the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. One of the recent homegrown heroes is Steve Williamson, the mercurial saxophone talent who burst onto the scene in the late 1980s in bassist Gary Crosby OBE’s enormously influential Jazz Warriors band which also nurtured the likes of Courtney Pine, Orphy Robinson, Cleveland Watkiss and Tony Remy. Williamson went on to release three influential albums in the ‘90s investigating everything from M-Base-style funk/jazz to Debussy-like harmonies, before promptly disappearing from the scene.
But both Williamson and Crosby were on hand at the Purcell Room on Saturday night to showcase the latest line-up of Tomorrow’s Warriors Jazz Orchestra, the hugely important big band which focuses on the work of young musicians, composers and arrangers and has included the likes of Byron Wallen, Alex Wilson, Nathaniel Facey, Robert Mitchell and Shabaka Hutchings in its ranks.
The first half of the show concentrated mainly on new work by the group’s in-house composer/arrangers Peter Edwards, Binker Golding and James McKay. Edwards’ opener ‘Mr Timmons’, a tribute to the Blue Note soul-jazz piano legend, slow-burned its way through some tasty chord voicings and inventive soloing, while a version of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Dance Cadaverous’ was ambitious but rather blunted some of the original’s spiky harmonies and sounded rather staid in a big-band format. Golding’s deadpan announcements (and Crosby’s muttered responses) provided some of the biggest laughs of the evening, and his ‘Half Close Your Eyes’ suite twinkled intermittently, the muted trumpets adding a nice noir touch. His lazily swinging ‘One Last Moment of Weakness’ brought out the best in trumpeter Kevin Robinson who delivered a gloriously fruity solo, Satchmo style.
The second half concentrated on music composed by Steve Williamson, with the opening Jason Yarde-arranged ‘Soon Come’ morphing from a furious 6/8 onslaught into a powerful feature for special guest tenorist Denys Baptiste. Crosby’s bass drove along the very Mingus-like ‘How High The Bird’, while ‘Sweet Love of My Likeness’ replaced the soft, Cassandra Wilson-led funk of the original with some African-tinged major chords, a rather stiff drum groove and strangely linear trumpet chart. The very moving closer ‘A Waltz For Grace’ saw a frail-looking Williamson take to the stage to huge applause, and his majestic soprano playing immediately brought two things that had been missing from the rest of the evening – elegant phrasing and a dramatic sense of space. Special guest vocalist Myrna Hague seemed rather miscast in the middle of this very personal piece, though let’s hope it’s the start of many more Williamson live appearances.