by Ian Mann
August 14, 2023
Ian Mann enjoys the first full day of the Festival and performances from Janet Evra, Edison Herbert, LaVon Hardison and many more.
Photograph of LaVon Hardison sourced from http://www.breconjazz.org
BRECON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2023, MAIN WEEKEND
FRIDAY 11th AUGUST 2023
Following a highly successful ‘Family Jazz & Dance Day’ at the Marquee on Brecon County Showground the previous Sunday (August 6th) the main Festival weekend began on Friday 11th with a full day of jazz at various venues around the town. Three ticketed concert events were punctuated by a series of free performances at St. Mary’s Church during the afternoon, with free events also running alongside the concert events in the evening at both The Foundry (formerly the Northhouse) and the Wellington Hotel.
In addition to this there were also outdoor performances at various open air stages around the town while the annual Fringe Festival was in full swing in Brecon’s pubs and clubs.
JANET EVRA TRIO, THE MUSE
Janet Evra – vocals, double bass, Will Buchanan – guitar, Jamie Joiner – drums
My main focus will be on the concert programme which began at 1.00 pm at The Muse, the regular home of Brecon Jazz Club.
A near capacity audience assembled to enjoy the music of Janet Evra, a jazz vocalist and double bassist born in Gloucester, England but resident for many years in St. Louis, Missouri, USA where she has become a popular figure on that city’s jazz scene.
Evra had travelled to the UK with her husband and guitarist Will Buchanan, a native of Maryland, but now also a St. Louis resident. In a typical bespoke ‘Made in Brecon’ line up Festival organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon had teamed Evra with the young, local drummer Jamie Joiner, from nearby Newport, to create a one off trio.
Evra sang and played bass simultaneously, an impressive feat, but the emphasis was on her singing rather than her playing (no bass solos) and the bulk of the instrumental solos were undertaken by Buchanan, with Joiner enjoying the occasional drum feature.
Evra is a bubbly personality and presented the show with considerable charm and great enthusiasm. This was a kind of ‘pop jazz’ as the effervescent Evra and her trio performed a set of well known songs drawn from both the jazz and pop canons, but with a number of engaging original songs also integrated into the repertoire.
The trio commenced with the Carole King song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, which established Evra as a highly competent vocalist, whilst Buchanan provided astute instrumental accompaniment and soloed fluently and concisely. As a rhythm section Evra and Joiner elected to keep things simple and effective.
A playful version of the Nina Simone song “My Baby Just Cares For Me” followed, subtly propelled by Joiner’s briskly brushed drums and with Buchanan again the instrumental soloist.
Encouraged by the positive response to the first two numbers Evra and Buchanan elected to perform an original song next. Jointly written by the wife and husband team this was a disarming tale of domestic intimacy, initially performed by the composers as a vocal / guitar duo, before understated bass and drums were eventually added.
An interesting choice of cover followed, “Koop Island Blues”, a song by the Swedish band Koop. Introduced by Evra at the bass this also featured rapidly strummed rhythm guitar and vigorously brushed drums as Evra sang this tale of lost love, adding an extra international dimension by singing some of the lyrics in French.
Evra likes to sing in other languages and a French chanson with a title translating as a “A Man And A Woman” was delivered in the appropriate tongue.
Evra and Buchanan share a love of Brazilian music and have even formulated their own brand of ‘Indie Bossa’. Two examples of this followed, the original songs “You Or Me” and “Tenderly”. These combined bossa rhythms with perceptive English language lyrics and also included pithy guitar solos from Buchanan and nuanced drumming performances from the increasingly confident Joiner. The first was somewhat melancholic in feel, the second more upbeat and sunny, a song about being on the beach with one’s lover. Evra informed the crowd that she’d made a visit to the beautiful Dunraven Bay on the South Wales coast during her current visit, something that endeared her to the audience even more.
Evra had elected to leave her own double bass in the US and was playing on an instrument borrowed from local musician Ian Cooper. Unfortunately a technical glitch surfaced around this time resulting in several on-stage forays from the sound man (another Ian). Evra refused to let this setback unsettle her and the heroic Ian ended up getting a round of applause.
Portuguese and English lyrics were combined on a vibrant rendition of the Antonio Carlos Jobim song “Sway”, a piece that also included a guitar solo from the impressive Buchanan and a drum feature from Joiner.
Evra and Buchanan performed “Bye Bye Blackbird” as a duo, allowing the singer a brief opportunity to showcase her scatting and humming skills.
Finally yet another language with Evra singing “Besame Mucho” in Spanish with considerable panache.
This was an enjoyable set that was very well received by the audience at The Muse and the trio made a lot of new friends on their first visit to Brecon.
To be honest it was all a bit too lightweight for my personal tastes but I particularly enjoyed Buchanan’s fluent and agile guitar soloing.
Nevertheless this was a feel good performance and a highly successful event that got the Main Festival Weekend off to an excellent start.
AN AFTERNOON OF MUSIC & DANCE at ST. MARY’S CHURCH
It has become customary for the Festival organisers to present a free programme of music featuring a number of different acts at St. Mary’s Church on the Friday afternoon of the Main Festival Weekend.
This was also the official opening of the Festival with the Mayor of Brecon, Councillor Michaela Davies and the Vicar of St. Mary’s both saying a few words of welcome.
FUSION JAZZ DANCE
The first performance featured the young professional dancers Aimee Casey and Ffion Elmer dancing to a soundtrack of Nina Simone songs in a programme choreographed for the FUSION project by Bella Ross.
The FUSION dancers subsequently performed at numerous other locations over the course of the weekend and had also featured at the Family Jazz & Dance Day at Brecon County Showground.
NEW ORLEANS JAZZ QUINTET
Jack McDougall – tenor & soprano saxes, clarinet, vocals, Gethin Liddington – trumpet, Tiggy Blackwell – trombone, Ursula Harrison – double bass, Ryan Thrupp – drums
The first musical event of the afternoon featured a New Orleans style quintet featuring some of South Wales’ leading musicians under the leadership of reeds player and vocalist Jack McDougall, colloquially known as Jack Mac.
A tireless and enthusiastic performer and an acclaimed educator Mac has recently been co-ordinating the JazzKatz workshop programme for young jazz musicians at the nearby Black Mountain Jazz Club in Abergavenny. He has also been leading the JazzKatz tutorial team, aka the BMJ Collective, in a series of evening concerts at the same venue, performing for the wider jazz public.
Today’s show featured a set of tunes played in a broadly New Orleans style, appropriate perhaps as in its early days Brecon Jazz Festival was billed as ‘New Orleans Beneath The Beacons’.
First up was a lively “Honeysuckle Rose” featuring solos from Mac on soprano sax, Blackwell on trombone and Brecon Jazz stalwart Gethin Liddington on trumpet. Ryan Thrupp also enjoyed a series of drum breaks.
Eagle eyed readers may have spotted the young drummer on their TV screens recently when Thrupp performed with the Guinea born, Cardiff based balafon player and singer N’Famady Kouyate at Glastonbury Festival. It was one of the best things that I saw from the ‘Glasto’ weekend.
Soprano sax and trumpet introduced “Basin Street Blues”, with Liddington playing vocalised muted trumpet. Mac and Liddington subsequently shared the solos with two more of the band’s younger members, trombonist Tiggy Blackwell and bassist Ursula Harrison.
“Careless Love” saw Mac move to clarinet, soloing alongside Liddington and Blackwell. The young trombonist had also impressed the weekend before as part of the ten piece Funkyard group at the Family Jazz & Dance event.
An extended drum intro ushered in “Joe Avery’s Blues”, with Thrupp eventually settling on a marching rhythm that fuelled solos from Blackwell on trombone, Mac on earthy tenor sax and Liddington on muted trumpet.
Mac remained on tenor and also added a powerful vocal to “St. James Infirmary Blues” with further instrumental solos coming from Tigwell on trombone and the always impressive Liddington on trumpet. The three horns also combined to good effect, carousing effectively on this earthy slow blues, Liddington rounding things off with a stunning solo trumpet cadenza.
“Blue Skies” saw Mac moving back to soprano sax and included features for all five musicians.
The leader remained on soprano and also sang on “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In it”, another piece to feature some impressive interplay between the horns, plus individual solos from all three.
This was a set that was extremely well received by the audience at St. Mary’s and the quintet encored, almost inevitably, with “When The Saints Go Marching In” featuring Mac on clarinet and vocals and with Liddington, Blackwell and Thrupp also featuring as soloists.
The standard of the playing was excellent throughout and I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this set from five of South Wales’ finest.
JAMES CHADWICK / JANE WILLIAMS DUO
James Chadwick – guitar, Jane Williams – voice, ukulele
A change of mood with this short, intimate duo set from guitarist James Chadwick and vocalist and ukulele player Jane Williams, two more stalwarts of the South Wales jazz scene, both as musicians and as organisers / facilitators.
They opened with a playful version of “Bye Bye Blackbird”, a song getting its second airing of the day. Williams, another lively personality, quickly had the audience singing along with the choruses.
By way of contrast “Autumn Leaves” was treated with greater reverence as Williams provided an emotive vocal and Chadwick a typically thoughtful guitar solo.
The guitarist was to feature again on “September in The Rain”, with Williams singing the lyrics as well as providing rhythmic accompaniment on her ‘uke’.
An all too short ‘taster’ set concluded with another famous standard as “All Of Me” allowed Williams to feature her scatting skills.
Chadwick was to return to the same venue later on in the weekend for a longer duo performance in the company of another vocalist, Tara Lowe. More on that in a subsequent feature.
USKULELE JAZZ ORCHESTRA
Community involvement has always been important to BJF and it has become something of a tradition for the Uskulele Jazz Orchestra to perform in this Friday afternoon slot.
Directed by Ian Cooper the UJO is a community band featuring twenty to thirty massed ukuleles, with some of the members doubling on kazoo, swanee whistle and harmonica. The ensemble also includes a violinist, who takes on much of the melodic duties, while Cooper directs proceedings while playing acoustic guitar.
It’s fun and light hearted and audience members are invited to sing along with the members of the orchestra, with word sheets being passed around the venue prior to the performance.
The UJO have well over twenty tunes they can draw on and today’s set list began with the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon”, which featured those whistles and kazoos.
“Fly Me To The Moon” followed, then “Summertime”, with the audience encouraged to get involved.
Violin featured on Jobim’s “Sway”, this followed by the jazz standard “All Of Me”.
“Mack The Knife” was performed as an instrumental while “Wonderful World” saw one UJO member deliver a convincing harmonica solo.
“When You’re Smiling” saw the return of the kazoos and whistles, raising an appropriate grin.
“A Little Help From My Friends” was a rousing sing along, as was the closing segue of “Has Anybody Seen My Girl” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”.
Nothing too profound here but great fun for audience and performers alike and a good humoured way to round off this afternoon’s proceedings at St. Mary’s.
NPTC BIG BAND, BULWARK STAGE
Outdoors I managed to catch a few numbers from NPTC Big Band who were playing on the Bulwark Stage.
Featuring students from NPTC’s colleges in Neath and Port Talbot the band is directed by tutor Ceri Rees, a musician perhaps best known to jazz audiences as the alto saxophonist and musical director of Cardiff’s Capital City Jazz Band, themselves regular visitors to Brecon Jazz Festival.
The NPTC Big Band had played at the BJF Taster Day in June but I saw very little of their performance and was therefore pleased to be able to catch a bit more of their set today.
During the period I was watching them they played the standards “Blue Bossa”, “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Don’t Get Around Much More”, plus two Sonny Rollins tunes, “St. Thomas” and “Doxy”.
The young soloists, identified by Ceri Rees by their first names only, included Tyrice and Dan (trumpets), Sophie (tenor sax), Bethan (alto sax) and Louis (piano), with tutor Andrew George featuring on trombone.
I enjoyed what I saw and the future of jazz in South Wales is safe in the hands of Ceri Rees and the NPTC.
DEBS HANCOCK / MARTHA SKILTON QUARTET, THE FOUNDRY
Debs Hancock – vocals, Martha Skilton – tenor sax, Ross Hicks – piano, Nick Kacal – double bass
I also had time to catch some of the set from a drummer-less quartet co-led by vocalist Debs Hancock and saxophonist Martha Skilton, both regular presences on the Jazzmann web pages.
The good weather on Friday meant that the performance could take place in the space outside the venue and the quartet was rewarded by a large and appreciative audiences who clearly enjoying the opportunity to relax with a drink and to listen to some high quality jazz music.
All the musicians have strong links with Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny, but also with Brecon Jazz too.
The programme included “Lover Man”, “Devil May Care”, “The Nearness Of You” and “One Note Samba”.
Hancock sang with her characteristic warmth, charm and precision and both Hicks and Kacal made telling instrumental contributions, including a number of fluent solos.
It was also great to see Martha Skilton playing jazz again. Her main focus in recent years has been playing with soul and function bands, a more lucrative source of musical income than jazz, but less satisfying to play. Today she was able to stretch out further and clearly relished the opportunity to do so. It was good to be reminded of how good a jazz saxophonist she really is.
The set closed with Hancock’s adaptation of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, featuring her own ‘vocalese’ version of the lyrics.
An appreciative audience called them back for an encore but I had to miss this as I was already overdue for the first of two ticketed concerts at the Castle Hotel and had to scurry off rapidly.
EDISON HERBERT QUARTET, CASTLE HOTEL
Edison Herbert – guitar, Terence Collie – piano, Elliot Roffe – double bass, Magdalia Tamez – drums
Edison (aka Eddie) Herbert is Leeds born guitarist and composer who studied at Yorkshire College of Music and at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London.
His primary guitar influences are Wes Montgomery and George Benson, and elements of both can be detected in his playing. To date he has released two full length albums, “My Favourite Tunes” (2014) and “Time For Love” (2021). The latter features a mix of originals and covers, which is what we were also to hear tonight from a one off ‘Made in Brecon’ quartet, some of whose members had worked together before but never in this configuration.
The quartet opened with Herbert’s original composition “You Know”, a tune from his latest album. Herbert’s opening solo saw him making extensive use of the thumb in a manner obviously inspired by Montgomery. Collie adopted an acoustic piano sound at the borrowed Yamaha CP 300 electric keyboard, so the instrument will be referred to as a ‘piano’ for the purpose of this review. Collie was the other featured soloist and also engaged in an absorbing series of exchanges with the leader.
The Ramsey Lewis tune “You Are The Reason” featured Herbert deploying a mix of guitar styles, his melodic finger picking inspired by Benson, but the use of the thumb was pure Wes.
A passage of unaccompanied guitar presaged a ballad arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”, featuring the delicate sound of Tamez’s brushed drums. Rolfe took the first solo on melodic double bass, followed by Collie on lyrical piano and finally the leader on guitar.
Rolfe’s bass and Tamez’s drums combined to drive a version of the standard “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” with expansive solo from Herbert on guitar and Collie on piano.
Herbert’s original “E’s Train”, which features on both his albums, is a tune written in the bebop tradition. Introduced here by a passage of unaccompanied guitar it also featured suitably boppish solos from Herbert and Collie plus a colourful drum feature from Tamez. This was an item that was particularly well received by a large and appreciative audience in the Ballroom at the Castle Hotel.
Roffe’s bass introduced a slow, blues infused arrangement of “But Beautiful” with lyrical solos from both Herbert and Collie, and with Roffe briefly flourishing the bow at the close.
A muscular near funk groove propelled an arrangement of Montgomery’s “The Thumb”, which included solos from Herbert and Collie, plus features for Roffe and Tamez, with the bassist making a particularly impressive contribution.
A change of pace with the ballad “More Beautiful Each Day”, a song with the feel of a standard (I think it may have been written by Joe Sample) that featured melodic solos from Collie and Herbert and sensitive brush work from Tamez.
We were firmly back in soul jazz territory for the closing “Why Not”, a funky, hard driving piece featuring solos from Herbert and Collie. This was a guaranteed crowd pleaser that saw the crowd calling for more, the encore being an arrangement of Gershwin’s “Summertime” that embraced elements of both bebop and soul jazz and which included expansive solos from Herbert and Collie.
This was an impressive performance from Herbert, a skilled guitar soloist and a good audience communicator. His well paced set represented a good blend of originals and covers and he was well supported by an excellent band.
Collie had performed in the same space the year before with his own Panoply Trio and was a welcome returnee. This was my first sighting of both Roffe and Tamez, but both impressed and will be worth keeping an eye on in the future.
My thanks to Terence and Edison for speaking with me after the show, and for their excellent playing of course. This was an excellent first half on a night that saw two concerts at the Castle Hotel, with a meal served to concert goers during the interval.
LaVON HARDISON with the GLEN MANBY QUARTET
LaVon Hardison – vocals, Glen Manby – alto sax, Jim Barber – piano, Paula Gardiner – double bass, Paul Smith – drums
One of the big successes of the 2020 all online Brecon Jazz Festival featured a performance by the American jazz vocalist LaVon Hardison, singing from her home in Seattle, with accompaniment from the Jim Barber Trio, recorded together at Ratio Studios in Merthyr Tydfil.
Hardison had been recommended to Lynne and Roger by musician and broadcaster Rhys Phillips, a great friend of the Festival, and she had been due to perform at the Festival in 2020. Inevitably that ended up becoming a virtual appearance, but Hardison’s obvious enthusiasm and the warmth of her personality shone through, all the way from Washington State.
Writing at the time I predicted “the combination of Hardison’s highly accomplished vocalising and a warm and generous personality is surely guaranteed to make her a favourite with the Brecon audience”.
It’s taken until 2023 to finally get her here in person but anybody who saw her perform with the Glen Manby Quartet on Friday or with the Monmouth Big Band directed by Gareth Roberts on the Festival Sunday will surely agree with that statement.
For the virtual performance Hardison had performed with Barber at the piano and a rhythm team featuring Bill Fletcher on bass and Greg Evans at the drums. For this in person performance at a packed Castle Hotel she appeared with a quartet led by the popular Cardiff based alto saxophonist Glen Manby that included Paula Gardiner on double bass and Swansea based Paul Smith at the drums. Barber himself was playing the same Yamaha keyboard as Collie, again on an acoustic piano setting.
What the online performance couldn’t adequately capture was the sheer power of Hardison’s soulful, gospel infused vocals. With a big voice and an equally big personality LaVon Hardison is a force of nature. The audience loved her.
Alongside her vocal power Hardison also has an impressive talent for jazz phrasing, something that quickly became apparent on the opening number, “S’Wonderful”, a song that also included a scat vocal episode and instrumental solos from Manby on alto and Barber at the piano.
The Bob Dorough song “Better Than Anything” represented an unusual and very successful choice, a ‘list’ song which here included references to jazz legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and John Coltrane. A second scat episode demonstrated Hardison’s astonishing vocal range and remarkable flexibility. Meanwhile Manby and Barber made cogent instrumental statements of their own.
“It Had To Be You” slowed the pace a little and featured Smith’s deft brushwork alongside Hardison’s vocals. The Swansea based drummer was in particularly impressive throughout the evening and excelled behind the kit.
“The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” featured an expansive piano solo from Barber, followed by Manby on alto. The audience then thrilled to the vocal / drum exchanges between Hardison and the excellent Smith.
“Honeysuckle Rose” was played in an unusual waltz time arrangement. Hardison and the Barber trio had performed the song in this manner on the 2020 stream and I hadn’t been totally convinced by it. It made more sense in the live environment and represented something genuinely innovative.
“Down With Love” was performed as a kind of ‘lyrical blues’, with Hardison imploring the instrumentalists, “I need some crying”, a quality that both Manby and Gardiner brought to their solos. The rapport that Hardison established with her musicians was remarkable, and this transmitted itself to the audience.
A tender rendition of “It’s You I Like” featured a warm vocal from Hardison and instrumental solos from Barber on piano and Manby on alto.
A jazz araangement of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”, a song made famous by The Clash, was surprisingly successful with Hardison’s powerful vocal augmented by Manby’s wailing alto and Barber’s rumbustious pianism.
Another inspired pop cover was an arrangement of the Katy Perry song “Firework” with Barber and Manby again responding to Hardison’s theatrical vocals.
There was a second outing of the day for “One Note Samba”, performed earlier by the Hancock / Skilton quartet, and here featuring solos for Manby and Barber alongside a scat vocal episode.
Suddenly we were at the last number of the set, a version of “I Love Being Here With You” that seemed to sum up Hardison’s feelings both towards her band and her audience. The responsiveness of the quartet and the appreciation of the audience seemed to genuinely enthuse her.
It might have taken three years to get LaVon Hardison to Brecon in person but on the evidence of this performance the wait was well worth it, for everybody concerned.
In addition to a magnificent vocal performance Hardison also endeared herself to the crowd with her stream of consciousness banter, musing on anything that took her fancy, often with highly amusing results. She was clearly determined to make the most of her stay in Brecon and could be seen out and about around town all weekend, checking out all the other acts and dropping in at a gospel workshop with the locally based Alive ‘n’ Kickin’ Community Choir. The big smile and the infectious sense of humour isn’t just for the stage.
Tonight’s show was the huge success that the earlier stream had suggested it would be and there was more to come from Hardison later in the weekend.
From LaVon Hardison by email;
I saw you sitting in the front row at the Friday Castle show, and I wondered, who was this man taking copious notes; it was you! Thank you for the thoughtful and attentive review, not only for myself but for other artists as well. It is rare for someone to pay such close attention. I truly appreciate it.
blog comments powered by Disqus