by Ian Mann
August 18, 2019
Ian Mann on the second day of the Festival and performances by the Pysz/Cousins/Gardiner Trio, Alice Leggett, Gareth Roberts, Barbara Dennerlein and Scott Hamilton. Photography by Bob Meyrick.
Photograph of Maciek Pysz by Bob Meyrick.
SATURDAY AT BRECON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2019
MACIEK PYSZ / GERARD COUSINS / PAULA GARDINER TRIO
A noon start in the function room at the Wellington Hotel for this unique, one-off trio featuring the combined talents of guitarists Maciek Pysz and Gerard Cousins together with double bassist Paula Gardiner.
Polish born Pysz, a previous visitor to Brecon Jazz Club’s monthly sessions, had given an interesting and stimulating talk and guitar demonstration the previous day in the lounge at Ty Helyg Guest House.
A popular figure among Brecon jazz audiences he was joined by fellow guitarist Gerard Cousins, a true local favourite. Primarily a classical guitarist Cousins, who lives in the Brecon area, also has jazz leanings and has performed previously at the Festival. These appearances have included a fascinating re-imagination of Miles Davis’ classic “In A Silent Way” album, performed in the company of a hand picked ensemble featuring some of the best jazz musicians from South Wales and the South West of England.
Paula Gardiner is also a familiar figure to Brecon jazz audiences as a bassist, composer, arranger and band leader and also as the Head of Jazz Performance at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff.
Rather than taking the easy option and playing a standards based set the trio decided to largely concentrate on material written by Pysz and Cousins. It’s also likely that as a mainly classical player Cousins is less familiar with the ‘real book’ canon than his colleagues.
The performance began with Pysz and Cousins working in the guitar duo format and commenced with a beautiful interpretation of the Pysz composition “These Days”, a piece that he had performed solo the previous day at Ty Helyg. Today’s rendition featured the duo’s mesmerising, intertwining guitar lines, the pair switching lead and rhythm functions throughout the performance, passing the baton seamlessly as the piece developed.
Both guitarists share a love of flamenco music and “Desert” was Pysz’s homage to the great Paco de Lucia and featured both players using the bodies of their guitars as auxiliary percussion as they traded dazzling, virtuosic solos.
Cousins also draws inspiration from the work of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass and regards Pat Metheny’s interpretation of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” as something of a personal touchstone. His own composition “Minimi”, written for two guitars, was therefore an ideal choice for this situation as he and Pysz delivered a hypnotic and immersive performance featuring shimmering, interlocking, arpeggiated guitar patterns, with Pysz utilising his foot pedals to provide additional colour and texture.
Cousins then went solo in a performance of his composition “White Cloud, Blue Sky”, a piece inspired by one of his jazz guitar heroes, the great John McLaughlin, and particularly McLaughlin’s work with Shakti and with Zakir Hussain. It was also his love of McLaughlin’s playing that led to the earlier “Silent Way” project.
And there was me thinking the title might have been inspired by Jan Garbarek’s “Photo With…” album, but I digress.
The performance itself mixed a delightfully melodic and pastoral opening passage with a more energetic and dynamic second part that became a whirlwind of extreme finger picking virtuosity.
The recorded version of this piece appears on Cousins’ 2014 album “The First Beat Is The Last Sound” and features him overdubbing the two guitar parts.
Cousins and Pysz were joined by Paula Gardiner for a segue that renewed their love affair with Iberia as Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” was teamed with Chick Corea’s celebratory “Spain”. The concerto saw Gardiner picking out the melody on the bass as she exchanged phrases with the two guitarists. This proved to be taster for the dazzling performance of “Spain” which featured stunning solos from both guitarists plus a further bass feature for Gardiner. This was genuinely jaw dropping stuff, such was the skill and virtuosity on display.
But this performance wasn’t all about technique, there was also a strong focus on beauty with the players also embracing the concept of space within the music, with notes sometimes seeming to just hang in the air. A case in point was the trio’s delightful interpretation of Ralph Towner’s beautiful composition “Beneath An Evening Sky”, which was introduced by an extended passage of unaccompanied guitar from Pysz and which later included an exquisite solo from Cousins. At Ty Helyg Pysz had spoken of his admiration for Towner’s work and this genuine affection was perfectly expressed here.
To close the trio performed the Pysz composition “Always On The Move”, a reflection on the guitarist’s nomadic lifestyle and a neat follow on from Friday’s talk. Again the piece was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied guitar from the composer but also included features for Cousins and Gardiner. Once more the piece revealed Pysz’s skills as a writer, he is a consistently excellent composer, whose works all possess a strong melodic, and even cinematic, quality.
The subdued virtuosity of these three fine musicians was rewarded with an excellent reception from a pleasingly substantial crowd at the Wellington. The reaction was enthusiastic enough for the trio to be accorded an encore. This proved to be Cousins’ choice, the guitarist selecting his arrangement of “Openings” from Philip Glass’ larger opus “Glassworks”. Cousins had transposed Glass’ piece for solo guitar but it worked equally effectively in a trio context with Pysz’s pedals and Gardiner’s bowed bass adding extra colour and texture to Cousins’ guitar parts.
This was a performance that again demonstrated the abilities of Festival organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon to bring together musicians who have never worked, or even sometimes met, each other before, to create a viable musical partnership.
Pysz and Cousins clearly had a great respect for each others abilities and quickly gelled into an effective partnership with Gardiner subsequently finding her own way into the music as the set progressed.
This subdued but absorbing set proved to be something of a Festival highlight with the selection of largely original material making a nice change from the largely standards based nature of some of the other Festival performances.
ALICE LEGGETT QUARTET, GUILDHALL THEATRE
Over at the Guildhall the young alto saxophonist and composer Alice Leggett was leading her quartet in what must have been one of her most prestigious shows to date.
Cardiff born Leggett studied at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London and the quality of her musicianship has attracted the attention of such jazz luminaries as trumpeter Steve Waterman and saxophonist Mark Lockheart.
Leggett was part of the Steve Waterman Big Band that had played at the Castle Hotel the night before and she has also featured with previous BJF big bands. She has also played with the Calum Gourlay Big Band and with the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra.
On disc she appears as a key part of the ensemble on Lockheart’s large scale work “Days On Earth”, released on Edition Records.
Review here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/mark-lockheart-days-on-earth/
Today Leggett brought her regular London based quartet to Brecon, an experienced line up featuring the talents of pianist Rick Simpson, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Jon Scott.
The programme that they performed was mainly comprised of Leggett originals and commenced with “Mount Tibidabo”, named for the highest point in Barcelona. A loosely structured intro around a rolling groove evolved into a more formally written section, a brief passage of solo piano from Simpson providing the link. As the music continued to unfold Leggett began to stretch out on alto, probing deeply above the polyrhythmic flow of Scott’s drumming, his style reminiscent here of the great Jeff Williams. Leggett was followed by the impressive Simpson, a busy and versatile presence on the London jazz scene.
Simpson’s piano then introduced “Castle and Sun”, a more reflective Leggett original inspired by a Paul Klee painting, that included further solos from the saxophonist and pianist.
Gourlay’s bass ushered in the wonderfully titled “Even Artichokes Have Hearts” and the bassist also took the first full length solo on a piece featuring a song like structure and one of Leggett’s simplest and most beautiful themes. Leggett then expanded upon the melody during her alto solo and she was followed by Simpson, who added gospel flavourings to the mix during an expansive excursion on piano.
Following this we heard a ‘contrafact’ where Leggett had written a new ‘head’ or theme above the chord structure of Thelonious Monk’s “Let’s Call This”. Leggett described the piece as a “nice little swinger” and it certainly encouraged the near capacity audience to get on her side as the quartet fairly romped through the piece with expansive solos from Simpson and Leggett plus further features for Gourlay and Scott, the latter deploying brushes in vigorous fashion. The piece certainly swung like the clappers, while keeping something of Monk’s trademark quirkiness intact.
Leggett’s “Sense of Self” was given a world première, with hard driving, contemporary sounding grooves contrasting well with gentler, more ruminative piano trio passages. The tension was ramped up during Leggett’s alto solo and the piece came to a climax with a dynamic drum feature from Scott. The drummer’s contribution to the success of the performance was certainly noticed by the audience, with many favourable comments being overheard on the way out.
The set concluded with “One Way Leggett”, the title a reference to Alice’s propensity for driving the wrong way down one way streets - “no-ones been hurt – yet” - joked the saxophonist. Gourlay introduced the piece solo at the bass, eventually establishing a groove that acted as the green light for barnstorming solos from Simpson and Leggett as the quartet completed their performance on a high note.
Although we’d only heard five numbers this had been a full length set that was very well received by a commendably large crowd at the Guildhall. Leggett’s pieces were lengthy, sometimes complex and densely written, but still with plenty of scope for improvisation and individual self expression.
There was much potential here and some excellent playing but it still didn’t quite feel like the finished article. Leggett’s presentation was a little hesitant and she needs to work more on her stage craft.
Also “Artichokes” and the Monk contrafact were the most effective items in the repertoire, rather than the more ambitious material, which Leggett probably sets more store by, but which sounded a little anonymous by comparison. A qualified success then, but still a highly enjoyable event and another step up the jazz career ladder for the young and talented Alice Leggett, probably playing to one of the largest audiences that she has faced thus far.
GARETH ROBERTS QUARTET, THE ELLINGTON SET, WELLINGTON HOTEL
“Ellington at the Wellington!” as Lynne Gornall couldn’t resist saying during her introduction.
Trombonist Gareth Roberts is one of the leading figures on the South Wales jazz scene and has been a great friend of Brecon Jazz for many years. He has featured at the monthly Club events on numerous occasions and also led the Big Band at the 2018 Festival, writing many of the arrangements and also contributing a smattering of original compositions.
2019 saw Roberts appear in the Big Band led by trumpeter Steve Waterman as well as presenting this performance by his own quartet, a group featuring the cream of South Walian jazz talent.
Pianist Dave Jones, bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Mark O’Connor have all featured on the Jazzmann web pages many times in various contexts and there’s no doubt that if these guys were to move to London their skills would be hugely in demand. Like Roberts all these musicians are seriously talented players who always deliver the goods. We’re talking premier league quality here, these guys deserve to be considered as far more than just good ‘regional musicians’.
And in many ways, as Lynne Gornall explained, this was what today’s performance at a packed Wellington was all about. Welsh jazz audiences may already be familiar with the talents of the musicians on display but this set was a chance to bring Roberts, Jones, Long and O’Connor to the attention of a wider demographic as they played to a crowd containing many visitors from further afield. Sensing that this was far more than just a routine gig Roberts and his colleagues played with real brio in a set that contained some truly inspired soloing.
Roberts is a talented composer in his own right and has released two quintet albums as a leader, both comprised of entirely original material. He was also a significant writing presence in the ranks of the cult Cardiff band Heavy Quartet, sadly now defunct. He has also written “The Monmouthshire Suite”, a large scale work that has been performed by the Monmouth Community Big Band, and is a key performer and arranger for Cardiff’s Capital City Big Band.
One of Roberts’ most popular projects with audiences is his “Ellington Set”, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. The trombonist has presented his vibrant interpretations of favourite Ellington tunes at numerous venues across Wales, including Brecon Jazz Club and Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny, always gaining a great reception.
As Roberts explains;
“I was asked to perform a set of my favourite standards but when I started to think of tunes to play they all turned out to be Ellington compositions. He’s my favourite composer so I decided to present a themed set and it’s just taken off from there”.
The quartet hit the ground running with “In A Mellow Tone”, which included inspired solos from Roberts, Jones and Long. Jones, a highly accomplished composer and bandleader in his own right, tossed a Thelonious Monk quote into his solo, a gesture that was to become something of a theme in its own right.
Jones’ keyboard flourishes announced “Take The A Train”, which was fast tracked by Long’s rapid, highly propulsive bass walk, this signalling an astonishingly agile trombone solo from Roberts and a rollicking piano solo from Jones. O’Connor threw in a series of sparky drum breaks in a performance that crackled with energy and was great fun. These guys always play with a smile on their faces and their collective sense of fun is something that transmits itself easily to audiences.
The blues “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” found Jones quoting Monk and more during the course of his solo, much to the amusement of his colleagues - that shared sense of musical humour again.
But the quartet also showed that they can also do ‘serious’ with a beautiful version of the ballad “In A Sentimental Mood”, which was introduced by a duo passage of trombone and piano, these later joined by double bass and brushed drums. For all his exuberance elsewhere Roberts is capable of playing with great tenderness on ballads. Another highlight here was Long’s delightfully melodic bass solo.
It was the bassist who persuaded Roberts that he should add “Just Squeeze Me” to his repertoire of Ellington tunes. A lively performance of the piece featured a further solo from Long alongside features from Roberts and a particularly inspired Jones.
Arguably the Duke’s most famous tune “It Don’t Mean A Thing” featured a rousing trombone solo from Roberts, the trombonist being followed by Jones at the keys. Roberts then embarked on a series of rumbustious exchanges with O’Connor that delighted the Festival audience.
Roberts dedicated “Creole Love Call” to his father, who was seated in the audience. This performance of his dad’s favourite Ellington tune featured Roberts’ bluesy, plunger muted trombone vocalisations, at one point in conjunction with Long’s bass only. Further solos came from Jones and Long. It should be mentioned that the latter is one of the most able and creative bass soloists around, a bass feature from Ashley John Long is never boring.
The all too short set closed with a joyous romp through “Caravan”, ushered in by a rousing dialogue between the leader’s trombone and O’Connor’s drums. Jones added Afro-Cuban flourishes to his piano solo before Roberts stretched out further on trombone. The performance was then climaxed by a dynamic drum feature from O’ Connor.
I’ve seen Roberts’ Ellington show a couple of times before but have never tired of it. The quality of the Duke’s timeless writing and the vivacity and skill of the performances ensured that today’s performance was a great success with Roberts and his colleagues earning a terrific reception from a highly appreciative crowd. The show, presented by Roberts with warm Welsh wit, was indeed a great showcase for the members of the quartet, all of whom were clearly “up for it”. The time just seemed to fly by and the only possible complaint was that it was too short! At previous shows, performed over two sets, Roberts has performed tunes by “my second favourite composer – me!”.
In this showcase event it would have been nice to have heard a couple of his high quality originals too. They wouldn’t have sounded in any way out of place.
BARBARA DENNERLEIN TRIO, GUILDHALL THEATRE
It represented quite a coup for the Festival organisers to persuade Germany’s “Queen of the Hammond Organ”, Barbara Dennerlein, to come and perform in Brecon.
Munich born Dennerlein started playing the organ at the age of eleven and first burst onto the jazz scene in the late 1980s / early 1990s with a series of albums for the German Enja record label. The second of these, “Hot Stuff” (1990) featured a line up including the British musicians Andy Sheppard (sax) and Mark Mondesir (drums).
These recordings established Dennerlein internationally and she subsequently signed to the Verve record label for a series of albums featuring some seriously heavyweight American jazz musicians.
Still based in Munich she currently records for her own Bebab imprint.
Dennerlein was initially inspired by the late, great Jimmy Smith and his style is still at the heart of her jazz organ playing. However her style has expanded to incorporate other influences, notably classical music, and she has also recorded on numerous church pipe organs, and also on synthesisers.
For this special one off UK appearance the Festival organisers had teamed her with two young musicians from the RWCMD, guitarist Kumar Chopra and drummer Alex Burch. Chopra has visited Brecon Jazz Club before at a number of RWCMD showcase events and played the Festival last year as part of a quintet led by saxophonist Martha Skilton. I have always been impressed with Chopra’s playing but I was previously unfamiliar with Burch.
As it was both of the young musicians fitted in superbly in what was a very big gig for both of them, playing to a capacity audience under the leadership of one of the leading figures in European jazz. Their performances were a credit to both their playing and sight reading skills in a programme comprised entirely of Dennerlein originals, albeit written and delivered very much in the style of the classic organ trio tradition.
The trio commenced with “Jimmy’s Walk”, Dennerlein’s tribute to the great Jimmy Smith. The title also refers to Dennerlein’s ability to play walking bass lines on the organ’s foot pedals, a skill enhanced by modern technology and the use of a sampler to help produce a more authentic string bass sound. Dennerlein took the first solo at the keyboard of a two manual Viscount Legend organ and she was followed by Chopra on the guitar. Next came a remarkable solo by Dennerlein on her instrument’s foot pedals, producing a bass sound so authentic that I almost found myself looking around the stage searching for the bass player. Her dancing feet were subsequently joined in dialogue with Burch’s drums. I’ve seen other organists, such as Van Der Graaf Generator’s Hugh Banton and local Hammond guru John Paul Gard, play pedal bass lines before, but I’d never witnessed anything quite like this, and I suspect that anybody else who hadn’t seen Dennerlein before probably hadn’t either.
She topped this with her multi-tasking on the introduction to “A Summer Day”, duetting with herself as she answered her keyboard melodies with agile pedal bass lines as Chopra added shadowy guitar atmospherics and Burch’s cymbals shimmered. More conventional organ and guitar solos then followed.
Next a fast moving but unannounced item with the organ surging above Chopra’s choppy guitar chording and Burch’s propulsive drum rhythms. Dennerlein takes an almost orchestral approach to the organ, conjuring a remarkable range of sounds from the instrument. This piece included passages in three different time signatures and Dennerlein was fulsome in her praise for her young companions as they safely negotiated its complexities.
The slow blues “Going Home” commenced with an unaccompanied organ passage that embraced church and gospel music with Dennerlein making effective use of her instrument’s volume pedal as the music swelled and subsided. Her pedal bass lines then supported Chopra’s authentically bluesy guitar solo, prior to a further organ solo and a subsequent organ/guitar dialogue.
Dennerlein proved to be an excellent speaker of English and her announcing style was both humorous and informative as she offered a number of insights into her instrument and her playing techniques. For example that the boogie woogie style of piano playing is less suitable for the organ because the latter instrument is not touch sensitive. However the resourceful Dennerlein circumvents the problem by playing the left hand bass lines with her feet on those famous pedals, as her piece, simply titled “Organ Boogie” demonstrated. Chopra again impressed with another bluesy and incisive guitar solo.
The Dennerlein original “Get It On “then added an element of funk to the equation with further solos from organ and guitar.
The closing “Black And White”, the title of course a reference to the colours of the organ keys, was introduced by another passage of virtuoso unaccompanied organ, later joined in a three way conversation by guitar and drums. The piece proved to be something of a showcase for Burch, who enjoyed a substantial drum feature towards the end of the tune.
With just six numbers being played the reader might be forgiven for thinking that this was a short set, but this was far from being the case. Dennerlein’s quasi-orchestral approach to the organ resulted in her solos being really expansive and the audience marvelled at her inventiveness as a soloist and her skills as a technician. Her frequently dazzling footwork was inevitably something of a talking point and there can be no doubt that she’s currently one of the world’s leading exponents of her chosen instrument, right up there alongside top Americans such as Joey Defrancesco, Larry Goldings and John Medeski.
Subtly encouraged by their leader Chopra and Burch rose magnificently to the occasion and each one performed brilliantly with Chopra delivering some highly impressive solos of his own while Burch’s time keeping was immaculate and right on the money throughout. These two young musicians acquitted themselves brilliantly in what must have been their most high profile performance to date.
The response from the audience was hugely positive and the gig was something of a triumph for the Festival organisers, whose audacious decision to bring Dennerlein to the Festival was totally vindicated. Fortunately, despite the bad weather, there were no serious interruptions to the travelling plans of the various overseas musicians who played at the Festival, with every performance going ahead as scheduled.
One of the people who helped to facilitate this afternoon’s performance was the UK’s own Hammond hero Ross Stanley who supplied the Viscount, an instrument actually belonging to the rock star Steve Winwood, the latter a great supporter of British jazz and a patron of Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Stanley himself, playing piano, was to perform on the Sunday of the Festival. More on that in that day’s coverage.
SCOTT HAMILTON QUARTET, GUILDHALL THEATRE
A couple of hours later another capacity crowd assembled in the Guildhall to enjoy a set from the American tenor sax specialist Scott Hamilton.
Dennerlein had been a first time visitor to Brecon but Hamilton represented something of a returning hero, having played a string of successful Festival performances in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In those days Hamilton was still regarded as a rising star but the intervening years have seen his transition into more of an ‘elder statesman’. Yet musically little has changed, Hamilton’s style has always been rooted in the pre-bop era, inspired by such saxophonists as Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. His repertoire is almost entirely standards based and we were to hear many of his favourites this evening.
I recall seeing the young Hamilton play this very room back in the day, in a quintet as I recall, co-led by the late clarinettist Kenny Davern. Hamilton also appeared at BJF with the cornettist Warren Vache and in 1994 released a quartet live album recorded at the Festival with the British musicians Brian Lemon (piano), Dave Green (double bass) and Allan Ganley (drums).
Of that trio only Green is still with us and he lined up alongside Hamilton on the stage tonight alongside pianist John Pearce and drummer Steve Brown as part of Hamilton’s regular British quartet.
An unaccompanied tenor sax cadenza introduced “I Just Found Out About Love, And I Like It”, a tune associated with Nat King Cole that included further solos from Hamilton, Pearce and Green.
Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky To Be Me” was performed as a mid tempo swinger with solos from Hamilton, Pearce and Green, plus a series of brushed drum breaks from the ever smiling Steve Brown, grinning away behind the kit.
Dizzy Gillespie’s “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” represented a dashing foray into bebop territory with its fast moving melody lines and powerful rhythms. Hamilton soloed first on tenor, followed by Pearce who delivered some of his best playing of the night, urged on by Brown’s propulsive drumming. Brown himself then enjoyed some vigorously brushed drum breaks before entering into a series of exchanges with Hamilton, the saxophonist peppering his contribution with quotes, among them “When The Saints Go Marching In”.
By way of contrast Hamilton then demonstrated his mastery as a tenor sax balladeer on the Anthony Newley / Leslie Bricusse composition “Pure Imagination”, a song made famous for its inclusion in the film “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”. With warm, breathy tenor sax from the leader, lyrical piano from Pearce and a melodic double bass solo from Green this version of the tune was a delight.
The pace increased again on the next piece, an unannounced item that began with Brown at the drums, who established a Latin-esque groove that provided the platform for solos from Hamilton and Pearce. Brown himself then enjoyed an extended drum feature towards the close.
The quartet then stretched out on an energetic version of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” with Hamilton introducing the piece with an extended passage of unaccompanied tenor. Pearce then took over on piano, soloing expansively above a rapid bass and brushed drum groove. Hamilton then undertook a more conventional solo on tenor, followed by Green at the bass and Brown with a brushed drum feature that again saw him exchanging ideas with the leader.
The Ellington ballad “Tonight I Shall Sleep With A Smile On My Face” seemed to sum up the feelings of the highly supportive audience and included lyrical solos from Pearce and Hamilton.
The final number was unannounced but the quartet went out swinging fiercely with solos from Hamilton and Pearce and a series of drum breaks from Brown.
The Brecon audience loved it and treated Hamilton and his colleagues like returning conquering heroes. It was maybe a little too mainstream for my personal tastes but there was no denying the quality of a performance led by a master of his craft, accompanied by a Rolls Royce of a rhythm section in Green and Brown. For many of us the gig was also a reminder of just what a talented jazz pianist John Pearce is, his contribution was excellent, both as a supremely fluent soloist and as a sympathetic and sensitive accompanist.
Thus ended a day of excellent and very varied music performed in front of sold out or near capacity audiences, with much appreciation being shown to all the musicians involved.
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