by Ian Mann
August 17, 2023
Ian Mann on the second full day of the main Festival weekend & performances by the All Stars of Brecon Jazz, Deborah Glenister, Annette Walker / Gary Crosby and the Gary Brunton / Emma Rawicz Quartet.
Photograph of Gary Brunton sourced from http://www.breconjazz.org
BRECON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2023, MAIN WEEKEND
Saturday August 12th 2023
ALL STARS OF BRECON JAZZ, THE GUILDHALL
Jo Fooks – tenor saxophone, Chris Hodgkins – trumpet, Ross Hicks – piano, Olly Blanchflower – double bass, John Gibbon – drums, Laura Collins – vocals
The first concert on Saturday’s programme was a celebration of a number of anniversaries. 2023 represents the 40th edition of Brecon Jazz Festival, a fact that was acknowledged and applauded at all the concert events during the weekend.
Today’s concert acknowledged that fact but also celebrated two personal milestones for the All Stars drummer John Gibbon, who turns seventy on August 24th and also celebrates fifty years as a professional musician.
Gibbon’s career has largely been based in Wales and the Borders and I first encountered his playing in the 1990s when he organised regional tours of the area featuring his trio fronted by a guest soloist from London. The circuit included Hereford as a regular venue, which was ideal for me. Gibbon’s trio usually featured bassist Erica Lyons and pianist Phil Mead and the list of visiting musicians included saxophonists Ray Warleigh, Peter King, Duncan Lamont, Mornington Lockett, Danny Moss, Virginia Mayhew, Don Rendell and Dick Heckstall Smith, trumpeters Dick Pearce and Henry Lowther and guitarists Phil Lee and Mike Britton, an impressive list by anybody’s reckoning. It’s just a shame that so many of these great players are no longer with us.
Gibbon also ran the long defunct, but still legendary, Gibbs’ Jazz Club in Abergavenny and also spent a spell as a pub landlord, whilst still continuing to play music. Currently he co-ordinates the jazz programme at the Old Black Lion pub in Hay on Wye and continues to bring leading musicians such as saxophonist Simon Spillett to the Welsh Borders. Gibbon’s current trio features pianist Guy Shotton and bassist Dayne Cranenburg.
For this special anniversary gig Gibbon invited saxophonist Jo Fooks to assemble a sextet featuring musicians popular around Brecon and its environs, hence the All Stars of Brecon Jazz appellation. All the players are well known in the immediate geographical area but are more than just good ‘regional’ musicians.
The programme featured a selection of standards, the majority well known to both the musicians and the audience. That said the instrumentalists kicked off with a standard tune that I knew but couldn’t pin a title on. It was the only piece that went unannounced. Gibbon was given the honour of opening the tune on the drums, before Fooks and Hodgkins combined to state the melody, subsequently embarking on fluent individual solos. Hicks, Blanchflower and Gibbon himself were also featured individually.
Singer Laura Collins joined the group for the Gershwin song “A Foggy Day In London Town”. I first heard Collins sing back in 2010 when I reviewed her then current album “Baltimore Oriole” but it’s ten years since I last saw her perform. I believe she’s taken a break from the music scene to start a family but it’s good to have her back, she’s a very classy vocalist and also a skilled arranger. Instrumental solos here came from Hodgkins on muted trumpet, Fooks on tenor and Hicks on piano.
Collins sang the lyrics to “The Lady Is A Tramp” in the first person, an unusual move. Her singing was complemented by solos from Hodgkins, again on muted trumpet, and Fooks on tenor.
An intimate performance of the Hoagy Carmichael song “The Nearness Of You” featured a scaled down version of the group with Collins joined by just Hicks and Fooks, the latter acting as the featured instrumental soloist.
The majority of the group returned for the Luiz Bonfa song “Gentle Rain” with only Hodgkins sitting out. Collins’ vocalising was underpinned by the patter of Gibbon’s hand drumming with instrumental solos coming from Hicks, Fooks and Blanchflower. Once a professional on the London scene Blanchflower now lives in Ledbury, Herefordshire and has become an important figure on the music scene in both Wales and the Midlands.
The full sextet came together again for a blues infused arrangement of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” with Hodgkins soloing on muted trumpet, followed by Hicks, Fooks and Blanchflower.
Hodgkins again sat out for George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland”, with Gibbon’s rapidly brushed drums underpinning solos from Fooks and Hicks.
Collins left and Hodgkins returned for an instrumental version of “When You’re Smiling”, introduced by Gibbon at the drums. The tenor sax / trumpet frontline dovetailed effectively as well as contributing fluent individual solos. Hicks then sparkled at the piano and Gibbon rounded things off with a typically colourful drum feature.
Collins returned for a better than usual rendition of Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, a song that really has become overly familiar in recent years. A voice and piano intro was followed by solos from Hodgkins on muted trumpet, Fooks on tenor and Hicks at the piano, the same Yamaha keyboard that Terence Collie and Jim Barber had played at the Castle Hotel the night before.
A word of praise for Hicks, easily the youngest member of the band and a replacement for the advertised John Paul Gard. Hicks rose to the challenge magnificently in front of a large crowd at the Guildhall. For a young musician he displays a remarkable level of maturity and the depth of his knowledge of a wide range of jazz piano styles is truly impressive. A recent gig with the BMJ Collective at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny also revealed him to be a composer of considerable promise. A bright future awaits for this young jazz star in the making.
The All Stars closed with an arrangement of “Route 66” that featured Collins singing her own lyrics depicting a Welsh road trip on the M4 and the A4226. A number of Welsh place names were mentioned, and not just the obvious ones, who else would rhyme Llandeilo and Clyro. Back in the day I also heard her sing a Midlands version (Moseley, Coseley, Wolverhampton). The instrumental solos came from Hodgkins on Harmon muted trumpet, Fooks on tenor, Hicks at the piano and Blanchflower on double bass.
Naturally the Brecon audience loved this and the All Stars encored with “But Not For Me”, introduced by bass and drums and with Collins’ vocals augmented by instrumental solos from Hodgkins and Fooks.
The sextet were very well received by the Guildhall crowd, but nevertheless this was a gig that divided opinion. Some fans clearly loved it but others were critical of the safe and predictable song choices and the over reliance on the head-solos-head format.
For myself I would probably have preferred something a bit more cutting edge, but overall I rather enjoyed it. All the musicians were in sparkling form in playing terms and the sound quality, courtesy of Gavin Hales and Emily Darlington of Sound Ratio was excellent throughout, really enhancing the quality of the singing and playing. This was high quality mainstream jazz from a band that had never played as a sextet before, although it included many separate individual alliances. The band clearly enjoyed themselves and that came through in the music.
Collins handled most of the announcements, which prevented Gibbon from overdoing the verbals and the old Ronnie Scott jokes he’s been recycling for most of his fifty years in the business. John’s a bit of a character and can be highly amusing, but he can get a bit much at times. Today he was able to concentrate more on playing and his drumming was excellent throughout, helping to produce an impressive group performance.
DEBORAH GLENISTER TRIO and GUESTS, ST. MARY’S CHURCH
Deborah Glenister – piano, Ian Cooper – acoustic & electric bass, Robert Wheatcroft – drums and guests
It was bucketing down with rain when we exited the Guildhall so instead of viewing the outdoor performance by old Festival favourites Wonderbrass we opted for the sanctuary and dryness of St. Mary’s.
This afternoon’s music programme at the Church featured an informal session from the Deborah Glenister trio plus a number of guest performances.
The core trio featured Glenister, also a talented saxophonist, at the piano in the company of bassist Ian Cooper and drummer Robert Wheatcroft.
As we arrived Rosalind Moore was singing a version of “Besame Mucho”. A volunteer steward on the Brecon Jazz team Welsh speaker Moore also handled many of the bilingual concert introductions over the course of the weekend.
The core trio then played Glenister’s own composition “Deborah’s Waltz”, an attractive piece with a title representing an obvious tip of the hat to Bill Evans.
Chris Hodgkins came over from the Guildhall to guest on another version of “Pennies From Heaven”, soloing with an open bell. He then played muted trumpet on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia”.
The group expanded to a quintet with the addition of alto saxophonist Leslie Maynerd on Duke Ellington’s “Take The A Train”, with all five musicians featuring as soloists.
Hodgkins dropped out, leaving the quartet to play another Carmichael tune, “Skylark”, with Maynerd’s pure toned Paul Desmond style alto featuring alongside Glenister’s piano.
The same line up performed “Summer Samba” with Maynerd, Glenister and Cooper featuring as soloists.
Hodgkins rejoined and Cooper switched to electric bass for Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”. The trumpeter soloed with a Harmon mute, followed by Glenister on piano and finally Maynerd on alto.
This section of the afternoon then ended with another Glenister original, the aptly titled “Moving On”, performed by the core trio of piano, drums and electric bass.
This had been an engaging, good humoured and very informal session that included some excellent playing, and I was pleased to hear a couple of Glenister’s own compositions in there too. Well done to all concerned.
Next to appear was guitarist Gerard Cousins, who had hitherto been handling the sound for the Glenister Trio.
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”.
Cousins has recently become fascinated with the music of the minimalist composer Philip Glass and has transcribed several of Glass’ piano pieces for classical guitar, this necessitating the use of alternative tunings.
A number of Glass pieces were included in today’s solo guitar performances including the composer’s “Study No. 1”.
Also featured was “Tomorrows” by the Icelandic multi-instrumentalist and composer Olafur Arnalds, whose music proved to be more sparse and lyrical than that of Glass.
Cousins also performed a number of his own pieces, including “One Step Away” and a segue of “Prelude” and “The First Beat Is The Last Sound”.
Meanwhile his “White Cloud, Blue Sky”, a tribute to fellow guitarist John McLaughlin, featured Cousins’ astonishingly agile fretboard fingering.
Even more astonishing was “Circle”, a minimalist style piece featuring interlocking rhythms variously generated by the thumb and fingers.
Cousins is a remarkable technician whose playing is widely respected in the classical world, but who has also been welcomed into the jazz community.
ANNETTE WALKER / GARY CROSBY QUARTET, ST. MARY’S CHURCH
Annette Walker – tap dance, Gary Crosby - double bass, Dave Jones – piano, Liz Exell – drums
This ticketed concert, also held at St. Mary’s was an unusual event, possibly a first for Brecon Jazz, that featured London based tap dancer Annette Walker co-leading a quartet with double bassist Gary Crosby, the co-founder of the Tomorrow’s Warriors organisation. They were joined by two South Wales based musicians, pianist Dave Jones and drummer Liz Exell.
I was very much looking forward to this event after attending a gig in Ross on Wye earlier in the year that had featured the saxophonist Xhosa Cole leading a group that included tap dancer Liberty Styles. The rhythms generated by Styles’ flying feet had complemented those of the music surprisingly well in a remarkably well integrated collective performance.
Today’s show was rather different in that this was essentially Walker’s show and there was a far greater emphasis placed upon the performance of the dancer herself. Like singer LaVon Hardison the previous evening Walker was a huge personality and another ‘force of nature’.
The set began with a burst of energetic, virtuoso tap dancing, the band eventually joining in to perform a version of the Jazz Messengers classic “Moanin’”.
As well as dancing Walker also talked at length, explaining how she and Crosby had first met at a Jazz Panel Discussion centred around the concept of ‘Jazz & Dance’ and subsequently began working together. It was only later that Walker discovered that her father, Leroy, also known as Billy, had been at school with Crosby, a fact that served to strengthen the bond between the dancer and the bassist. Leroy Walker was present in the audience and like his daughter stayed in Brecon for the whole weekend. Like Hardison the Walkers took in the whole Festival experience and were also frequently seen around town supporting the gigs of others.
The next piece saw Walker and the instrumentalists tackling another Blue Note classic, Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”, with Walker’s dazzling footwork augmented by an instrumental solo from pianist Dave Jones.
Next up was “Cute”, a favourite vehicle for tap dancers and a bebop style tune written for the Count Basie Orchestra, with Basie’s drummer, Papa Joe Jones very much in mind. Walker explained that Joe Jones had himself been a tap dancer, as had many of the early jazz drummers, with jazz and dance much more closely linked in those days. Today’s performance included an instrumental solo from the venerable Crosby.
Walker explained that as a dancer she always travelled with her own tap boards. She then elicited a little audience participation by encouraging the audience to clap along with the two part rhythms of the “Shim Sham”, a piece she described as the “national anthem of tap dancing”. For the performance of the tune itself Exell laid down a marching rhythm on brushed drums with the audience urged to clap along at the appropriate moments. Great fun.
Walker explained something of the history of jazz tap dancing, from the vaudeville act The Whitman Sisters to Duke Ellington’s tap dancer Bunny Briggs, who performed regularly with the Ellington Orchestra, before eventually being replaced by Will Gaines.
Walker and the instrumentalists performed two Ellington compositions as a tribute to Briggs and Gaines, a lively “Take The A Train” and a more sedate ballad style reading of “In A Sentimental Mood”, which offered Walker the opportunity to demonstrate a slower, less frenetic style of dancing.
A later jazz period was explored in a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” that was introduced by a tap / double bass dialogue, a reminder of the start of the Walker / Crosby partnership and their early duo performances. More orthodox instrumental solos subsequently came from Jones and Crosby.
This unusually configured quartet closed with a version of the Charlie Parker classic “Billie’s Bounce”, which included features for all three instrumentalists. Jones had contributed some fine solos throughout the set but the most striking aspect of this last piece was the dialogue between Walker’s feet and Exell’s sticks in a dazzling visual and audio panoply of rhythm.
This was a performance that had lasted for around an hour and which had both entertained and educated. I’d heard of Will Gaines before but had no other real knowledge of the history of jazz tap dance and was thus enlightened by Walker’s brief history lesson. Walker’s passion and enthusiasm for her art was palpable and communicated itself to her audience and she was also a radiant personality and a great entertainer. This was very much her show but all the musicians made excellent instrumental contributions in a performance that, with the exception of Crosby, must have been very unusual for them.
The audience gave Walker and the band a great reception and the comments that I heard after the show indicated that everybody had enjoyed it immensely.
Walker was to give a talk on the history of jazz tap dance the following day but I missed this as it clashed with other musical performances. Nevertheless today’s event was both enjoyable and informative. Putting on a performance of this nature represented something of a gamble for Brecon Jazz but it was one that paid off admirably.
GARY BRUNTON / EMMA RAWICZ QUARTET, GUILDHALL
Gary Brunton – double bass, Emma Rawicz – tenor sax, Gareth Williams – piano, Liz Exell – drums
This was another ‘Made in Brecon’ bespoke line up that brought together a quartet co-led by bassist Gary Brunton and saxophonist Emma Rawicz.
Born in Burnley, Lancashire bassist, composer and bandleader Gary Brunton attended Swansea University and still retains strong links with Wales, with many friends from his time in the country present in the audience tonight.
Brunton now lives in Paris and has released three albums on the French record label Juste Une Trace, two of these featuring his Night Bus trio with pianist Bojan Z and drummer Simon Goubert. His latest recording has a Welsh title, “Tren Dydd”, meaning “Day Train” and features a new group with soprano sax specialist Francois Jenneau and drummer Andrea Michelutti, with piano duties shared between Emil Spanyi and Paul Lay.
Rising star saxophonist Emma Rawicz was born in Devon of Polish heritage and is a Parliamentary Jazz Award winner and a former finalist in the BBC’s Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition. Although still only twenty one and still at college she has already released her debut album “Incantation” (2022) and has been signed to the prestigious German record label ACT for her second, “Chroma” (2023).
Tonight’s ‘one off’ group brought Brunton and Rawicz together with ‘house drummer’ Liz Exell and pianist Gareth Williams, another musician with strong Welsh connections, a bandleader and composer in his own right and a phenomenally talented piano soloist.
Both Brunton and Rawicz are composers of some distinction and tonight’s programme was to feature original material from both plus a series of inspired jazz and rock covers.
Brunton’s bass motif started his own “83 Bis”, a composition from the first Night Bus album, with Rawicz subsequently taking over the melody on tenor sax and then embarking on the first solo of the evening. Considering that she only took up the instrument at the age of fifteen Rawicz is an astonishingly fluent and inventive tenor sax soloist, and this ability, allied to her composing skills suggests, that she is going to become a hugely influential figure in the jazz world in the years to come, especially with the distributive power of ACT behind her. The mercurial Williams followed on piano, while Brunton’s bass remained at the heart of the music.
Rawicz’s first contribution with the pen was “Vera”, a tune that she dedicated to the memory of her late grandmother, “an absolute legend”. This began more sedately, with Exell wielding brushes, before gradually gathering momentum. Brunton took the first solo on double bass, combining a huge tone with a strong sense of melody. Williams followed on piano and finally the composer on rhapsodic tenor sax.
Brunton’s “Brew Ten”, a tune from his latest album was dedicated to his late father, and also to saxophonist Pepper Adams. Named for a beer once popular in Lancashire it was a bebop style tune that represented a vehicle for the inventive soloing of both Williams and Rawicz. These two received responsive, understated support from Exell who was subsequently rewarded with her own feature.
Rawicz took up the compositional reins again for “The Mantra”, introduced by a tenor sax and piano duet, with Rawicz and Williams eventually joined by the sounds of Exell’s cymbal ticks and Brunton’s double bass. The music then gathered momentum, the intensity building through the course of solos by Rawicz and Williams and a dynamic drum feature from Exell.
The only true standard of the evening was the ballad “You’ve Changed” which featured Exell’s deft brush work in response to Williams’ lyrical piano soloing and Brunton’s bass counter melodies. Meanwhile Rawicz’s tenor solo exhibited a fluency and emotional maturity way beyond her tender years.
“Energy Master Loc”, a tune from Brunton’s latest album featured a freely structured intro that incorporated extended bass and drum techniques, these allied to fleeting shards of tenor sax and piano melody. Subsequently the music became less abstract with the creation of a muscular groove that provided the foundation for solos from Williams on piano, Rawicz on tenor and the composer on double bass.
“Tren Dydd” also includes an arrangement of the Welsh national anthem that Brunton calls “Land of My Fathers, You Dig”. This was an avant garde version “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” as if re-imagined by Carla Bley that eventually segued into “Dirty Bebop”, a tune from the same album. This was more conventional and featured expansive solos from Williams and Rawicz. When announcing the tune Brunton recounted that back in the day the trad v bebop wars in France had been even more ferocious than those in Britain, often boiling over into actual physical violence. It’s a period that obviously still gets talked about in modern day Paris.
Brunton handled most of the announcements and now introduced tributes to two (relatively) recently deceased musicians.
Wayne Shorter was honoured with a performance of one of his lesser known compositions, “Yes or No” with admirably fluent musical eulogies from Rawicz and Williams.
Tribute was paid to David Bowie with two tunes that Brunton features on the second Night Bus album. “Ashes To Ashes” was a stunning solo bass performance that incorporated both plucking and strumming techniques, with the familiar melodies played on the bass.
This segued into a full band version of “Moonage Daydream” with solos from co-leaders Rawicz and Brunton.
The deserved encore was the Brunton composition “Behind The Bowlers Arm”, another piece from the second Night Bus album. Inspired by his late father’s love of cricket it was an appropriate title for a tune composed by a musician from Burnley, also the home town of England’s record breaking fast bowler James Anderson. Brunton still follows the sport from France and used to go to matches with his father. This was one of the evening’s simpler, most melodic pieces and was invested with a warm, elegiac, nostalgic feeling with lucid solos from Rawicz and Williams.
Having seen Rawicz perform with her own quintet in Shrewsbury earlier in the year this was a performance that I had been keenly anticipating. Brunton was previously unknown to me but nevertheless I had the feeling that this was going to be one of the best gigs of the Festival, especially with Williams also in the band. I wasn’t disappointed, this was state of the art contemporary jazz from four exceptional musicians. Brunton represented an exciting new discovery, both as a player and as a writer, and Rawicz and Williams were as good as expected, if not more so. For many listeners the revelation was Exell, who performed brilliantly behind the kit, helping Brunton to hold the music together and excelling (pun intended) in her individual features. For a one off group playing largely original material this was a brilliantly cohesive performance. You’d think they’d been working together for years. What a brilliant way to round off Saturday night at the Festival.
The quality of the music was enhanced by that of the sound, with the Ratio Studios team again doing a terrific job with a pinpoint mix. Thanks guys.
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