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Friday at Brecon Jazz Festival, 10/08/2018.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Friday at Brecon Jazz Festival, 10/08/2018.

Ian Mann enjoys the first full day of the resurgent Brecon Jazz Festival and performances by Trefor Owen and Andy Hulme, Hot Club Gallois, Ian Shaw, and the Festival Big Band led by Gareth Roberts.

Photograph of Xenia Porteous, Andy Hulme and Trefor Owen by Bob Meyrick


FRIDAY AT BRECON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2018,
10/08/2018.

This year’s Brecon Jazz Festival was the 35th consecutive such event to be held in the town and represented the continuing renaissance of the Festival following the shock withdrawal of the franchise holders Orchard Media just six months prior to the 2016 Festival.

Brecon Jazz Club stalwarts Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon took on the task of keeping the Festival alive, spearheading the ‘Brecon Jazz Weekend’ of 2016 in conjunction with a clutch of other local promoters including Brecon Jazz Futures, Theatr Brycheiniog and Brecon Cathedral.

That first year was not without its teething problems, understandably so given Orchard’s late withdrawal, but these were primarily of a logistical and organisational nature. Artistically speaking the weekend was a great success with some great music being presented. Audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive and there was a palpable sense of relief and goodwill that this remarkable Festival had somehow managed to survive.

Lynne and Roger returned in 2017 with another hugely successful event, this time under the Brecon Jazz Festival name. Word had got around, audience numbers were up, and despite the lack of major funders the 2017 Festival represented something of a triumph with some more great music being delivered at various venues around the town.

2018 revealed that the buzz about the revived Brecon Jazz Festival continues to grow. With Arts Council Wales back on board as a funder this year’s Festival was even more ambitious, presenting a number of nationally known London based bands in addition to the musicians from all over Wales who have always been an important part of Brecon Jazz Festival.

International co-operation has always been an important part of the Brecon Jazz Club ethos too and this year saw a plethora of cross-border musical alliances involving musicians from the Czech Republic, South Africa, Cuba, Colombia, The Netherlands and more, proof, that jazz truly is a worldwide language that continues to find its voice at this remarkable event in the small market town of Brecon. The big name American stars may be gone, at least for now, but Brecon Jazz Festival still represents a global event and a significant date on the Welsh cultural calendar.

With audience levels continuing to rise - every event was well attended, with many total sell-outs – the continuing success of Brecon Jazz Festival seems assured. Congratulations to Lynne and Roger and their team for another superb, and hugely successful, event.

This year the Festival actually began on the evening of Thursday 9th August with a performance of Dixieland jazz led by clarinettist and vocalist Rhys Taylor at Theatr Brycheiniog. This was the only concert event I didn’t get to see, I’ll readily admit that trad isn’t my favourite genre and with three full days of jazz ahead, plus the travelling from home, I opted to give this one a miss. Nevertheless I’ve been told that the show was a great success, which doesn’t come as a total surprise given that the band included musicians of the calibre of trumpeter Gethin Liddington and trombonist Gareth Roberts.

Variety has always been one of Brecon’s strengths and this year was no exception with the programme presenting a wide ranging and eclectic array of jazz styles.

On then with the individual performances commencing with;

TREFOR OWEN & ANDY HULME, JAZZ GUITAR DUO, TY HELIG LOUNGE

The first ticketed event of the day was held in the lounge of the Ty Helig Guest House and featured a performance by jazz guitarists Trefor Owen and Andy Hulme.

The proprietors of Ty Helig are keen supporters of both Brecon Jazz Club and the Festival and regularly play host to musicians and others associated with the Festival. The guest house lounge, packed out with around forty listeners, proved to an intimate performance space well suited to the jazzy musings of these two highly proficient guitarists.

Guitarist and educator Owen, who runs the North Wales Jazz Club, is an old friend of the Festival and led a quartet at the Guildhall as part of the 2016 Festival. Manchester based Hulme was part of that group and has long been one of Owen’s main collaborators, including Owen’s group Shades of Shearing, a quartet dedicated to exploring the music of the late pianist and composer George Shearing (1919-2011) that also includes vibraphonist Paul Sawtell. Hulme also works regularly as part of the quintet led co-led by trumpeter Jamie Brownfield and tenor saxophonist Liam Byrne, another group that appeared at the 2016 Festival.

Owen’s roots lie in bebop and the ‘classic’ jazz guitar sound citing Charlie Christian, Barney Kessell, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery as significant influences, plus Pat Martino from a slightly later jazz generation. He and Hulme played solid bodied ‘arch top’ electric guitars on a programme that gently explored a series of jazz and bebop standards with a particular emphasis on tunes associated with Shearing.

They commenced with Jimmy Van Heusen’s “I Thought About You”, which set the tone for the performance, the two guitarists sharing soloing duties pretty much equally with each man providing sensitive and subtle chordal accompaniment for the other.

Owen described “East Of The Sun West Of The Moon” as being played “in the spirit of Shearing” and deployed the close harmonies associated with Shearing’s style that saw a second instrument, usually guitar or vibes, doubling the pianist’s melody line. Here the two guitarists delivered the melody in tandem before diverging to deliver their individual solos.

Besides the jazz and bebop staples Owen and Hulme also undertook an effective exploration of a composition that Owen described as “a pop song that lends itself to jazz”. This proved to be “Saving All My Love For You”, a huge hit for Whitney Houston that made perfect sense in the hands of these two expert guitarists as they delivered it as a highly convincing jazz ballad.

The duo then explored Brazilian styles with a performance of Luiz Bonfa’s “Manha de Carnaval” (also known as the theme song to the film “Black Orpheus”). They also returned to South American shores later in the set with an elegant reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive”.


The Shearing sound was investigated again on “How About You” with both guitarists delivering slippery, elegant bebop inspired solos as well as dovetailing effectively elsewhere.

Henry Mancini’s rarely heard “Dreamsville” was delivered as a languid ballad and was a lovely and unexpected set highlight.

A lively “Lullaby of Birdland”, written by Shearing himself and performed in his style, raised the energy levels once more before the duo closed out the set with the jazz standard “Time After Time”. This represented a final opportunity to enjoy Owen’s lithe, agile soloing with its distinctive chord patterns, his style contrasting neatly with Hulme’s smoother, but equally fluent, cadences.

This was a low key but enjoyable and absorbing performance by two masters of mainstream jazz guitar and represented a good start to an excellent day of music.

HOT CLUB GALLOIS, ST. MARY’S CHURCH

Despite all the years that I’ve been coming to Brecon I’d never previously set foot in St. Mary’s Church. This imposing building dominates the town square in the heart of Brecon and this year was chosen as a regular venue, hosting three ticketed concerts plus a dozen free performances. Large, light and airy and with excellent acoustics the church proved to be an excellent venue for live music, something encouraged by the all round presence of its Tower Café catering operation, an all year round presence which has transformed St. Mary’s into something of a meeting place, the ‘community centre’ that all churches should be striving to become.

The first musical event that I saw here was a performance by the South Wales based Hot Club Gallois with their distinctive brand of gypsy jazz.

The band features some seriously talented musicians and comprises of Xenia Porteous (violin), Richard Jones (guitar, vocals), Hywel Maggs (guitar) and Mike Morgan (double bass, vocals).

Besides playing the usual Django Reinhardt classics the group also explored the work of contemporary gypsy jazz musicians such as the Rosenborg clan and even included a little original material written in the style, such as Jones’ “Café 39”.

Besides their instrumental skills Jones and Morgan also proved to be competent vocalists with Jones singing “Honeysuckle Rose” and Morgan delivering a particularly effective rendition of “Nature Boy”. 

All four musicians impressed and Porteous was to become something of a major presence over the course of the weekend as she later performed as a guest in ensembles led by the Czech saxophonist Pawel Zlamal and by the locally based jazz french horn virtuoso Rod Paton, but more on that later.

A long running Welsh institution Hot Club Gallois has undergone a number of line up changes over the years but the current edition of the group was very well received by the audience at St. Mary’s as they delivered a lively and good natured performance and exhibited a high degree of musical skill. The band are due to release their début album shortly, which should be well worth hearing.

BEN CREIGHTON GRIFFITHS / ASHLEY JOHN LONG DUO, THE GUILDHALL

I was honoured to be invited to a reception in celebration of Brecon Jazz Festival at Brecon Guildhall where I met with the Mayor, Manny Trailor, and Town Clerk, Fiona Williams among others. Brecon Town Council has been very encouraging towards the Jazz Festival and that support is very much appreciated.

Music at the event was by two excellent Cardiff based musicians, Ben Creighton Griffiths on Welsh harp and Ashley John Long on double bass. Creighton Griffiths is a young musician who has found an innovative way of playing a traditional folk instrument in a jazz context, while Long is a double bass virtuoso whose brilliant playing has been documented many times in these web pages.

In this context their playing was effectively functioning as background music but I tried to take some time to listen to them and was very impressed with what I heard. This combination of instruments is one with a great deal of potential and I would relish the opportunity of hearing these two musicians playing together again in a more formal context, perhaps as a ‘support act’ on some kind of double bill.

IAN SHAW, SIDE BY SIDE WITH REFUGEES, ST. MARY’S CHURCH

Vocalist, pianist, songwriter and raconteur Ian Shaw is one of the great entertainers of British jazz. A technically brilliant singer he brings a rare wit to the music and is much loved by audiences everywhere.

But there’s also a serious side to Shaw, a humanitarian and committed campaigner against injustice. Today’s performance was a fund raising concert for the charity Side By Side With Refugees, of which he is a trustee.

Today’s concert had in part been facilitated by long time Brecon Jazz volunteer steward John Anderson, a friend of Shaw’s and a supporter of the Side By Side charity. Shaw holds fond memories of earlier performances at the Festival and was quick to respond to Anderson’s suggestion to come and play a fund raiser at the Festival, generously waiving his fee.

Unfortunately Shaw was delayed in traffic but the waiting fans were kept entertained by an unscheduled performance by the guitar duo of Trefor Owen and Andy Hulme, these two joined in a one off trio by violinist Xenia Porteous with the three musicians improvising around a couple of jazz standards, including a lovely version of “Georgia On My Mind”.

Shaw eventually arrived, taking to the stage around fifteen minutes late, but nobody seemed to mind too much. The trio had kept us well entertained and Shaw was quickly into his stride, bantering with Festival organiser Roger Cannon before launching into his opening song, the celebratory and richly witty “This Beautiful Life”.

It almost felt strange to hear Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love” sung by a man again after becoming so familiar with stunningly beautiful versions of the song by female vocalists such as Christine Tobin and Madeleine Peyroux.

Besides his vocal and pianistic skills Shaw is also a raconteur with a ready and salty wit and he regaled us with tales of his Welsh Presbyterian upbringing in the North Walian town of Flint. We heard of previous visits to Brecon in the company of the late and much missed George Melly, another born entertainer and a larger than life figure who did so much for the Festival in its early days.

But there was a serious side to this evening to as Shaw explained the role of the Side By Side charity and its work offering pragmatic and practical help to the 2000 refugee families in Calais and Dunkirk and likening their work with that of Sir Nicholas Winton, who organised the rescue of hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia, the ‘Kindertransport’, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Some of this made for harrowing listening but Shaw sugared the pill with his repartee and humorous songs, such as the comic ditty “Quinoa” and a hilarious parody of the done to death “Girl From Ipanema”. Potentially more controversial was a lampooning of the hated contemporary Tory politician Jacob Rees Mogg. The audience loved it. The spirit of Flanders and Swann is still alive, albeit with a definite jazz persona, in the shape of Ian Shaw.

Rather more serious was “Keep Walking (Song for Sara)”,  a tune with poignant lyrics inspired by an Eritrean woman that Shaw befriended in one of the refugee camps in Northern France and a song that appears on his latest album “Shine Sister Shine”.

Shaw’s abiding love of the music of Joni Mitchell was reflected in his moving performance of “A Case Of You”, a song from Mitchell’s best known, and probably best loved, album “Blue”. By way of contrast Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” was delivered with a camp theatricality and was terrific fun.

“Let Your Little Light Shine” saw Shaw eliciting a little audience participation and a typically spellbinding performance concluded with a suitably salacious “Makin’ Whooppee”.

Ultimately this concert proved to be a triumph for Shaw who quickly won over the waiting audience with his musical skills, razor sharp wit and overall humanity. Hopefully the concert was a great financial success for the Side By Side Charity.

Musically speaking I’ve seen Shaw give better musical performances than this, notably at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny in 2017 where he was accompanied by pianist Barry Green who kept a check on Shaw’s verbal ramblings as well as supplying sublime musical accompaniment.

Prior to this I’d also seen Shaw perform at the 2011 Lichfield Real Ale Jazz and Blues Festival where he was absolutely hilarious but over the course of two sets also performed more actual songs and encouraged the involvement of guest musicians such as the Russian saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev.

That said a performance by the irrepressible Ian Shaw is always a hugely entertaining and enjoyable event and today was no exception, with his presence representing something of a coup for the Festival organisers.

FESTIVAL BIG BAND DIRECTED BY GARETH ROBERTS, CASTLE HOTEL BALLROOM

It’s become something of a tradition for the Friday of the Festival to feature a performance at the Castle Hotel Ballroom by a big band featuring a guest vocalist. This year was no exception with Cardiff based trombonist Gareth Roberts, a regular visitor to Brecon Jazz Club and the Festival, invited to put a band together.

This proved to be an all star ensemble featuring some of the best jazz musicians in South Wales and beyond, the line up featuring;

Gareth Roberts – trombone, director
Bob Moeller, Ceri Williams, Tomos Williams, Rob ‘Teddy’ Smith – trumpets
Alice Leggett, Rhys Taylor – alto saxes
Joe Northwood, Emily Morton – tenor saxes
David Miller – baritone sax
Gwyn Daniels, Jeff Pearce – trombones
Phil Dando – bass trombone
Rebecca Nash – keyboard
Erica Lyons – double bass
Jon Reynolds – drums
Annabelle Garner – vocals

This event always includes a meal as part of the ticket price and once the audience was suitably fed and watered around 160 of us seated at tables at a sold out Castle Hotel settled back to enjoy an adventurous programme of big band music from Roberts and his hand picked ensemble. The material included a batch Roberts originals, originally recorded by his quintet but freshly scored for big band plus arrangements of big band classics from the repertoires of Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Maria Schneider and others. The performance was transmitted live by Rhys Phillips for Brecon Jazz Radio.

It was obvious from the outset that Roberts had invested a good deal of time and energy in the project, something that was reflected in the bright, imaginative arrangements and the high quality playing from a very accomplished band.

Reynold’s drums ushered in the opening piece, “News Blue”, essentially an ensemble piece featuring an authentic big band sound and a brief tenor solo from Joe Northwood, one of the ensemble’s leading figures. Northwood leads his own groups, is a great organiser and generally acts as a vital ‘mover and shaker’ on the vibrant Cardiff jazz scene.

The old Count Basie number “Teddy The Toad” featured a slinky, swinging arrangement that tempted the members of the Hoppin’ Mad Dance Club onto the floor to strut their stuff. Their characterful jazz dancing has been a regular part of these events with the Club also hosting dance classes elsewhere over the course of the Festival weekend.

Roberts informed us that he had received a Jazz For Jed bursary which had enabled him to arrange three of his compositions for big band. Named in honour of the late Jed Williams, the founder and former artistic director of Brecon Jazz Festival the Jazz For Jed Foundation continues to nurture jazz talent in his native Wales.
Roberts’ first piece, “Never Ending Journey” was a suitably episodic piece of writing that included a rousing trombone solo from the composer plus an incisive first outing on alto from rising star saxophonist Alice Leggett, a student at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff.

Guest vocalist Annabelle Garner joined the band for a swinging version of George Shearing’s “Lullaby Of Birdland” which tempted the members of Hoppin’ Mad onto the floor once more. Instrumental solos came from Northwood on tenor and Rob ‘Teddy’ Smith on trumpet with Garner, another RWCMD protégée adding a scat vocal episode.

Garner then demonstrated another aspect of her vocalising by singing the ballad “A Child Is Born” which saw Smith soloing on flugel and Rebecca Nash on Nord keyboard, adopting a gently trilling electric piano sound. It was unusual to witness Nash playing in this context. Now based back in Bristol following a lengthy sojourn on the London jazz scene I’m more used to hearing her in the rather more contemporary setting of saxophonist Dee Byrne’s Entropi quintet.

It was back to instrumental fare for a version of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, a piece written for Cannonball Adderley but here played in an arrangement written for the Buddy Rich band. Bassist Erica Lyons helped to create a funky double bass groove which provided the launching pad for solos from Northwood on tenor and the increasingly prominent Nash on keys. Meanwhile Reynolds relished the opportunity of filling the Buddy Rich role with a closing drum feature. Roberts also singled out Bob Moeller for praise as he tackled a particularly tricky lead trumpet part.

Roberts’ big band arrangement of his own composition n “Chwilio” (translation “Searching”) recently won a prize at the National Eisteddfod held at Cardiff Bay. A suitably wistful introduction featured an unaccompanied four trombone ‘chorale’ followed by a virtuoso solo from the leader as the piece gathered momentum.

The Bill Holman tune “Flirt” featured the mellow sounds of muted trumpets, with Nash’s piano also prominent in the arrangement. Solos came from Northwood on smoky tenor and Smith on velvety flugelhorn. Tonight represented a return visit to this venue for Smith who had led the Slice of Jazz Big Band at the corresponding event in 2017.

The first half concluded with a rousing arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” originally written for the Buddy Rich band. Roberts’ and his colleagues fairly stormed through it with solos from Leggett on alto, Ceri Williams on trumpet and Northwood on tenor, plus a final salvo from Reynolds at the drums. Everybody agreed that this had been a terrific first set and was looking forward to more top quality music after the interval.

Set two kicked off with “Basically Blues”, written by Phil Wilson and featuring an authentically bluesy sound incorporating the blues wail of Robert’s trombone plus further features for Emily Morgan on tenor, Nash on piano and Reynolds at the kit.

“Mop Dancing” was the next of the Roberts originals, a quirky piece with a funky groove fuelled by Lyons’ double bass and Nash’s electric piano with solos coming from Ceri Williams, with some stunning high register trumpeting, and Leggett on alto. Tipped as a future star by Roberts the young saxophonist already leads her own small groups and is an active presence on the Cardiff jazz scene.

Roberts spoke of his admiration for the music of Thelonious Monk and wrote “Well I think You Should” as a response to the classic Monk composition “Well You Needn’t”. Possessed of a suitably Monk like quirkiness and bearing many of the hallmarks of the master’s writing the piece included an opening solo from Nash on keyboard followed by a series of fleeting, but exciting, exchanges between Northwood and Leggett. The four trombones were featured in a thrilling display of horn counterpoint, backed only by Reynolds’ drums, before Roberts eventually struck out on his own with an impressive solo.

Smith brought along the arrangements for the set’s two vocal items. Miller’s baritone sax fuelled Garner’s gospel infused rendition of “Get Happy”. The singer then adopted a more flirtatious approach on the all too appropriate “Too Darn Hot”, deploying a fan as a prop!

Bobby Shew’s composition “Blue”, a tribute to fellow trumpeter Blue Mitchell, featured a beautiful solo from Ceri Williams on flugelhorn as the other members of the trumpet section muted their horns and Reynolds deployed brushes in suitably sensitive fashion. Some of the members of the ensemble had played with Shew in 2017 and this elegy to Mitchell also represented something of a tribute to Shew himself, still musically active at the age of seventy seven.

Roberts has always stated that his biggest musical influence is Charles Mingus and two Mingus flavoured pieces were to close out this second set. “Bird Count” was actually written by Maria Schneider, but very much in the style of Mingus. Introduced by Reynolds’ drums the piece included a feast of low end sounds with Miller’s baritone sax and Dando’s bass trombone both prominent in a rumbustious arrangement that allowed plenty of scope for the soloists to express themselves. The trumpet section featured first, led off by Smith, and there were also features for Leggett on alto and Miller on baritone.

Finally we heard “Moanin’”, one of Mingus’ most celebrated compositions. Miller and Dando were at it again, the whole piece being kick started by Miller’s baritone vamp. Solos came from Leggett, Northwood and Roberts as Smith and Moeller also impressed with their high register trumpet work.

This was a terrific way to end an excellent evening of music making. Roberts and his colleagues exuded class and this was easily the most accomplished and musically satisfying of the big band concerts thus far. The performance had been directed by Roberts with his characteristic good humour and the audience just loved him and his band and gave the ensemble a terrific ovation. The only dissenters may have been the Hoppin’ Mad dancers, the presence of so much original, unfamiliar and often complex material limited their opportunities, but for those of us who just wanted to watch and listen the music was an absolute delight. Well done, Gareth.

 

 


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