by Ian Mann
August 13, 2014
Ian Mann enjoys music with a strong Welsh flavour on the second day of Brecon Jazz with performances from Burum, Huw Warren, Dennis Rollins and Marius Neset.
Photograph by Tim Dickeson
Saturday at Brecon Jazz, 09/08/2014.
I explained something of the background of the 2014 Brecon Jazz Festival, incredibly the 30th anniversary, in the introduction my Friday feature and therefore intend to go straight to the music on a Saturday that delivered more excellent music at the various venues around the town.
Under Orchard’s stewardship the presence of native Welsh musicians in the programming has been positively encouraged, helping to restore something of the distinctive “Welshness” that was lost following Hay Festival’s acquisition of Brecon for a three year tenure in 2009. My choices today reflected with this with two of the four performances I witnessed having a strong Welsh flavour.
My day began at the Memorial Hall at Christ College for a performance by the Welsh group Burum, a sextet of musicians from all parts of Wales. Co-led by brothers Tomos Williams (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Daniel Williams (tenor sax) from Aberystwyth the group also includes, Bangor born, Cardiff trained bassist Huw V Williams (no relation), Port Talbot based pianist Dave Jones and drummer Mark O’Connor from Hengoed in the Valleys. The group’s “joker in the pack” (their words) is flautist Ceri Rhys Matthews, a folk musician from Swansea.
The presence of Matthews is significant for Burum specialise in taking traditional Welsh folk tunes and turning them into vehicles for jazz improvisation. The sound of the core jazz quintet is rooted in Blue Note style bebop/hard bop and the modal stylings of “Kind of Blue” era Miles Davis but Matthews brings an authentic folk voice to the proceedings.
Burum take their group moniker from the Welsh for “yeast” and is it perhaps an apt name given the transformative process that their music goes through. The band has its origins in the folk group Fernhill which features Matthews, Tomos Williams and the singer Julie Murphy. To date Burum have recorded two albums “Alawon” (meaning “Tunes”, 2007) and “Caniadau” (meaning “Songs” , 2012) with most of today’s material being sourced from the latter.
The Williams brothers shared announcing duties with all tune introductions being made in both Welsh and English (Cymraeg first) as they celebrated the music of their native land at one of its major cultural events.
The first item was a segue of a tune translating as “Through Bushes And Briars” teamed with “Lisa Lan” (“Fair Lisa”), the latter sourced from the “Caniadau” album. The front line of tenor sax, trumpet and flute delivered an interesting and beguiling range of textures, Matthews’ flute being of the wooden folk variety rather than the usual metal flute deployed by jazz musicians. It’s the type of instrument associated with Irish folk musicians such as Matt Molloy of The Chieftains. Jazz inspired solos came from Daniel Williams on tenor sax, Jones on piano and Tomos Williams on trumpet.
Burum has engaged a number of bass players during the course of its existence, among them Chris O’Connor, Tim Harries (who appears on Caniadau”), Ashley John Long and Aidan Thorne. However Huw V Williams, who excelled at Brecon last year in a collaboration with pianist Huw Warren and American drummer Jim Black, seems to have made the position his own. The former RWCMD student gets better every time I see him and in the next item his arco bass drone combined atmospherically with Matthews’ flute on the intro before he put down the bow to deliver an excellent pizzicato solo. Other solos came from Daniel Williams on tenor, Jones on piano and Tomos Williams on flugel with Matthews’ flute returning for the outro. I didn’t catch the title of this piece, for a non Welsh speaker picking up tune titles was sometimes a little difficult!
A medley of the traditional “Dyffryn Cletwr” and the Matthews original “Priodas” epitomised the “Celtic mists” as trumpet and flute combined to state the folk melody before more jazz orientated solos for tenor sax and piano. A further atmospheric passage of solo flute took us into the second half of the segue which was as close as jazz gets to jigs and reels territory.
At this juncture Tomos Williams recalled the inspiration his teenage self derived from seeing a performance by US trumpet great Tom Harrell in the Memorial Hall several years ago. He also told of seeing pianists McCoy Tyner and Michel Petrucciani at the same venue. For myself I remember excellent performances from Dave Liebman’s Quest, Stan Tracey, Tommy Smith, Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles, Bheki Mseleku and a Bill Evans tribute featuring John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler. It’s good that Orchard have brought this intimate and comfortable performance space back as a concert venue after a lengthy period where it was no longer part of the festival circuit. Welcome back and, Orchard, please keep using it, this could well re-emerge to become one of my favourite festival venues.
The traditional “Pontypridd”, which opens the “Caniadau” album, featured a Tomos Williams arrangement that took the tune into the realms of modal jazz. Following an opening fanfare for horns and flute Huw Williams’ bass motif established a “So What” kind of vibe that provided the impetus for solos for tenor sax, trumpet and piano plus a carefully constructed solo drum feature from Mark O’Connor, whose subtle, understated drumming impressed throughout. If Miles Davis had been born in the Valleys this is what he might have sounded like.
Matthews’ “Galliards” was then essentially a solo flute feature with subtle support from double bass and brushed drums.
The centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth has prompted a range of tributes across Wales. The Williams brothers have been involved with a project called “Dylan Live” which included a transcription of the ballad “Fernhill” into a jazz piece renamed “Burnhill” due to its dark and brooding atmosphere.
Ushered in by a subtle bass and drum duet this was essentially an ensemble piece that featured subdued lighting, mournful trumpet, wispy flute and O’Connor’s exquisite cymbal touch. The overall sound was very contemporary and this performance represented a world premi?re.
The sombre mood continued into the next piece with its muted trumpet intro, subsequently incorporating bowed bass and mysterious, ethereal flute. Following an episode for solo flute Huw Williams struck up a pizzicato bass motif which acted as the catalyst for a tenor solo by Daniel Williams and an engrossing series of exchanges between the front line of trumpet, tenor and flute. The closing dialogue between bass and drums was equally absorbing but again I didn’t pick up the title of this piece and didn’t recognise it as being from “Caniadau”. I suspect that it may have been sourced from the group’s first album and that it was the opening piece Marwnad yr Ehedydd ? but I may be wrong.
From “Caniadau” the lullaby “Mil Harddach” (meaning A Thousand Time More Beautiful”) represented more familiar fare with the soft voicings of tenor sax, flugel horn and flute combining delightfully prior to short solos from flugel horn, tenor sax and bass ? a triple case of “Sweet Williams” to borrow the title of a Django Bates tune.
The final piece was similarly mellifluous as flute and bass combined on the intro, the subdued lighting giving adding a suitably mysterious Celtic air to the proceedings as tenor, trumpet and flugel stated the jaunty theme before a closing solo bass coda. This was the traditional tune “Hen Ferchetan” which effectively combined an air of celebration with the mysticism.
Burum were very well received by the audience at Christ College, their jazz interpretations of these timeless melodies were effective, absorbing and often very beautiful. It was good to hear Jones on an acoustic grand piano after seeing him perform on several occasions on electric instruments. Having said that I loved the dirty Fender Rhodes sound he brought to a recent performance by the Coltrane Dedication group fronted by saxophonists Lyndon Owen and Caractacus Downes.
The only disappointment today was that Matthews appeared to have left his pipes at home, they feature prominently on the group’s albums and I would have liked to have heard them here. Nevertheless his flute added something different to the orthodox jazz sound of the core quintet. In the world of jazz/folk crossovers Burum have carved out a unique niche for themselves and their reputation within both the jazz and folk communities should continue to grow.
DENNIS ROLLINS’ VELOCITY TRIO
After meeting up with friends for a short coffee break I found my way to the Captain’s Walk bandstand to catch something of the performance by trombonist Dennis Rollins and his Velocity Trio. Despite the unusual instrumental configuration of trombone, Hammond organ (Ross Stanley) and drums (Pedro Segundo) the Velocity Trio has matured into one of the most interesting and entertaining groups on the British jazz scene.
I’ve enjoyed previous live performances by this line up and shows at Much Wenlock in 2011 and Abergavenny in 2013 are reviewed elsewhere on this site. Both were excellent and the trio’s d?but album “The Eleventh Gate” released in 2011 on the American Motema record label is highly recommended. Rollins promised us a second album, to be titled “Symbiosis”, at the end of September 2014, a release that will doubtless be eagerly awaited by all those who witnessed a typically engaging performance at Captain’s Walk.
I arrived for the closing stages of “The Other Side” which Rollins dedicated to the recently departed musician and jazz commentator Jack Massarik, a nice touch. The band were fully suited and booted, something I’d not seen from them before, and Stanley was playing his recently acquired brand new Hammond, a magnificent beast complete with double manual, bass pedals and that all important Leslie speaker cabinet. Solos here came from Rollins on electronically enhanced trombone and Stanley at the Hammond, both paced by Segundo’s implacable and hypnotic grooves.
The title track of the new album was a hard grooving affair, albeit embracing some distinctly unorthodox time signatures. It also allowed the brilliant Segundo, always something of a showman, to come into his own with a typically colourful and inventive drum feature.
The trio’s funky, stop start version of Pink Floyd’s “Money” has always been a popular feature of the trio’s live performances and was well received here with several people getting up to dance. There were brilliant solos here from Stanley and Segundo on a piece that has yet to be recorded, possibly due to copyright issues. Let’s hope it turns up on the new album. It’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser, that’s for sure.
“The Eleventh Gate” opened with a stunning gospel infused solo organ feature from Stanley as he put the new Hammond through its paces. Rollins theme and solo alluded to Gershwin’s “Summertime” as the audience continued to respond enthusiastically.
Rollins’ arrangement of Eddie Harris’ enduringly popular “Freedom Jazz Dance” has been a staple of the trio’s live shows for some time now. In the hands of the affable Rollins it becomes an audience participation number with the crowd encouraged to clap along to a straight four rhythm before the trio lose them by exploring all kinds of other rhythmic possibilities but always finally returning to that initial groove.
As ever it went down a storm with the Captain’s Walk crowd summoning the trio back for an encore, Rollins’ version of the Amanda McBroom song “The Rose”, variously a hit for Bette Midler, Elaine Paige and even Westlife. If jazz had “lighter wavers” this would have been it as the crowd swayed along to the anthemic choruses and applauded solos by Rollins and Stanley.
Dennis Rollins is an engaging personality and a real professional, a great educator who also loves live performance and communicating with audiences. These qualities allied to the superb musicianship exhibited by him and his band ensure that the unusually configured Velocity Trio has matured into one of the UK’s most consistently enjoyable live bands, but one with the musical sophistication to be equally convincing on record. The forthcoming “Symbiosis” should be well worth hearing.
DO NOT GO GENTLE: WALES MEETS DYLAN THOMAS
HUW WARREN QUARTET
Born in Swansea but now based in North Wales pianist, accordionist, composer and educator Huw Warren has been the official “Artist In Residence” at Brecon Jazz since the start of the Orchard era.
The strands “Wales Meets” and “Worldwide Wales” have seen him enjoying one off collaborations with some of the international artists visiting the festival, among them drummers Thomas Stronen and Jim Black and vocalist Maria Pia de Vito. The 2013 meeting with Black, “Wales Meets Brooklyn”, at the Castle Hotel was one of the festival highlights of 2013.
The 100th centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth has inspired cultural events all over Wales and Warren was commissioned to write a new suite celebrating Thomas and his work. Today’s performance represented a world premi?re and it is intended that Warren will tour the suite later in the year.
No jazz work based on Thomas’ life and works can fail to be influenced by, and compared with, Stan Tracey’s seminal “Under Milk Wood” suite, first released in 1965 and still considered to be one of the major artistic statements of British jazz. Warren respectfully dedicated his own suite to the memory of Stan who sadly passed away earlier this year.
A near capacity audience of 350 was at the Cathedral to listen to Warren’s latest work, clear evidence that festival goers wish to see and support Welsh music and musicians. Warren was joined by three trusted lieutenants in the shapes of Loose Tubes members Iain Ballamy (tenor sax), Steve Watts (double bass) and Martin France (drums).
The opening piece, “Do Not Go Gentle” began with a passage of solo piano before the introduction of Ballamy’s tenor sax, his Jan Garbarek tone particularly well suited to the cathedral’s acoustic. Warren’s gesture to the soundman triggered the disembodied voice of Dylan Thomas which took some of the audience members by surprise, the recording arguably initially a little too loud as Dylan threatened to drown out Warren’s piano and France’s delicately brushed drums. Nevertheless it represented a nice gesture, cementing the links between Warren’s music and the inspiration of Thomas’ words.
It’s also arguable that France was still buried too deeply in the mix on “Fernhill” which saw solos from Ballamy, Warren and Watts. It makes a change for a reviewer (or anybody else for that matter) to complain that the drums were too quiet!
The gently lyrical “A Winter’s Tale” began with a reflective solo piano introduction and included a delightfully melodic solo from the ever reliable Watts. Ballamy’s breathy tenor solo was warmly human and expressive, superbly complemented by France’s well judged cymbal embellishments.
As befits a native of Swansea Warren could hardly avoid writing a piece titled “Ugly Lovely Town” in honour of Thomas’ famous description of his home town. The dichotomies of Thomas’ phrase were expressed by the juxtaposition of flowing melodies with sudden dissonant free jazz squalls, culminating in a brilliant France drum solo as the man with the sticks finally asserted himself and made sure he was heard. At first I though the percussive hammering was an allusion to Swansea’s industrial past, but it’s more likely that it represented a storm at sea as the “medley” (Warren’s phrase) morphed into “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” with a recording of the poet’s voice again supplementing the musicians.
Warren told us that in writing the suite he wanted a piece that was as far away from the stereotypical ideas about music associated with Dylan Thomas as possible. What he came up with was “Cwmdonkin Park Boogie”, a solo boogie woogie piano piece that made use of prepared piano sounds and if it wasn’t exactly Jools Holland it definitely wasn’t Stan Tracey either. The audience loved it.
” Organ Morgan” was an adaptation of an earlier work, “Morgan Morris” and included British folk elements enriched with the Latin inflections of France’s drums. Ballamy led off the solos on tenor followed by Warren on exuberantly percussive piano and finally France at the drums with another colourful and frequently stunning solo.
Given the location Warren chose to move away from the Dylan Thomas repertoire and concluded the quartet’s performance with his own composition “Hymn”, inspired by the words of the Welsh hymn writer Ann Griffiths (1776-1805). Warren’s solo piano was eventually joined by Ballamy’s soft and breathy tenor with bass and drums being added incrementally. The only conventional jazz solo came from the leader as the performance ended on a suitably elegiac note.
The quartet were given a great reception by a near capacity crowd and the concert represented something of a triumph for Warren who had played beautifully throughout. Minor criticisms would include occasional mixing problems and the slightly formal air that permeated the music on this first performance. If the tour goes ahead subsequent appearances should be even better as the musicians familiarise themselves with the material and begin to open up more. Nevertheless there was much here to enjoy from some of the most respected musicians on the UK jazz scene.
MARIUS NESET QUARTET
The Norwegian saxophonist and composer Marius Neset burst on to the international jazz scene with the release of his 2011 album “Golden Xplosion” which appeared on the Cardiff based Edition label. This UK connection made him a popular figure with British jazz audiences and the even more ambitious follow up “Birds” (Edition, 2013) consolidated his reputation even further.
Neset, now twenty nine, has played live in the UK on many occasions bewitching audiences everywhere with his skill, daring and sheer natural talent. He’s something of a showman and his live shows are among the most energetic and exciting around. However following his move to the Munich based ACT label for the release of” Lion”, his most ambitious recording yet featuring the large ensemble the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, it’s possible that UK audiences may have to get used to seeing rather less of him. Hence my decision to check him out for a fourth time at his performance at Brecon Cathedral. Previous sightings have been of the quartet at Much Wenlock and at Cheltenham Jazz Festival plus the intimate, and very different, duo with tuba player Daniel Herskedal at Dempsey’s in Cardiff.
Neset’s regular working unit is a quartet featuring British pianist Ivo Neame and Swedish drummer Anton Eger, both of the trio Phronesis. Phronesis bassist Jasper Hoiby also appears on both “Golden Xplosion” and “Birds” but doesn’t always feature in the live shows. Although present at Brecon as a member of Kairos 4tet (who had played elsewhere earlier in the day) his place was taken tonight by Neame’s Loop Collective colleague Dave Manington.
As ever this was a wildly exciting Neset show that began with the title track of “Birds”, the leader beginning on solo soprano sax, his percolating Morse code motifs gradually drawing in Neame, Manington and Eger to create ever more intricate, tightly knit patterns. Neame took the first solo as Neset switched to tenor and the piece was climaxed by a drum feature from the theatrical but prodigiously talented Eger, the Swede is as much a showman as Neset.
Tune announcements were scant, but this was less a reflection of Neset’s language skills (his English is actually very good) than the fact that he just wanted to play (rather like our own Julian Siegel in this regard). Neset is a player with plenty to say and the musical vocabulary to say it eloquently. He’s just bursting with ideas and they come tumbling out all at once, some listeners may find him a bit intense but most are just blown away by him (in a good way). Neset was mentored by Django Bates and there’s plenty of Bates’ and Loose Tubes’ busy spirit in his music.
Neame’s solo piano opened the second piece, joined in duet by Neset’s soprano sax before the saxophonist again moved to tenor to solo powerfully in saxophone trio mode before stepping aside to allow Manington a moment in the spotlight. Neame eventually returned to the fray with the next solo before Neset delivered an astonishing solo sax cadenza to resolve the piece.
Neset carried on where he left off, a solo tenor sax introduction eliciting a typically effervescent response from Eger at the drums before Neset embarked on a marathon tenor solo that seemed to channel the spirits of Sonny Rollins and the late, great Michael Brecker. Neame eventually took over at the piano as Neset recharged his batteries.
“Saxophone Intermezzo” represented a dip into the “Golden Xplosion” repertoire, a duet for tenor saxophone and piano that exploited the acoustics of the Cathedral as Neset blew ringing overtones and harmolodics in a performance that was simultaneously emotionally involving and technically dazzling. The duo were rewarded with a bout spontaneous applause as Manington and Eger returned to the stage and the piece shifted into sax trio mode incorporating a drum feature from the irrepressible Eger.
Also from “Golden Xplosion” “Sane” represented the set’s only true ballad, Neame’s solo piano intro ushering in Neset’s tenor which first whispered then soared anthemically. However this was just the calm before the storm as a duet between Neset and Eger’s brushed drums provided the link into a furious finale featuring Neset’s saxophone pyrotechnics and a scintillating Eger drum feature as these two crowd pleasers went toe to toe in friendly competition.
A mere six tunes may seem like a scant return but these pieces featured extended soloing of a brilliance that lifted this performance to a level well above the ordinary. Neset just seems to exude music and his obvious enthusiasm communicates itself both to his colleagues and to his audiences. Neame has developed into one of the most intelligent and inventive piano soloists around, Eger combines a highly personalised, technically brilliant drumming style with a showman’s mentality and Manington more than held his own as he rose to the challenge of this frequently complex and demanding music with aplomb. The audience responded with a standing ovation and many first timers at a Neset gig sported the expressions of someone who had just witnessed the next saxophone Messiah. CD sales were doubtless brisk as a starry eyed crowd filed out into the Brecon night.
On a second day of excellent music this was an undeniable highlight but all four acts I saw today delivered ,with audience reactions overwhelmingly positive.
From Tomos Williams of Burum;
Just for you to know - Huw V Williams on bass was deping for us at Brecon. That was the first gig he’s ever done with us, with no rehearsal either!
Aidan Thorne is our usual bass player by now, but he couldn’t do the gig, so we called on Huw’s services and he did a great job!
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