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Sunday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 14/08/2016.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sunday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 14/08/2016.

The final day of the Weekend and performances by Dani Sicari & The Easy Rollers, Lieko Quintet, Bahla, Brownfield Byrne with guest Trish Clowes and Celtic Jazz Sounds. Photography by Bob Meyrick.

Photograph of Jamie Brownfield by Bob Meyrick.

Sunday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 14/08/2016.

On the last day of the inaugural Brecon Jazz Weekend the Brecon Jazz Futures programme at Theatr Brycheiniog revolved around a nucleus of students from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. These talented young musicians performed in a variety of permutations across a wide range of jazz genres, impressing audiences with their skill and versatility and winning themselves many new friends in the process. 

Elsewhere Brecon Jazz Club hosted a further series of successful events at the Guildhall and at the new Muse venue and Brecon Cathedral presented a prestigious evening concert by vocalist Jacqui Dankworth and her quintet as well as staging the now traditional annual Jazz Service during the morning.

DANI SICARI & THE EASY ROLLERS

My day began in the Main House at the Theatr with this performance by young vocalist Dani Sicari and her band The Easy Rollers. This group of RNCM students specialise in the music of the 1920s and present the music of their chosen era with verve, showmanship and great technical skill.

There seems to be something of a new ‘trad revival’ at the moment with young musicians such as these and the Old Hat Jazz Band (featuring Nerija’s regular drummer Lizy Exall) embracing the music of the ‘Prohibition Era’ on its own merits, looking at it with a fresh eye unencumbered by the ‘mod v trad’ jazz snobberies of the 50s and 60s. Plus most of them are far better trained than the trad revivalists of those times and the levels of musicianship are considerably higher. As regular readers of this site will know I’m not really a trad enthusiast but when the music is played well it can be both aesthetically pleasing and highly exciting.

Today’s show began with a rousing and lively New Orleans style instrumental as the boys in the band, variously clad in hats, waistcoats and braces reminiscent of the era demonstrated their considerable instrumental skills with Jamie Stockbridge (clarinet) and Aaron Wood (trumpet) showcasing their chops as the featured soloists. The group also included pianist Alex Hill,  guitarist James Girling, bassist Alasdair Simpson and drummer Matt Brown.

Vocalist Sicari, radiant in a white 20’s style flapper dress, now took to the stage to add her sassy vocals to the song “Butter And Egg Man”, which again featured Stockbridge and Wood as the instrumental soloists. Sicari is an interesting character, born in Perth, Australia she is a trained operatic soprano who is currently completing her Masters at the RNCM where she fell in with some of the students on the jazz course to form the Easy Rollers. Her gigging schedule includes operatic, jazz and folk performances. She’s clearly a precocious and highly versatile talent and impressed today with her technical facility, clear diction and confident stage persona while still leaving plenty of space for the instrumentalists to shine.

“Bei Mir Bist Du Shein has become something of a signature tune for the band and saw Sicari’s confident vocals augmented by solos from Wood on muted trumpet, Stockbridge on clarinet and Cox at the piano.

Introduced by the a voice/piano duet a clever arrangement of the slow blues “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” featured Girling’s guitar imitating the sound of a mobile ringtone. Girling, together with Simpson and Brown is also part of the quintet Artephis who recently impressed at a show at a Black Mountain Jazz Club event in Abergavenny and who were also scheduled to perform later on in the day on the Brecon Jazz Futures programme.

The lively “Jack O’ Mellow” featured Sicari’s vivacious vocals alongside a ‘hot’ clarinet solo from Stockbridge, a rollicking piano excursion from Cox and a closing drum feature from the Welsh born Brown.

A slowed down arrangement of “Honeysuckle Rose” saw Sicari seductively emphasising the lascivious nuances of Fat’s Waller’s lyrics on a vocal / bass introduction with later solos coming from Girling and Hill.

Girling also impressed as the band upped the energy levels once more with an effervescent rendering of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing”.  Audience participation was positively encouraged on Waller’s “Flat Foot Floogie”, the nonsense lyrics reminding some listeners of Slim Gaillard’s regular visits to Brecon during the Festival’s early days.

“Don’t Wait Too Long” calmed things down again and even introduced a touch of lyricism thanks to solos from Hill on piano and Webb on trumpet.

A jaunty “All Of Me” featured Sicari’s breezy vocals alongside solos from Stockbridge and Wood and the performance concluded with the inspired silliness of “I Like Pie” with the band turning in a splendidly spirited performance.

A thoroughly deserved encore took us back to New Orleans and the inevitable “When The Saints”. Hill and Girling took care of the solos as Stockbridge and Wood paraded through the audience and Sicari shook a shapely tail-feather.

I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this performance by Dani Sicari and The Easy Rollers.  The amount of energy that the group delivered at this 11.00 am performance was impressive and quickly blew away any Saturday night cobwebs. The playing was sharp and invigorating with all of the instrumentalists impressing as did the sassy and vivacious Sicari who fronted the band with confidence and good humour and sang with great technical facility.

Later in the afternoon the group reprised much of this material outside the Theatr on the Busker’s Stage with the versatile Hill switching to accordion. They went down a storm there too.

LIEKO QUINTET

Half an hour after that rousing rendition of “When The Saints” five members of the Easy Rollers were back on stage in the very different guise of the Lieko Quintet.

By now they’d ditched the twenties clobber and were back in something more everyday and contemporary, something that reflected the music which was very, very different to what they had just been playing just before.

Led by Hill and featuring Girling, Stockbridge, Simpson and Brown the group features Hill’s original contemporary jazz compositions alongside his intriguing and intelligent arrangements of jazz standards and pieces by composers such as Thelonious Monk. Most of today’s material was sourced from the band’s début recording “Deja Vu”, cut as recently as March 2016 and engineered by the versatile Brown.

The performance commenced with Hill’s stop-start arrangement of Monk’s “Think As One”, the ensemble having fun with the staccato patterns prior to solos from Hill on piano followed by Stockbridge, specialising on tenor sax in this band, and Girling on guitar. 

Hill’s own “Scooch” temporarily revisited the New Orleans flavourings of the Easy Rollers before shading off into something more contemporary with Stockbridge’s plangent tenor leading off the solos followed by Hill on piano and Girling on guitar.

A group arrangement of the Miles Davis / Bill Evans classic “Blue In Green” managed to find something fresh and new to say about a much covered composition. Girling’s elegant unaccompanied guitar bookended the piece with Stockbridge stating the theme on tenor and Hill acting as the other featured soloist. 

“Chang Thang” referenced the Afro-Beat that Hill and the others have played elsewhere with its vibrant grooves and powerful tenor sax soloing as Stockbridge dug in in muscular fashion, powered by Brown’s insistent drumming.

“Deja Vu” put a greater emphasis on melody and lyricism but without sacrificing anything of the band’s adventurous spirit. Indeed the piece gathered considerable momentum as it progressed, its odd meter grooves providing the basis for increasingly intense solos from Girling on guitar and Stockbridge on tenor sax, the latter contributing some characteristically full on and earthy playing as the music built to a climax.

Stockbridge’s tenor also featured prominently, this time in ballad mode, on Hill’s arrangement of the Victor Young composed standard “Stella By Starlight” as he shared the solos with Hill.

Hill invited Sicari back to the stage to perform the song “Life As it Is”, the young vocalist again demonstrating her versatility by singing in a totally different and far more contemporary style to the Easy Rollers output. Here she shared the spotlight with Hill’s piano and Girling’s guitar.

“Jacky” was Hill’s homage to the French born , US based pianist and composer Jacky Terrasson and the composition reflected Terrasson’s own broad sphere of musical influences as Girling’s guitar exhibited a strong rock aspect as he shared the solos with Stockbridge’s tenor and Hill’s piano.

The album closer “Say When” also concluded the performance here with Hill’s funky, fusion-esque original sparking high octane solos from the always elegant and fluent Girling and the more direct and raunchy Stockbridge. 

Although less obviously crowd pleasing than the Easy Rollers there was much to enjoy about Lieko’s Quintet’s set. Once again the playing was top quality and I also found Hill’s compositional output to be both interesting and varied. His arrangements of outside material were also intelligent, inventive and imaginative as he and his bandmates found fresh things to say about even the most familiar of material. The group’s album also stands up very well in the home listening environment.

Girling, Simpson and Brown were also due to appear with Artephis later in the day, this after that visit to the busking stage with the Easy Rollers. These guys were clearly earning their money today having got up at some unearthly hour to drive from Manchester to Brecon.

I predict a bright future for all of this current crop of RNCM jazz students. They’re doing great things already and are only going to get better.

BAHLA

At 4.00 pm I was faced with a difficult choice. The Jazz Weekend programme at Theatr Brycheiniog also incorporated a number of events that did not form part of the Jazz Futures strand. Among them was a performance in the main house by old Brecon Jazz Festival favourites Wonderbrass, the ever popular community band from Cardiff and the South Wales Valleys.

I love Wonderbrass and I’ve written about them before, both live and record, so I know exactly what they do. With this in mind and in in deference to jazz being the ‘sound of surprise’ I decided to take a chance with Bahla in the Theatr’s studio space.

I was intrigued by the write up for Bahla which spoke of the group “sonically painting a picture from the broad spectrum of Jewish music traditions, drawing inspiration for new compositions from liturgical melodies, North African rhythms and Yiddish artsongs”. I think I was expecting some kind of contemporary klezmer with fiddles, clarinets and accordions. The reality was very different.

Led by London guitarist Tal James the quartet also featured Venezuelan born pianist Joseph Costi plus drummer Ben Brown, both of whom had performed the previous day as part of the group Caravela playing the music of the Portuguese diaspora. The presence of Costi and Brown just went to emphasise the sheer versatility of the modern jazz musician. Here they were twenty four hours later playing music from a different tradition totally convincingly and without dropping a stitch. Similar qualities were exhibited by Bristolian bassist Will Harris, deputising for regular bassist Greg Gottlieb and again doing a terrific job. Harris had performed a similar function for the contemporary jazz quartet Asterope the previous day and seemed to be relishing his role as a ‘supersub’.

Another recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Music James first formed the group in 2014, initially performing as a duo with Costi before deciding to add bass and drums to the group’s sound.
The co-founders cite John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Bill Frisell as influences on the band’s sound but it’s their absorption of Jewish musical culture that makes their sound so distinctive.

Bahla’s music is harder edged and more urban sounding than I’d first imagined with contemporary rock music also bearing an influence. Their sound is intense, urgent and complex and reminded me of the work of New York based Jewish / Israeli musicians such as John Zorn and guitarists Eyal Maoz and Gilad Hekselman. There’s definitely something of that ‘Downtown’ vibe about it and I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer power of the group’s music.

I didn’t get all the Hebrew titles but one piece that translated as “Little Monster” seemed to encapsulate their approach with its fiery guitar and piano solos, including Costi’s use of dampened strings, and powerful, but flexible, rhythmic accompaniment. Incredibly this was Harris’ first ever gig with the band but he seemed totally attuned to this often complex music, rising to the challenge with considerable aplomb.

I don’t want to give the impression that this set was just about sound and fury.  Both James’ and Costi’s originals and their arrangements of traditional Jewish tunes possessed plenty of light and shade and dynamic contrast. The solos by James and Costi, the latter on acoustic upright piano, were imaginative and inventive with the guitarist making judicious use of his range of effects, his spiralling inventions drawing on Jewish traditions and avoiding all the jazz and rock guitar clichés. This was music that sounded refreshingly exotic, vital and original but always retained a strong sense of melody. Some of the traditional tunes upon which the band based their improvisations were downright beautiful. 

I seem to recall that we heard “Yud Beis Bud”, the subject of an excellent video on the band’s website http://www.bahla.co.uk with its brushed drum feature for the excellent Ben Brown. Also the tune “Bahla”, the piece after which the band is named and also a city in Oman.

It’s not easy music to describe but I thoroughly enjoyed this set from this exciting new band who mix elements of jazz, rock and traditional Jewish music together to create something truly distinctive and original. Bahla have yet to record but their début album is one that will be very keenly awaited and one that should make considerable waves on the UK music scene. Others present today at Theatr Brycheiniog seemed to share my opinions and the group were accorded an excellent reception for music that was probably new to most members of the audience and was also well outside the jazz mainstream.

This was the final event that I was able to see on the Jazz Futures programme and I’d like to thank programme curator Marc Edwards for bringing so many excellent new bands to my attention. All in all the programme was a great success with the groups involved all raising their profile as the Brecon jazz public made some exciting new discoveries. Considering that most audience members were probably taking a punt on hitherto unknown talents the attendances were pretty respectable and the audience reactions overwhelmingly positive. Should the exercise be repeated next year word of mouth reactions plus a more co-ordinated publicity campaign should result in larger crowds. I thoroughly enjoyed everything on the Brecon Jazz Futures programme and its success in purely artistic terms was undeniable. Hopefully it broke even financially and will be able to be repeated next year with other music colleges also becoming involved.

BROWNFIELD BYRNE QUINTET with TRISH CLOWES

The young North Wales based duo of Jamie Brownfield (trumpet) and Liam Byrne (quintet) co-lead a quintet steeped in 50s and 60s bebop and hard bop but given a contemporary edge by Byrne’s considerable arranging skills. Both musicians are highly accomplished soloists on their respective instruments and their band, sometimes referred to as B.B.Q. has amassed a considerable following in the North of England, the Midlands, the Welsh Marches and beyond. They are also a particularly popular act at festivals.

The quintet released their début album “B.B.Q.” in 2014, featuring a line up including GoGo Penguin bassist Nick Blacka. The current edition of the band includes long serving guitarist Andy Hulme plus bassist Ed Harrison and drummer Jack Cotterill.   

For this Brecon Jazz Club co-ordinated event at an again sold out Guildhall the core quintet was augmented by guest saxophonist Trish Clowes, now London based but originally from Shrewsbury,  who may well have known Brownfield and Byrne even before the invitation to appear was extended by Brecon Jazz Club’s Lynne Gornall. 

The presence of the classically trained Clowes ensured that the ‘Women in Jazz’ theme of the festival was maintained and it was also interesting to compare the approaches of the two saxophonists in the twin tenor plus trumpet front line.

Apart from a couple of Clowes originals the majority of the material was drawn from the jazz and bebop canon beginning with Gigi Gryce’s “Blue Lights” followed by Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low”. The two tenors blended particularly well on the ensemble passages and both players excelled on the lengthy solo passages with Brownfield, Hulme and Harrison also enjoying their own features as the reliable Cotterill anchored the band.

Byrne’s arrangement of “Mine Or Yours” from the aptly titled Chet Baker / Art Pepper album “The Jazz Playboys” featured his own tenor plus Brownfield’s trumpet prior to further solos from Hulme and Clowes before the whole band traded phrases with Cotterill.

The co-leaders left he stage as Clowes and the trio played two of her original compositions. Clowes recorded output has featured an ambitious mix of jazz and classical styles but for this performance she selected two pieces that she felt would fit well into the format of the evening.

The first of these was “Little Tune” which closes Clowes’s second album “and in the night time she is there” (Basho Records, 2012). Deliberately written in the style of a jazz standard it’s one of Clowes’ simpler pieces and its attractive melody has made it a popular live performance item. Here Clowes introduced the piece in a duo with guitarist Hulme, who had also impressed audiences the previous day when he appeared at the same venue alongside fellow guitarist Trefor Owen. Gently prompted by Cotterill’s brushed drums the piece featured further solos from Clowes, Hulme and Harrison.

Inspired by the lyrics of “Bye Bye Blackbird” Clowes’ second piece, “Pack Up All You Cares And Woes” had a more contemporary feel with the composer probing gently on tenor and sharing the solos with Hulme on guitar.

Brownfield and Byrne returned as the full ensemble played a new Byrne arrangement of “Early Autumn”, a tune made famous by Stan Getz. Described by the arranger a as “Brecon exclusive” the piece featured his breathy ballad playing alongside further solos from Clowes and Hulme.

Energy levels were raised on a high speed romp through Slide Hampton’s “My Blues” with Byrne and Clowes trading solos before a high octane trumpet feature from Brownfield plus a further solo from Hulme.

A well received set concluded with a Jimmy Van Heusen tune (“The Second Time Around”, I think) with features for Brownfield, Byrne,  Clowes and Hulme plus cameos for bass and drums. The well deserved encore was “East Of The Sun , West Of The Moon” with Brownfield and Hulme both featuring strongly.

Although there were no great surprises here, apart from the two Clowes originals mid set, this was still a very enjoyable performance and one that was greatly appreciated by the Brecon Jazz Club crowd. The format and the material may have been a little predictable but there was no denying the quality of the playing from all six musicians. Brownfield and Byrne are admirably fluent soloists and they do what they do extremely well – which is why audiences love them.

Nevertheless it was good to have Clowes around to bring something a little different to the well established BBQ template, her two original pieces were a breath of fresh air and were very well received while her tenor soloing probed deeply and explored some interesting angles within the broadly bop based context. I would imagine that she also relished the opportunity to participate in a good old fashion ‘blowing session’ as a change from some of her more classically orientated ‘chamber jazz’ projects. As for BBQ I’d still like to see them adding some more original material to their repertoire, for variety as much as anything else. All in all though a hugely successful and enjoyable event courtesy of Brecon Jazz Club.

CELTIC JAZZ SOUNDS – MARIA WALSH / CAROLE NELSON / IAN COOPER / HEULWEN THOMAS

The final Brecon Jazz Club event took place at The Muse, the bohemian style arts space created at the town’s old museum. Lynne Gornall of Brecon Jazz Club likes to bring together musicians who have never worked with each other before to create new, exciting, but ultimately successful collaborations. Friday night’s trio featuring pianist Geoff Eales, bassist Erika Lyons and drummer Romarna Campbell represents an excellent case in point.

Celtic Jazz Sounds fulfilled this remit and also stayed true to the ‘Women in Jazz’ theme of the Weekend with the Dublin based songwriting duo of Maria Walsh (lead vocals, percussion) and Carole Nelson (piano, whistle, vocals) teamed with locally based musicians Heulwen Thomas (violin) and ‘token bloke’ Ian Cooper (electric and acoustic bass).

Under the group name Zrazy Walsh and Nelson have recorded a series of albums embracing both jazz and folk as well as electronica. Openly lesbian many of their songs embrace feminist and political issues but there was little proselytising at tonight’s performance which saw the Anglo-Irish duo (Nelson was born in London) teaming up with violinist Heulwen Thomas and Brecon based musician Ian Cooper.

In deference to this being a jazz audience the material consisted of a mix of original songs penned by Walsh and Nelson interspersed with interpretations of well known jazz standards. Nelson played both piano and penny whistle on the opening song “Amen” with its evocative sea imagery conveyed by the voice of Walsh who also played bodhran.

Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” found Cooper moving from electric to acoustic bass with Walsh now singing and providing additional rhythmic impetus on brushed snare drum. Thomas’ jazz violin solo was reminiscent of her work with the Hot Club influenced quintet 5 Go Swing who I recall seeing at a club date at Black Mountain Jazz in nearby Abergavenny back in 2009. She shared the solos with Nelson, an accomplished jazz soloist here playing an electric keyboard.

Nelson and Thomas also shared the solos on the original song “Rain”, a topical choice given the horrendous flooding that had occurred in Louisiana and Mississippi over the weekend of the Festival, but which had in fact been inspired by an earlier incident in Cincinnati.

“Why Don’t You Do Right” was covered by both Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee and offered further opportunities for Thomas and Nelson to demonstrate their instrumental abilities. This was followed by the original “Private Wars”, another melancholic look at human relationships and a tune that once won a Walsh and Nelson a Billboard songwriting award.

The Zrazy duo clearly have a great love for the songs of Cole Porter and his witty but disturbing tale of romantic obsession, “Night And Day” was up next, introduced by the Dublin duo on voice and piano prior to instrumental solos by Thomas and Nelson and a series of scat vocal / double bass exchanges between Walsh and Cooper.

Another jazz standard, “Autumn Leaves” was given a Latin-esque treatment with Walsh singing and playing cowbell as solos came from Thomas and Nelson with Walsh also adding a scat vocal episode.

At this juncture the fantastically busy Thomas left the stage to play another gig, presumably somewhere on the Fringe Festival circuit. Walsh, Nelson and Cooper continued as a trio with the focus now more firmly on Zrazy’s original material. This included the introspective but ultimately triumphant “Waiting For Me” featuring Walsh’s lyrics about struggling to find her true identity in a repressive Ireland. Many of the duo’s songs are intensely personal and next up was a Nelson song dedicated to the memory of her late father.

Cooper switched back to electric bass for the rather more uplifting “Dream On”, its lyrics about “dancing in the rain” and “going against the grain” representing a hymn to non-conformity.

The closing “Drive” saw Cooper getting his first real solo of the night, sharing the instrumental plaudits with Nelson on piano as Walsh performed on both voice and bodhran.

The deserved encore was a wonderfully emotive version of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child”. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

At a packed out Muse the Celtic Jazz Sounds project proved to be another big success for Brecon Jazz Club with the audience members responding positively to a somewhat eclectic mix of music. The demand for Zrazy CDs after the show was correspondingly brisk. 

If I’m honest the standard of musicianship wasn’t as technically precise as we’d seen earlier in the Weekend with occasional rough vocals and missed instrumental cues but this was genuinely a first meeting between the players and the good natured audience didn’t seem to mind too much. Indeed there was a feel good factor about the whole event, despite the occasional darkness of the subject matter. And technical gripes aside it was the quality of the song writing that counted. Walsh and Nelson have written some very good, if very personal songs. Their lyrics are perceptive, intelligent, sharply observed and genuinely involving. Theirs is a very distinctive world view and one that also embraces an impressively broad range of musical styles.

WEEKEND OVERVIEW

Brecon Weekend represented a very commendable first attempt to rescue something from the ashes of Brecon Jazz Festival. Despite the absence of big international names and a relative lack of nationally known British musicians there was still some excellent music to be seen and heard, not least from the phenomenally talented young musicians on the Brecon Jazz Futures programme. I think it’s fair to say that we were lucky enough to have seen some of the jazz stars of the future over the course of the Weekend.

From an artistic perspective the Weekend was a triumph, and assuming no knight in shining armour rides over the horizon to rescue the Festival in its previous format it’s something I’d love to see taking place again next year.

That said there’s still plenty of room for improvement. More effective advertising and publicity is needed, although I will concede that Orchard’s withdrawal left precious little time for the organisers to co-ordinate their events. Brecon Jazz Club were the first to announce their programme and were rewarded with near capacity audiences for all of their events. Their year round presence in the town no doubt helped with this, Lynne Gornall team have instilled a great sense of loyalty and trust among their supporters with their successful regular club nights throughout the year.

The Theatr programme was consistently interesting but was announced rather late and suffered accordingly with respect to crowd numbers. However I suspect that the positive feedback generated by the audience reactions to some exceptional performances, allied to better advertising and publicity, will lead to increased turnouts next year as the Brecon Jazz Futures programme (and related events) starts to gain a reputation.

The only event I saw at the Cathedral was shamefully poorly attended, scant reward for an excellent performance by the Andy Nowak Trio. The Cathedral’s publicity only advertised the flagship Jacqui Dankworth and Ellington tribute events (both part funded by the Arts Council of Wales),  these presumably drawing larger numbers. The concerts by Nowak and fellow pianist Simon Deeley received precious little publicity and consequently both were very sparsely attended.

If Brecon Jazz Weekend is to flourish in the future there needs to be more co-ordination between the three strands in terms of both publicity and scheduling. There was no unified Festival brochure meaning that it was difficult to establish who was playing when and where. There were also some unfortunate scheduling overlaps, notably with the Tina May and Nerija/Dennis Rollins events on the Saturday with each gig organised by a different promoter. There was a mass exodus of Dennis fans before the end of Tina’s show, while those with tickets to both events who chose to stay missed around twenty minutes of the excellent Nerija. There was certainly scope for Tina’s gig to have started thirty or even forty five minutes earlier, thus eradicating the problem. One got the sense that each body was fighting its own corner, very successfully in Brecon Jazz Club’s case, but some sense of the bigger picture and a spirit of mutual co-operation and co-ordination is needed if Brecon Jazz Weekend is going to succeed as a whole. 

I appreciate that some kind of teething problems were inevitable in this first year, especially given the time constraints the organisers were working under. Overall it was a pleasure and a privilege to be there and I’m already looking forward to a similar, more unified, better co-ordinated event next year. 

   

   

 


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