by Ian Mann
August 18, 2022
The second day of the Main Festival Weekend and performances from Freshly Cut Grass, The Monmouth Big Band, Black Voices, Gerard Cousins, Gareth Roberts / Dave Jones and Simon Spillett.
Photograph of Gareth Roberts sourced from http://www.breconjazz.org
BRECON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2022, MAIN WEEKEND
SATURDAY 13th AUGUST 2022
The second day of Brecon Jazz Festival’s main weekend found me enjoying five very different concert performances at various venues around the town.
I set the scene for the main Festival weekend as part of my Friday coverage so rather than repeating that here I’ll just get straight on with the music.
FRESHLY CUT GRASS, THE MUSE
Lee Nathaniel (lead vocals), Owain Hughes (guitar, backing vocals), Ross Hicks (keyboards), Joe Carpentier (tenor sax) Cat Eden (trombone), Josh Sharp (electric bass), Tom Williams (drums), Joe Bentley (trumpet)
The day got off to an excellent start at The Muse with a lively performance from the young Cardiff based octet Freshly Cut Grass. Comprised of students and alumni from the Royal Welsh College of Music (RWCMD) the band presented an energetic performance of material at the funk and soul end of the jazz spectrum. The sounds of the core quintet of voice, guitar, keyboards, bass and drums were augmented by the punchy sounds of a three piece horn section featuring trumpet, trombone and tenor sax, the latter played by French born Joe Carpentier.
The band was led by guitarist Owain Hughes and behind the youthful energy and on stage in joking there was a considerable degree of sophistication in the arrangements, particularly for the horns. I believe Hughes is responsible for the group’s original songs and for the imaginative arrangements of a selection of eclectic outside material. If so he deserves great credit.
With Lee Nathaniel confidently handling the lead vocals the programme was inevitably song based, but the arrangements still left plenty of room for some dazzling instrumental soloing. As a unit the band was commendably tight, whether functioning as the core quintet or as the full on octet.
FCG was originally formed to play Hughes’ compositions for his final recital at RWCMD and continued to play together, building a considerable following in South Wales. Their début album “Topiary” was recorded remotely by the band members during the 2020 Covid pandemic and released in February 2021. Hughes has cited his influences as including Frank Zappa, Snarky Puppy, Steely Dan, Grateful Dead and The Band. An eclectic mix to say the least.
Today’s set included many of the original songs from that album and included the album tracks “Work To Be Done”, “Life I’m Working On” “Funk Enigma” and “London In His Eyes”.
The group slimmed down to a quintet for the Jon Cleary songs “Cheatin’ On You” and “Bringing Back The Home”, suggesting that they could readily perform gigs in this format if necessary.
Nevertheless they sound best when that horn section is brought into play with Hughes’ arrangements combining the punchiness and directness of Earth, Wind & Fire with the soulful slickness and sophistication of Steely Dan.
The set also included an intriguing funk style arrangement of the Derek & The Dominoes song “Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad?” and the band took a deserved encore with the infectious “Hoppin’”, which introduced a hint of South African Township sounds to the mix.
I was highly impressed with Freshly Cut Grass, and judging by the audience reaction I wasn’t the only one. The band’s youthful exuberance masked a real musical discipline as they delivered a set featuring deep grooves, soulful vocals and a high level of instrumental virtuosity, these qualities enhanced by the colourful and sophisticated arrangements. They won themselves a lot of new fans today and their reputation as an exciting live act should continue to grow.
“Topiary” is available via FCG’s Bandcamp page.
MONMOUTH BIG BAND directed by GARETH ROBERTS, THE GUILDHALL
The nineteen piece Monmouth Big Band features many of South Wales’ leading jazz musicians and is conducted by trombonist and composer Gareth Roberts, a musician with a number of impressive small group recordings to his credit.
I was particularly looking forward to seeing this set after having to reluctantly turn down the opportunity of covering a couple of the Band’s previous live performances at the Savoy Theatre in Monmouth.
Roberts acts as the Band’s musical director and has also been commissioned to write and arrange for the band. His compositions for the MBB include “The Monmouthshire Suite” and we were to enjoy a number of movements from this work this afternoon.
The MBB features seven reeds, four trombones, four trumpets, piano, double bass and drums, plus Roberts himself on a further trombone. During the course of today’s concert they were also joined by guest soloists Tamasin Reardon (alto sax) and Dominic Norcross (tenor sax).
Things kicked off with an arrangement of “Basically Blues”, written by Phil Wilson for the Buddy Rich Big Band. This gave a glimpse of the MBB’s innate power and included individual features for Roberts on trombone, Tom Hennessey on tenor sax and Richard West on piano, the latter a late dep, but rising to the challenge magnificently.
“The Monmouthshire Suite” is inspired by the landscape and history of the county and the first piece from this work to be performed here was “Afon Gwy” (or “River Wye”). This was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano from West, his rippling arpeggios representing the flow of the river. As the rest of the Band was gradually integrated West embarked on a more conventional piano solo, sharing the features with Roberts’ trombone.
Guest soloist Tamasin Reardon joined the Band for another movement from the suite, “Descending the Blorenge”, named for the mountain separating the towns of Abergavenny and Blaenavon. The cadences of the music were designed to mimic those of the steep descent while the melody was based on a traditional Welsh folk tune collected by Augusta Hall, Baroness Llanover.
Reardon also featured on another movement from the suite, the ballad “After The Battle”, a piece inspired by Monmouthshire’s war torn history and again based upon an old folk melody.
This was the last piece to be sourced from the suite but I was very impressed by the quality of Roberts’ writing and I would welcome the opportunity of hearing the work in its entirety, should that ever become possible.
Once Reardon had left the stage the MBB turned again to the conventional big band repertoire with an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone”, written by Oliver Nelson for the band of Buddy Rich.
A Maynard Ferguson arrangement of the theme from “Sesame Street” included some suitably high register playing from the members of the trumpet section, plus a feature for drummer Louis Barfe.
Second guest soloist Dominic Norcross joined the band for the Roberts composition “The Crocodile’s Yawn”, a tune written during lockdown. This was a witty and irreverent composition that saw Roberts deploying a plunger mute to create a New Orleans style sound. Following a cameo from the Band’s two baritone saxophonists Norcross cut loose on tenor before a swinging final section that featured cameos from members of both the saxophone and trumpet sections. The full personnel of the band is not listed on the Festival website and it was again difficult to pick up the on stage announcements, so apologies to any soloists whose names I have omitted.
Another quirky Roberts original followed. “Mop Dancing” first appeared on the trombonist’s debut album “Attack of the Killer Penguins” back in 2006 and it has been part of his repertoire ever since. The piece is dedicated to the long-suffering souls who mop up spilt beer at jazz clubs. This big band arrangement saw an already rollicking tune becoming even more boisterous with solos coming from West on piano and guest tenor man Norcross, plus a series of drum breaks from Barfe.
A ballad arrangement of Errol Garner’s “Misty” represented a feature for the fluent trumpet soloist Alan Holder, one of the Band’s star instrumentalists.
Following this comparative pause for breath the MBB stormed home with an arrangement of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, composed by the late, great Joe Zawinul for Cannonball Adderley. Naturally this featured the Band’s two alto players, alongside Roberts himself.
This was an excellent performance that featured some great playing from Roberts, the two guest soloists and all the members of the band, whose ranks included Cat Eden of Freshly Cut Grass who had stepped into the trombone section as a late ‘dep’. The MBB is a well drilled outfit and more than did justice to Roberts’ compositions and arrangements.
The show was presented by Roberts with his usual Welsh wit and charm and it was greatly enjoyed by an audience that included members of the leader’s family. And Roberts wasn’t done yet, but more on that later.
BLACK VOICES, THE GUILDHALL
The second Guildhall gig of the day featured Black Voices, an acappella vocal quintet from Birmingham, founded in 1988 by its musical director Carol Pemberton, MBE.
The group has toured the world, sharing stages with their musical and political heroes and is regarded as one of the best acts in its field. They were recently involved in the Opening Ceremony at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
The quintet’s current line up is Carol Pemberton MBE (Managing Director), Shereece Storrod (Artistic Director), Sandra Francis, Beverley Robinson and Cecelia Wickam-Anderson.
The music of Black Voices is rooted in gospel but embraces a broad range of other musical genres. Perhaps the most obvious, or at least best known, comparisons to their sound would be Sweet Honey In The Rock or Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
All five members of Black Voices take turns in singing the lead and the only musical accompaniment apart from their stunning vocal harmonies is the occasional use of small percussion such as shakers or a small frame drum, but these are used very sparingly. On a stage emptied of all musical equipment other than microphones Black Voices generated a veritable wall of sound with their larynxes alone.
The diversity of their repertoire was demonstrated by their choice of opening number, a version of Sting’s song “Fragile” that demonstrated the range and blend of their voices.
A folk song from Zambia was a further example of the breadth of their influences and was rapturously received by one of their friends in the audience.
Spirituals still remain a key part of the quintet’s repertoire as a segue of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” and a celebratory rendition of “The Deliverer” demonstrated, the latter exuded pure joyousness and was rapturously received by the audience.
“Street Suite” was introduced as an “instrumental” and was a stunning performance that saw the voices of the five women variously imitating the sounds of double bass, clarinet, flute, recorder and trumpet. The piece did include some English lyrics and even a ‘double bass’ solo. In a swelteringly hot Guildhall fan carrying audience members were encouraged to wave their fans along to the music to create a ‘fan orchestra’.
A powerful version of the gospel tune “Over Jordan” was followed by a South African song with a title translating as “What Have We Done To Deserve This”. It’s a song that Black Voices perform at ALL their concerts and is a reminder of the quintet’s strong political commitment. The song mixes Zulu and English lyrics and today incorporated a spoken section from leader Pemberton that referenced current issues such as the Ukraine War and the recent attack on Salman Rushdie. The group has toured extensively in South Africa and has met with such influential figures as Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba.
A touchstone for BV is the American musician and political activist Nina Simone and the familiar Simone anthem “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was the first piece to be chosen from her repertoire. It was followed by “Stay With Him”, another song more concerned with affairs of the heart rather than matters political.
But the group’s fierce political commitment found expression once more in their choice of their closing number, a vocal arrangement of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, written by Dr. Billy Taylor and recorded by Nina Simone. With Pemberton handling the lead vocal this was an emotive performance that also honoured black female role models, including Simone, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou and more, even incorporating the members of Black Voices themselves. It was a powerful and truly moving performance.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to make of this but I was hugely impressed by Black Voices, who were rewarded with a terrific reception from the largest audience of the day at a near sold out Guildhall. The array of sounds that they produced from the female human voice was little sort of astonishing, ranging from Francis’ soprano to Wickam-Anderson’s bass to create music that was almost orchestral in its scope. One didn’t find oneself missing the sounds of conventional musical instruments AT ALL.
Besides their sheer musicality what also impressed was the group’s political commitment to the civil rights concerns that continue to be an issue in the UK and beyond. With their wide sonic range this was a group of female singers who were searching for more than mere prettiness. Yes, their music was beautiful, but it was also powerful and carried a strong sense of political commitment and a very important message. This was a brilliant performance that for many listeners must have been their ‘gig of the day’.
GERARD COUSINS, ST. MARY’S CHURCH
Before the next concert set there was the welcome opportunity of catching the closing moments of a solo performance by guitarist Gerard Cousins in St. Mary’s Church.
The locally based Cousins is primarily a classical guitarist but has made frequent forays into jazz and has appeared regularly at BJF. In 2019 he teamed up with fellow guitarist Maciek Pysz and double bassist Paula Gardiner as part of a one off trio.
The previous year saw him presenting a trio Project that took a selection of Welsh folk tunes and explored them in a jazz context. 2017 had seen a larger Project undertaking an intriguing re-imagining of the classic 1969 Miles Davis album “In A Silent Way”.
Today’s solo guitar performance saw Cousins again exploring the Welsh folk repertoire in addition to the John McLaughlin composition “Blue Skies, White Cloud” and Villa Lobos’ “Prelude No. 4”.
The acoustics at St. Mary’s were perfect for such an intimate performance, the beauty of which perhaps disguised the high level of technical skill.
I was later informed that the first part of the set included some of Cousin’s solo guitar transpositions of the music of Philip Glass. Approved by Glass himself the Cousins album “Escape”, released in 2020 offers seven solo guitar interpretations of the composer’s music.
GARETH ROBERTS / DAVE JONES QUARTET, THE NORTHHOUSE
Gareth Roberts – trombone, Dave Jones – piano, Ashley John Long – double bass, Mark O’Connor- drums
Following his successful performance with the Monmouth Big Band trombonist and composer Gareth Roberts was back for his second gig of the day, this time in a more familiar small group context.
He was co-leading an all star Welsh quartet with pianist and composer Dave Jones, the line up completed by two more stalwarts of the Welsh jazz scene, bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Mark O’Connor.
This same quartet had played a storming gig back in 2019 at the Wellington Hotel where they appeared under Roberts’ leadership to perform the trombonist’s arrangements of a set of Duke Ellington tunes.
Today the focus was to be on the writing of the co-leaders with the set divided pretty much equally between the compositions of Roberts and Jones, both highly accomplished composers.
Things commenced with Jones’ piece “Metro”, introduced by his long time collaborator Long at the bass. Roberts then stated the theme on trombone, this followed by the first solo from Jones at the piano. Roberts succeeded him on trombone, followed by Long at the bass. We also enjoyed a drum feature from the irrepressible O’Connor as we familiarised ourselves with the instrumental voices of the band.
The Roberts’ composition “The Crocodile’ Yawn” made its second appearance of the day, this time in a small group arrangement that lost none of its sometimes grotesque good humour, embodied by the gut-bucket sounds of the leader’s plunger muted trombone. Further solos came from Jones on piano and Roberts on trombone, this time with an open bell.
The compositional reins were handed back to Jones for “Five To Three On Friday”, a dedication to all jazz composers frantically writing a new tune on the way to a gig. This featured the writer alongside Roberts and Long.
Jones explained that his composition “Peaceful Places” had been used on Japanese TV, perhaps not so surprising considering that he is also a prolific writer of ‘library music’. This was ushered in in the ‘piano trio’ format before Roberts finally joined in, now using the mute to soften rather than coarsen his sound, a total contrast to “Crocodile”. Long’s virtuoso double bass solo included some audacious flamenco style strumming that evoked a rousing audience reaction, with Roberts leading the applause. Jones followed at the piano, followed by Roberts on trombone, who deployed a combination of various mutes.
“Escape” represented Roberts’ second lockdown tune and was based around Long’s buoyant bass groove, an uplifting tune that included solos from Roberts and Jones and a thrilling series of exchanges between Jones and O’Connor with Roberts directing their responses.
The next Roberts original was the two part composition “My Personal Penguin”, a dedication by the composer to his wife, who was seated in the audience with other members of the Roberts family. The first half was a ballad, featuring the sounds of gently rounded trombone, lyrical piano, languidly plucked bass and delicately brushed drums. Roberts then established a rousing trombone vamp that signalled the second half of the tune, playing in conjunction with O’Connor’s drums to create a riotous sound that a New Orleans brass band would be proud of. This second section pokes fun at Roberts’ wife’s alleged stubbornness and it was the vehicle for barnstorming solos from Jones, Roberts and finally O’Connor as this hugely enjoyable set drew towards an energetic close.
This quartet of South Wales’ finest is something of a Welsh ‘supergroup’ whose members are worthy of wider UK recognition. Their show at a refreshingly cool Northhouse was a welcome reminder of their talents.
SIMON SPILLETT QUARTET, THE GUILDHALL
Simon Spillett – tenor saxophone, Liam Dunachie – piano, Alec Dankworth – double bass, Pete Cater - drums
The third Guildhall show of the day featured the Tubby Hayes inspired saxophonist Simon Spillett, a musician who was acquired a considerable following on the British jazz scene.
In July of this year I enjoyed a performance by Spillett at Kidderminster Jazz Club where he performed in the company of KJC’s very accomplished ‘house band’. Tonight Spillett was accompanied by his regular quartet featuring the experienced rhythm team of bassist Alec Dankworth and drummer Pete Cater, plus the highly talented young pianist Liam Dunachie. This was a group who know each other’s playing well and with all due respect to the guys at Kiddie this helped to take the performance to a whole other level.
Even in a swelteringly hot Guildhall this was a highly charged performance, the energy generated by the quartet was palpable, it wasn’t just the weather that was scorching.
The primary source of the power was Cater’s drumming, his relentlessly inventive flow combining with Dankworth’s solid but propulsive bass lines to provide the ideal platform for the virtuoso soloing of Spillett and Dunachie. Cater leads his own big band and also occupies the drum chair for Spillett’s own big band. He’s adept driving far larger ensembles, no wonder his playing was so powerful here, with the rest of the quartet responding in kind.
First up was “Mini Minor”, written by the late trumpeter and composer Ian Hamer (1932-2006) and introduced here by the trio of Dunachie, Dankworth and Cater. Once Spillett entered the proceedings he embarked on one of his trademark marathon tenor sax solos, playing with a power that really pinned the audience’s ears back. He was followed by Dunachie and Dankworth with, Cater adding a series of dynamic drum breaks. This set the template for the evening as a whole.
An Art Farmer arrangement of the tune “By Myself” followed a similar trajectory with a piano trio intro followed by solos from Spillett, Dunachie and Dankworth, these followed by a series of vigorous tenor sax and drum exchanges.
Spillett had played the Leroy Anderson composition “I Never Know When To Say When” at Kidderminster and gave much the same introduction, including dedicating it to Boris Johnson, which raised a laugh all round. Musically the piece represented something of a pause for breath, a lyrical ballad featuring a gentler side of Spillett’s playing and revealing his skill as a ballad player. Dunachie displayed a similar lyricism at the piano, accompanied by languid double bass and brushed drums, as powerhouse Cater also revealed his sensitive side.
The Tubby Hayes composition “Grits, Beans and Greens” soon ramped up the energy levels again, a powerful blues that revealed the influence upon Tubby of Joe Henderson. Dunachie was particularly impressive on this tune, including an audacious passage that saw him soloing with his right hand only. Dunachie hails from the small Shropshire town of Ludlow, just up the road from me, so I feel rather proprietorial about his success on the London jazz scene. Earlier this year he brought his own young quartet back to town to play in Ludlow’s parish church as part of the annual Fringe Festival. This was a hugely impressive performance from a ‘state of the art’ young band that also featured the talents of bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado. However, I digress, “Grits, Beans and Greens” also featured the soloing of leader Spillett and a volcanic drum feature from the excellent Cater.
Although we had only heard four pieces thus far suddenly we were at the final number. Spillett and his colleagues had stretched out at length with their fiery and passionate soloing so nobody was really complaining.
I was pleased that Spillett and the quartet decided to sign off with “Don’t Fall Off The Bridge”, one of my favourite Tubby Hayes tunes and a great vehicle for some more dynamic soloing from the members of the quartet. Spillett’s buccaneering tenor excursions were followed by similarly dazzling features from Dunachie and Cater before the leader returned for more.
The ecstatic audience reaction revealed just how much the onlookers had enjoyed this band, a quartet that combined instrumental virtuosity with a remarkable energy in such challenging conditions. Frankly I felt exhausted just watching them. How they managed to play with such passion, power and precision in this heat wearing suits I just don’t know.
Meanwhile Spillett’s wryly witty presenting style represented the icing on the cake. During the course of the evening he revealed that this was his first gig at Brecon Jazz Festival since 2009. Let’s hope it won’t be so long until the next one. I’m sure the BJF audience would particularly relish the prospect of seeing the Spillett Big Band in action, or Pete Cater’s come to that. Just a thought for 2023.
So ended another excellent day of music that featured up and coming talent alongside seasoned jazz musicians and embraced a wide variety of music ranging from acapella quintet to full on big band. The breadth of Brecon’s programming is one of its strengths. Long may it continue to be so.
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