Ayanna Witter-Johnson composer, vocals, cello & percussion
Gwilym Simcock composer, piano
LSO Percussion Ensemble:
Neil Percy, Sam Walton, David Jackson, Jacob Brown
Both as composer and astoundingly as a performer, Ayanna Witter-Johnson is unique. In Unconditionally, her opening number, she sings, she plays cello, while her foot taps a percussion block. This first piece is a deeply felt tribute to her mother. Her vocals, follow a proud line of celebrated female jazz singers. She has all the hypnotic intensity of a Julie Driscoll or a Cleo Laine. Laine is a contralto but Ayanna is a luminous soprano.
Featuring strongly on this first number is jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock. He offers two of his own compositions, All Roads, leading into Ayanna’s Chariot, a tribute to her father,and the purely instrumental Holding, an introduction to Ayanna’s Tidal Warning, a world première recording of an LSO Commission.
Two members of the fabulous LSO Percussion Ensemble perform on Unconditionally. The Ensemble’s rhythms swing seductively throughout the entire CD including some marvellous jazz-inspired tuned percussion. The programme note describes Ayanna’s music as embracing jazz, reggae, hip-hop and RnB. With her cello playing, she bestrides the worlds of jazz and classical music.
In the opening piece, the Prelude of J. S. Bach’s First Cello Suite is mentioned. The second LSO commission gives its title to the CD, Ocean Floor Suite. In a spoken Prologue by Ayanna, she tells of the British slave ship Zong. It left Ghana with twice the number of slaves for which the ship was designed. Halfway to Jamaica, the crew threw over 130 slaves into the sea. On return to England, the ship’s owners claimed insurance payment for those they had drowned. Ayanna combines this story with that of a young swimmer who had drowned while she was on holiday in Jamaica.
Beyond the crowds sorrowing over the young swimmer, children were still playing happily on the beach. The Darkest Hour has a soulful flowing melody. An ocean drum on which small metal balls slide over the tilted skin makes the sound of ocean waves. Pioneers with the sounds of exotic African drums brings the Percussion Ensemble brilliantly to the fore. Ocean View sounds cheerful, living up to Ayanna’s words, remembering the playing children, ‘Even amidst the darkness of Death, there is still room for Joy’.
The final number Forever lives up to that idea. Drums with an optimistic Latin beat lead into the words ‘Plant a seed and watch it grow’. Although Ayanna’s music tells of tragedy and sadness, her music glows with Jamaican sunshine.
Review by Alan Cooper