by Ian Mann
August 09, 2022
Ian Mann enjoys a hugely successful start to the 2022 Brecon Jazz Festival and performances by the Jane Williams Band, the Will Barnes Quartet and The Numbers Racket.
Photograph of the Will Barnes Quartet sourced from http://www.breconjazz.org
BRECON JAZZ FESTIVAL, FAMILY JAZZ & DANCE DAY, BRECON COUNTY SHOWGROUND, BRECON, 07/08/2022.
The first full day of the 2022 Brecon Jazz Festival was a collaboration between the organisers of the Jazz Festival and those of Brecon County Show.
The County Show is one of the largest agricultural shows in Mid Wales, not quite as big as the Royal Welsh which is held in July in nearby Builth Wells, but pretty close. Brecon County Show attracts literally thousands of visitors to the town and traditionally takes place on the first Saturday in August, which for many years was the weekend immediately prior to Brecon Jazz Festival.
The Covid inspired decision to schedule Brecon Jazz Festival across multiple weekends in August offered Brecon Jazz organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon to realise a long harboured ambition to work on an event in conjunction with their counterparts at the County Show.
With this in mind the Members’ Marquee at the County Show was kept up for an extra day to facilitate a ‘Family Jazz & Dance Day’ designed to attract new listeners to the music, with the emphasis very much on families and children.
On a beautifully warm and sunny summer day in a glorious location the joint organisers were rewarded with a bumper crowd with every table in the marquee occupied as three different bands performed on a temporary stage that bore a distinct resemblance to a bouncy castle. With both audience and performers protected from the sun a narrow strip of uncovered, sunlit ground between the marquee and the stage was to eventually serve as the dancefloor. With food concessions and a bar in place the scene was set for a relaxing afternoon and evening of jazz of various genres.
The performances featured a standards based set from vocalist Jane Williams and her band, the bebop inspired instrumentals of guitarist Will Barnes and his new quartet and in the evening the six piece swing / jump jive outfit The Numbers Racket. Both the Jane Williams Band and The Numbers Racket were to benefit from guest appearances by the versatile Midlands based saxophonist Alex Clarke, a former finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition. Clarke had earlier conducted a morning jazz workshop elsewhere in the town.
JANE WILLIAMS BAND
Jane Williams – vocals, ukulele, Pete Mathison – guitar, vocals, Andy Leggett – tenor, alto & soprano saxophones, clarinet, vocals, Donnie Joe Sweeney – double bass, vocals, Greg Evans – drums, Alex Clarke – alto & tenor saxophones
Originally from Cardigan in West Wales Jane Williams is now based in Cardiff and has combined a singing and acting career. On a blazing hot day the set of familiar standards delivered with good humour by her excellent band represented a great way to start the day as the audience settled back to relax and enjoy the music.
Accompanying herself on ukulele Williams proved to be a highly competent vocalist and she was well supported by a similarly accomplished band sourced from South Wales and from England’s West Country. There was also the bonus of the presence of Clarke, a highly fluent saxophone soloist who brought much to the proceedings and combined well with Leggett, the combination of the various reeds adding depth and colour to the group sound.
On such a glorious day it was totally appropriate that the band should open with “Blue Skies”, with Williams’ confident vocals augmented by the blend of horns with Leggett on soprano and Clarke on tenor. These two shared the instrumental soloing with guitarist Mathison.
A bluesy “Black Coffee”, a song associated with Peggy Lee, saw Williams temporarily putting down the uke. Her soulful vocal delivery was this time supplemented by solos from Clarke on tenor and Leggett on alto.
Williams encouraged the audience to sing along on “Bye Bye Blackbird”, which also incorporated soloing opportunities for Clarke on alto, Leggett on soprano, Mathison on guitar and Sweeney at the bass.
Bassist Sweeney, an ex-pat American now based in Cardiff is also an aspiring vocalist and runs his own combo Donnie Joe’s American Swing, a group that features both his singing and his bass playing. Today “Pennies From Heaven” allowed him to showcase both aspects of his talent with Williams providing vocal harmonies. Instrumental solos came from Clarke on tenor, Leggett on alto, Mathison on guitar and Sweeney himself on double bass.
Williams then calmed things down, resuming on lead vocals and ukulele to deliver a beautiful version of “Autumn Leaves”, accompanied only by Mathison as the rest of the band took a well earned breather in the stifling heat.
The band returned to full strength for a lively version of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with Clarke opening on tenor before moving to alto for her solo, this followed by further instrumental excursions from Leggett on soprano, Mathison on guitar and Sweeney on bass.
After negotiating a couple of false starts Leggett took the lead vocal on the wryly humorous “Everything But The Blues” with Williams again providing vocal backing and Clarke weighing in with an authoritative tenor solo. Williams and Leggett wrote a number of original songs during lockdown and I suspect that this may have been of these.
A well performed and equally well received version of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” marked a return to the standards canon and included solos from Clarke on alto and Leggett on tenor. This proved to be one of the most popular numbers of the set.
“September In The Rain” featured the twin tenor combination of Clarke and Leggett, plus solos from each alongside Mathison’s guitar.
Performed as a slow blues “The Man I Love” incorporated an extended instrumental introduction featuring Clarke’s alto followed by an emotive vocal from Williams plus further instrumental solos from Clarke on alto and Leggett on tenor.
A Nat King Cole inspired version of “Route 66” allowed Mathison the opportunity to flex his vocal cords with Williams again providing backing. This also saw Clarke and Leggett doubling up on tenors again and sharing the solo with Mathison’s guitar.
Finally we heard the first version of the day of Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, which was delivered in lively fashion with Leggett featuring on clarinet for the only time alongside Clarke on tenor, Sweeney on bass and Mathison on guitar. A word too for Greg Evans, who didn’t get to solo but who formed an excellent rhythmic partnership with Sweeney and kept things moving in subtle but propulsive fashion from the back.
Presented by Williams with a breezy charm this was an enjoyable but undemanding set that delivered just what was required at two in the afternoon on a very hot day. I enjoyed it rather more than I though I might and this set of mostly well known tunes was very well received and filled its remit of appealing to what was not necessarily a purist jazz audience.
The presence of the excellent Alex Clarke in the band’s ranks was a considerable bonus, particularly with regard to the quality of her soloing. She’s quite unusual in being equally proficient on tenor and alto saxes and her BBC Young Jazz Musician nomination has increased her profile considerably.
I’m grateful to her for speaking with me afterwards and for providing me with a review copy of her début album “Only A Year”, which was released earlier in 2022 and which features her playing on both alto and tenor alongside a heavyweight line up of Dave Newton (piano), Dave Green (double bass) and Clark Tracey (drums). I intend to undertake a full review of this in due course.
WILL BARNES QUARTET
Will Barnes – guitar, vocals, Jack Gonsalez – keyboard, Clovis Phillips – double bass, Jack Batten - drums
Based in the Newtown area of Mid Wales the versatile guitarist and composer Will Barnes is an old friend of Brecon Jazz having performed at both the Festival and at regular club nights on numerous occasions.
I first heard Barnes’ playing in a gypsy jazz context and for a while he was a member of the popular crossover group Gypsy Fire. He’s played in function bands and even turned his hand to reggae and to heavy metal but Barnes’ first love is jazz and particularly the bebop inspired music of jazz guitar greats such as Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Grant Green, Jim Hall, Pat Metheny and more. Barnes also acknowledges pianist Oscar Peterson as a significant influence.
After a while off the scene concentrating on his ‘day job’ as an agronomist Barnes has returned to the scene with an exciting new quartet featuring four talented twenty somethings based in his own Mid Wales neighbourhood. Pianist Jack Gonsalez and bassist Clovis Phillips are music graduates while self taught drummer James Batten has learnt his trade playing across a variety of musical genres. Introducing the band Lynne Gornall referred to the group as “Will Barnes’ New Young Quartet”.
The quartet’s repertoire features a mix of jazz and bebop standards interspersed by Barnes originals written in the same general style, often with titles that tip the hat in acknowledgement of their primary influences.
The band kicked off with an arrangement of the standard “Stompin’ At The Savoy” with Barnes taking the first solo on his solid bodied ‘arch top’ electric guitar. He was followed by Gonsalez at his Nord Grand keyboard, which remained on an acoustic piano setting throughout the set, and by Phillips on double bass. Barnes remarked that with regard to the quartet’s treatment of standards “we do our best to make sure you don’t recognise them” - that was certainly the case here.
A Barnes original, the cunningly titled “Where’s Montgomery?”, introduced a funk / latin feel and again incorporated solos from Barnes, Gonsalez and Phillips. Despite its obvious influences the piece revealed Barnes to be an intelligent and imaginative composer within his chosen idiom.
“Step Aside Oscar” acknowledged another of Barnes’ musical heroes and was a showcase for the talented Gonsalez, at just twenty two the youngest member of the quartet. The piece also included solos from Phillips and Barnes.
Gonsalez was also featured on a long solo piano introduction that Barnes promised “will take you on a journey before we all end up on Green Dolphin Street”. This indeed proved to be the case, with Gonsalez’s solo excursion also leading us through “All The Things You Are”. Re-united as a quartet on “Dolphin Street” we also heard from the leader’s guitar before Gonsalez returned for a more conventional piano solo.
A blistering version of Ray Noble’s bebop standard “Cherokee” incorporated latin rhythmic flourishes and some astonishingly fleet fingered guitar soloing from Barnes. Gonsalez also sparkled at the piano while Batten stepped out of the shadows to enjoy a spirited drum feature.
Barnes’ compositions are jointly inspired by his jazz and bebop heroes and by more personal influences such as the Welsh landscape and friends and family. Introducing bassist Clovis Phillips he explained that Phillips’ bass had been made in the 1850s and had been passed down to Clovis by his grandmother. The tune “Katherine’s Bass” was a feature for Phillips that also included solos from Barnes and Gonsalez and which saw Batten trading fours with the other instrumentalists.
Barnes and Phillips then introduced “My Little Suede Shoes”, which incorporated solos from Barnes, Gonsalez and Phillips plus a stunning scat vocal episode from Barnes with his high pitched wordless singing doubling his complex guitar melody lines.
An extended solo guitar introduction ushered in the bebop stylings of “Passing Time”, the title a tip of the hat in the direction of the great Joe Pass, with further solo coming from Gonsalez and Barnes.
Barnes wrote “The Mad March Hare” in March 2020 during the first Covid lockdown. Its bebop inspired complexities today provided soloing opportunities for Barnes, Gonsalez and Phillips before Batten rounded things off with a closing drum feature.
The deserved encore featured the relaxed, tuneful funkiness of an instrumental arrangement of the Bill Withers song “Just The Two Of Us”, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano and incorporating further solos from Barnes, Gonsalez and Phillips. This was a perfect way to round off an excellent set that had featured some seriously impressive musicianship from all involved.
This excellent performance from the Barnes quartet represented the ‘serious jazz’ performance of the day but it was rapturously received by what was not necessarily a regular jazz crowd, with several audience members getting to their feet to give the band a standing ovation. Children even danced to this often complex music, proof that rhythms don’t need to be simple to be effective, just ask Dave Brubeck.
Although the quartet is still relatively new its members have already built an impressive rapport and Barnes hopes that the band will be able to document some of its original music on disc at some point in the near future. In the meantime performances such as this will continue to enhance their reputation on the live gig circuit.
My thanks to Will Barnes for speaking with me afterwards and for providing me with a copy of the set list, which has helped enormously in the writing of this review.
THE NUMBERS RACKET
Elaina Hoss – vocals, Dominic Norcross – tenor sax, backing vocals Jason Osborne – trumpet, backing vocals Sam May – guitar, Graham Bachelor – electric bass, Nino Consolo – drums with guest Alex Clarke – tenor sax, backing vocals
Billed as a ‘jump jive and swing band’ the long running Numbers Racket band has performed at previous Brecon Jazz Festivals and features two BJF regulars in the shapes of vocalist Elaina Hoss and saxophonist Dominic Norcross.
Unashamedly a ‘party band’ The Numbers Racket mines the territory linking jazz with early rock’n’roll with its horn enlivened arrangements of familiar and still hugely popular songs from the 1940s and 50s and beyond. Tonight these arrangements were given extra heft by the presence in the band’s ranks of guest saxophonist Alex Clarke, who combined with Norcross in a twin tenor attack augmented by Osborne’s punchy trumpet.
The three horn players were to feature on a rousing opening instrumental that also incorporated clangorous rock influenced guitar and the driving rhythms of drums and electric bass.
Vocalist Elaina Hoss joined the band for an arrangement of Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” with instrumental solos coming from Osborne on trumpet and Clarke on tenor.
Norcross was to feature alongside vocalist Hoss on Jackie Wilson’s enduringly popular “Reet Petite”, while Osborne shone on growling muted trumpet on a bluesy arrangement of “My Big Bad Handsome Man”, which also featured Clarke on tenor.
“Flip Flop Fly” featured Hoss’ sassy vocals alongside a string of instrumental cameos with Bachelor and May exchanging ideas on bass and guitar while the twin tenors also traded phrases. Osborne put down the mute to solo with an open bell.
Clarke left the stage at this point as the core sextet delivered a sequence of numbers including a slowed down and very effective arrangement of Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. It was the second version of this song that we’d heard today and it was refreshing to hear The Numbers Racket taking a fresh approach to it, with the blend of Osborne’s trumpet and Norcross’ tenor a particular highlight.
Next up was “Oh Little Bitty Pretty One” followed by an arrangement of the Michael Jackson hit “The Way You Make Me Feel”, which was positively up to date compared to the rest of the material thus far.
“Looking For My Baby” featured Norcross on backing vocals and included a feature for Sam May on guitar. He also soloed alongside Norcross on “Good Rocking Daddy”.
Consolo’s tribal drumming powered “Mr Zoot Suit”, which also saw the return of that growling muted trumpet sound.
“Inside Out” brought an energetic first set to a close. The band had managed to encourage a number of dancers to their feet by this stage and it almost seemed perverse for them to be taking a break at this point, although it can’t be denied that the band had earned it.
It didn’t matter as the crowd were in the mood by now and as Clarke rejoined the band for the second set an arrangement of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” quickly saw the dancers back on the floor.
“Juice Head Blues” re-introduced the earthier sound of the band’s blues based leanings and included barnstorming instrumental solos from Osborne on trumpet and both of the twin tenors.
There was little let up in the energy levels of either the musicians or the dancers, which included several children, as the band raced through “Love That Man” and “Till The Well Runs Dry”, the latter another feature for that two pronged sax attack.
“I Want To Hear That Mellow Saxophone” belied its title with further features for Norcross and Clarke plus hard hitting drummer Consolo.
The guitar driven “I want You” saw Hoss eliciting a little call and response routine with the audience before Clarke and Norcross exchanged solos.
Hoss invited Maurice May, father of guitarist Sam and former lead singer of The Numbers Racket onto the stage to sing a couple of numbers. ‘Big Mo’ proved to have a powerful, bluesy voice which was heard to good effect on “Rock Me Jellyroll” as Hoss danced with members of the audience and Osborne walked around the crowd to deliver his trumpet solo. Further instrumental features came from Sam May on guitar and Clarke on tenor.
Hoss returned to vocal duties for “Let’s Shout”, which again featured Sam May on guitar and the closing “Jump, Jive and Wail”, which included features for the whole band. The inevitable encore was “Liquor Store Blues”, which sent the crowd home feeling very happy.
I’ll admit that the whole jump jive thing is a bit outside my usual listening zone but The Numbers Racket are very good at what they do and like the earlier Jane Williams band I enjoyed them a lot more than I thought I would. The numerous dancers loved them and their performance could be considered a definite success on a day where the intention was to introduce non-jazz listeners to the music and give them a positive experience. Hopefully many of today’s audience members will return to enjoy other events at the main Festival, which takes place over the weekend of 12 / 13 / 14 August (the main weekend) with further events scheduled for the 20th and 21st. See http://www.breconjazz.org for further details.
For me the musical highlight of the day had to be the Will Barnes Quartet but the other two acts were equally successful in their own way and will doubtless have many champions. The presence of guest saxophonist Alex Clarke added greatly to the success of both the groups that she appeared with and brought something extra and special to their performances.
A great curtain raiser for the main Festival Weekend. Well done to all concerned.
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