by Ian Mann
August 15, 2014
Ian Mann on the final day of the festival with performaces by Huw Warren / Gabriele Mirabassi, Debs Hancock, Ollie Howell, John Taylor, Township Comets, and Christine Tobin.
Photograph of Huw Warren by Martin Healey.
Sunday at Brecon Jazz, 10/08/2014.
The final day of the 2014 was affected by the poor weather conditions that arrived with the remnants of Hurricane Bertha. Temperatures were considerably lower than on the previous two days and intermittent but heavy showers were a constant throughout the day. As a result the
streets of Brecon were noticeably quieter and attendances at some of the concerts were smaller than they had been on Friday and Saturday. Nevertheless three shows were still total sell outs, these featuring the very different talents of Gregory Porter, Remi Harris and Polar Bear.
WORLD WIDE WALES: WALES MEETS MIRABASSI
My first concert of the day was at the Memorial Hall, Christ College where artist in residence Huw Warren performed an intimate but often lively duo set with the Italian clarinettist Gabriele Mirabassi. The corresponding fixture last year, “Wales Meets Brooklyn”, which teamed pianist Warren with bassist Huw V Williams and US drummer Jim Black was one of the festival highlights and I was intrigued to see what the series would offer this time round.
I’ve also had my appetite for duo performances whetted by the now well established Sunday morning duo slot at the nearby Titley Jazz festival in Herefordshire which has seen bassist Mick Hutton matched on different occasions with pianist Dave Newton and guitarist Jim Mullen. Another bassist Andrew Cleyndert, has been teamed with the pianists Stan Tracey and Steve Melling. I also recall seeing the pairing of Mullen with pianist Gareth Williams at an earlier Brecon (2009 as I recall).
Warren and Mirabassi are united by their love of Brazilian music and chose to play an all Brazilian programme that celebrated the many brilliant composers and songwriters that have been spawned by that fabulous country. Thus we heard tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti, Guinga and Pixinguinha plus the occasional Mirabassi original.
As with Burum yesterday my Portugese is no better than my Welsh so I’m not going to attempt too many tune titles. The opening tune was by Jobim and began with Mirabassi on unaccompanied clarinet, his high flute like tone later combining in an intimate duet with Warren’s piano.
With the next piece by Egberto Gismonti the feel became lighter and positively joyous, with Mirabassi responding physically to the music as he swayed his body, stamped his feet and hopped from foot to foot like a more sprightly version of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. This physicality was to be a constant factor throughout the set with the impish Mirabassi seldom still for a moment. It was great to see a performer so obviously absorbed in the music he was playing. When the tune ended Warren explained that Gismonti had instructed his composition to be played “with humour”, the duo certainly followed those instructions to the letter. Mirabassi’s own “Cancon” then marked a return to more lyrical, intimate playing.
Warren has held a long standing regard for the music of Hermerto Pascoal and in 2009 honoured the great Brazilian musical maverick on the album “Hermeto + ” (Basho Records), a set that interspersed Pascoal’s compositions with Warren originals in a trio recording made with bassist Peter Herbert and drummer Martin France. The duo’s spirited performance of Pascoal’s “Chorinho” was a reminder of that love.
A Jobim ballad , the title roughly translating as “Without You”, was beautifully played by Warren on solo piano. In this pared down duo format there were many more passages of unaccompanied piano and in many ways today’s concert was a better example of Warren’s undoubted keyboard mastery than even Saturday’s performance of his Dylan Thomas inspired suite “Do Not Go Gentle” had been, the increased rhythmic responsibility helping to bring the best out of the pianist.
Warren and Mirabassi shared the announcing duties and despite Mirabassi’s halting English one was left in no doubt as to his status as an authority on Brazilian music. The clarinettist explained how Pascoal’s “Frevo” made use of the frevo carnival rhythms of the cities of Recife and Olinda in Pernambuco state with the duo’s intensely rhythmic performance illustrating his precept as Warren provided auxiliary percussion from within the lid of the piano. Despite the Welsh rain teeming down outside one could sense the joy of carnival in the music.
If Pascoal is Warren’s Brazilian musical hero then for Mirabassi it is the guitarist and composer Guinga (born 1950), a musician with whom Mirabassi has recorded.. Mirabassi spoke of the Brazilian composer’s advanced emotional and harmonic sense before the duo played a segue of three of his tunes, sharing the lead between their two instruments.
They turned to the music of a Brazilian composer from another generation to close the performance as they linked together two “choros” by Pixinguinha (1897-1973), the man referred to by Mirabassi as “the Brazilian Duke Ellington”. The second of these “Um a Zero” was a celebration of that other great Brazilian obsession, football. Very appropriate in a World Cup year but maybe less so after that infamous 7-1 defeat.
The meeting of Warren and Mirabassi more than lived up to its promise and for the small but enthusiastic audience at the Memorial Hall the performance proved to be something of a festival highlight. It was surprising just how many of these tunes I was actually familiar with, timeless melodies that permeate the brain and stay there even if recalling the titles is rather more difficult.
As for the playing both Warren and Mirabassi proved to be awesome technicians and their performance mixed humour with pathos and often radiated unbridled joy. The love of both musicians for their source material shone out at every turn. A low key but immensely satisfying start to the festival’s final day.
DEBS HANCOCK & THE JAZZ DRAGONS
One effect of the poor weather was to drive people indoors to support events on the Brecon Fringe programme. Among these was a performance at the comfortable RAFA Club by Usk based vocalist Debs Hancock and her band the Jazz Dragons, comprised on this occasion of Cardiff based Gareth Hall on electric piano, Herefordshire based Erica Lyons on double bass and young RWCMD student Iori Haugen at the drums.
This ad hoc aggregation played a set of easily swinging standards including “Lullaby Of Birdland”, “Blues In The Night”, “Ecstatic”, “September In The Rain”, “This Masquerade” and “The Girl From Ipanema”, the one Brazilian tune Warren and Mirabassi didn’t play!
As a homage to Burt Bacharach, who had opened the festival on Thursday night, Hancock also sang “This Girl’s In Love With You”.
Plenty of solo space was allotted to Hall and to the excellent Lyons, a real local heroine to us jazz fans in Herefordshire. Young Haugen also acquitted himself well with several series of drum breaks.
This was a very pleasant way to spend an hour’s festival “downtime” and a packed RAFA club responded very positively to the band. Debs Hancock does a lot to promote jazz in South Wales, is a steward at the festival and is one of the Jazzmann’s Facebook friends so it was good to see her perform at last and to see her being so very well received by the jazz public of Brecon.
OLLIE HOWELL QUINTET
I had to leave Debs’ set early in order to make my second visit to Captain’s Walk for the eagerly awaited performance by drummer and composer Ollie Howell and his quintet. Mentored by such influential industry figures as Quincy Jones and one time Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb (of “Kind Of Blue” fame) Howell is a graduate of the jazz course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and drama in Cardiff and now makes his home in London where he leads a quintet featuring some of that city’s finest young musicians including tenor saxophonist Duncan Eagles, trumpeter Mark Perry and pianist Matt Robinson. For today’s performance the bass chair was filled by Howell’s old Cardiff pal Aidan Thorne who was standing in for Max Luthert, the bassist on the quintet’s d?but recording “Sutures and Stitches”.
Largely written while Howell was recovering from neuro surgery following the discovery of a brain malformation “Sutures and Stitches”, released on the Whirlwind Recordings label, was one of the outstanding British d?buts of 2013, a showcase for Howell’s composing skills as well as for his technically accomplished drumming. The music draws on the bebop and hard bop legacies (there’s more than a hint of “Blue Note” in the quintet’s sound) but also shows an awareness of more contemporary developments from M-Base to hip hop.
“Sutures and Stitches” is a celebration of Howell’s recovery rather than an exercise in self pity and the energy of the album also manifested itself in today’s performance with Howell’s crisp, busy, hard driving drumming propelling the front line soloists Eagles and Perry, plus Robinson on electric piano, to impressive heights.
With a second album due in November the material was drawn from “Sutures and Stitches” but also included a number of newer pieces, some of them as yet untitled.
Although announced I suspect that the opening number was “Beyond” from “Sutures and Stitches” with the ensemble theme statement leading to a typically powerful Eagles tenor solo, this followed by the articulate Robinson on keyboards. The piece ended with a Howell drum feature as Eagles and Perry hand-clapped in rhythmic support. A prodigiously talented technician Howell was confident enough to allow plenty of space for him to showcase his own playing.
The new piece “Shadows” again featured Eagles on tenor, the yearning, keening sound of his opening phrases mutating into something altogether more forthright and powerful. The supremely fluent Perry also demonstrated his abilities as a lucid trumpet soloist before the piece culminated with Howell taking another opportunity to demonstrate his considerable “chops”.
Perry featured again on a new, as yet unnamed tune slated for the new album, his assertive opening statement contrasted by a more subdued solo from the excellent Robinson.
“Sutures and Stitches” includes an intriguing Howell arrangement of “Dear Old Stockholm”, the only non original on the album. Incorporating elements of hard bop allied to a hip hop groove the piece featured concise solos from Eagles, Perry and Robinson before a final drum flourish.
“A Hollow Victory”, the closing track on “Sutures and Stitches” is one of Howell’s most impressive compositions. Song like and anthemic, and possessing a strong narrative arc, the piece began with a solo piano introduction from Robinson and included a slow burning tenor solo from Eagles plus a bass feature for the able Aidan Thorne.
Having played the closing item on the album the quintet now turned their attention to the opening piece, “Later On” propelled by Robinson’s urgent piano riff and featuring solos from Eagles and Perry.
“Balance Of Stones”, a tune from the forthcoming revealed a gentler side to Howell’s playing as he switched to brushes for a piece largely performed in lyrical piano trio mode.
Another new piece, “A Warm Draft” completed the set with the group upping the energy levels again as the two hornmen made powerful final statements with Perry adopting a growling, vocalised tone during the course of his trumpet solo.
The quintet’s set was very well received by the Captain’s Walk crowd, admittedly smaller in number than on Saturday (due largely I’m sure to the less than clement weather) but no less enthusiastic. Howell’s spirited updating of the Blue Note sound certainly hit the target and the new album will be awaited with interest. Expect to hear a lot more from the talented Ollie Howell.
From a comparative newcomer to a respected veteran of the UK jazz scene and a British player with an international reputation. The pianist and composer John Taylor, born in Manchester in 1942, has been active on the UK scene since the mid 1960’s and rose to prominence internationally through his association with the group Azimuth and the ECM record label, for whom he also recorded a series of excellent trio albums.
The current century has seen a late flowering of his talent on a series of albums released on the Italian Cam Jazz label. These have included solo piano recordings plus exceptional albums such as “Angel Of The Presence” and “Whirlpool” featuring his long running trio of drummer Martin France and Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson.
It was this line up that appeared at Brecon Cathedral today and I think it’s fair to say that Taylor, Danielsson and France can be regarded as one of the world’s greatest piano trios. Back in 2005 I saw Taylor’s trio and the Brad Mehldau Trio within a few weeks of each other, both at St. George’s in Bristol and although comparisons may be odious for me the Europeans won hands down.
Taylor seems to have a natural affinity for playing in religious buildings (St. George’s is a de-consecrated church converted into an arts centre) and today’s inspired performance again exhibited the kind of almost telepathic rapport we have come to associate with this trio. This despite the fact that Danielsson had flown in from Stockholm that morning, braving some pretty atrocious weather in the process.
The trio commenced with the Taylor original “Pure And Simple”, a good introduction to the collective and individual voices of the trio with the obligatory bass and drum features skilfully woven into the fabric of the music in a pleasingly organic manner. Not for this trio the obvious “signposting” of solos.
Taylor has a wonderfully light touch at the piano and his crystalline sound was much in evidence on the lyrical “Between Moons” with an unaccompanied piano introduction followed by a later solo supported by bass and subtly brushed drums. As the bassist with pianist Keith Jarrett’s “Belonging” quartet (with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and drummer Jon Christensen) Danielsson has assured his place in jazz history but he is still a hugely capable player and his solo here was a delight.
The next piece was a Steve Swallow tune and although Taylor didn’t announce the title I’d guess that it was “Vaguely Asian”, a composition the trio recorded for “Angel of the Presence” Introduced by France at the drums the piece contained some typically expansive Taylor soloing which saw him swarming all over the keyboard. There were also some absorbing exchanges between his piano and France’s brushed drums.
Solo piano introduced Taylor’s “Ballada”, a delightfully lyrical piece that also featured a subtle but rewarding duet between Taylor and Danielsson and with France, again deploying brushes representing subtlety personified. This item was particularly beautiful but Taylor’s sound is about more than mere prettiness, even here there was a certain classically derived rigour to the music.
Now thirty years old Taylor’s composition “Ambleside” is an enduringly popular item in his repertoire and following an unaccompanied introduction the pianist played with great exuberance and verve, his highly rhythmic playing fuelled by Danielsson and France, the bassist also relishing the opportunity to cut loose with a solo of his own.
Taylor’s love of wordplay was evidenced by the title of the next piece. “Descent” as in going down or “Dissent” as in the case of a small argument he enquired of us. The combination of the leader’s glacial piano, making highly effective use of space, plus France’s brushed cymbals provided a set highlight before the piece segued, via a second passage of solo piano, into the familiar melody of Kenny Wheeler’s enduringly popular “Everybody’s Song But My Own”, a modern day British jazz standard if ever there was one. Again the combination of Taylor and France delivered a series of brilliant exchanges.
Taylor is one of the most popular figures in British jazz and the large crowd at the Cathedral gave him and the trio a tremendous ovation. The group responded by returning to play an encore, a tune by the Swedish composer Steffan Linton announced by Danielsson in halting English, a contrast here to the well enounced, professorial tones of Taylor. The tune itself had a gorgeous folk like melody which Danielsson played on the bass prior to further solos from Taylor, Danielsson again and a delightful bass/drum dialogue with France wielding brushes. A delightful conclusion to an excellent concert.
Following the Taylor gig I made my way back to Captain’s Walk to catch something of the set from Township Comets, the band founded by pianist/harmonica player Adam Glasser and Loose Tubes trumpeter Chris Batchelor to celebrate the sounds of South African jazz.
The mixed race, London based combo is normally fronted by the charismatic vocalist Pinise Saul who has performed with trumpeter Hugh Masekela and is the leader of the South African Gospel Singers. Saul also sang in bands led by the late, great Dudu Pukwanu and by Chris McGregor and the veteran vocalist provides a living link to the Blue Notes and the other South African exiles who had such a profound influence on the UK jazz scene in the 60s and 70s.
Unfortunately Saul was unable to appear at Brecon due to ill health and the band decided to add an extra instrumental voice to their six piece line up with Troyka guitarist Montague being invited to perform with the band. He joined the core line up of Glasser, Batchelor, Jason Yarde (alto sax), Harry Brown (trombone), Dudley Phillips (electric bass) and Frank Tontoh (drums). I rather enjoyed the resultant brew of earthy, punchy township jazz delivered at rock volume which cheered up a miserable afternoon as rain hammered on the roof and streamed down the sides of the festival marquee. However underneath the awning everyone stayed dry and the audience quickly got into the festival vibe with the occasional outbreak of spontaneous dancing in evidence.
I caught around half the band’s set arriving half way through a number that included solos from Yarde on alto, Glasser on keyboards and Montague on guitar. The latter seemed to fit perfectly into the Comets’ aesthetic with his rock infused solos totally attuned to the festival vibe and getting a great reception from the audience. A casual visitor, rather like me in this instance, would have presumed that he’d always been there.
An old Brotherhood of Breath tune (I’m not going to attempt those African titles any more readily than I did the Welsh or the Portugese) included features for Batchelor, Phillips and Brown.
Meanwhile Glasser revealed his harmonica skills, while simultaneously playing keyboard, on one tune whose title I could handle, Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Blues For A Hip King”, written for the King of Swaziland who offered Ibrahim a safe haven when the pianist and composer was first exiled from his native South Africa. The piece also served as further reminder of Batchelor’s formidable abilities as a trumpeter.
Calphus Semenya’s composition “Part of a Whole” was recorded by both Hugh Masekela and Dudu Pukwana. Here it was the celebratory vehicle for solos from guest guitarist Montague ,Batchelor on trumpet and Brown on trombone before a final drum feature from the excellent Frank Tontoh whose propulsive playing and infectious enthusiasm represented the heartbeat of the band.
Tontoh also helped to fuel the final number, a joyfully energetic piece featuring a series of blazing horn exchanges with Yarde the stand out soloist.
Despite the poor weather and the absence of their star vocalist the Township Comets had still delivered an excellent set, packed with energy and fine playing from some the most experienced musicians on the London scene. Many are involved in so called weightier projects but the love they have of playing this music as the Township Comets shone through in a highly professional performance that delighted the crowd and defied the circumstances. Good music and good fun.
CHRISTINE TOBIN “A THOUSAND KISSES DEEP”
Vocalist Christine Tobin is a long term admirer of the music of Leonard Cohen and has always included at least one Cohen song in her repertoire. Her latest album, “A Thousand Kisses Deep” is a collection of Cohen songs sourced from every period of Cohen’s career, the title track being one of his 21st century offerings.
Tobin has toured her Cohen project extensively in venues ranging from London’s Southbank Centre to pubs and village halls. Reviews of a performance at Black Mountain Jazz at Abergavenny, and of the album itself, can be found elsewhere on this site.
The Abergavenny show featured the core trio of Tobin, guitarist Phil Robson and bassist Dave Whitford but today’s festival performance also featured two of the album guests, percussionist Adriano Adewale and Festival Artist in Residence Huw Warren, this time specialising on accordion although occasionally also playing some piano.
Although the songs were familiar to me from both the album and the previous performance the presence of Adewale and Warren cast them in a new light and, as previously at Abergavenny, this performance was a delight. Tobin had found herself scheduled a sold out Gregory Porter performance at the Market Hall and as a consequence the Cathedral was less than full but an appreciative and knowledgeable audience loved what they heard.
Tobin is a technically accomplished singer and a superb interpreter of a lyric and despite appearing to be suffering from a cold sang immaculately throughout. The show at Abergavenny with the trio was superb and benefited from being held in such an intimate space (the upstairs function room at the Swan Hotel) but the additional colours supplied by Adewale and Warren ensured that tonight’s show was comfortably its equal.
The quintet began with “Famous Blue Raincoat”, the opening track of Tobin’s album and a song famously covered by Jennifer Warnes. Tobin’s superb interpretation of Cohen’s confessional lyrics, written in the form of a letter, was enhanced by the first of several excellent accordion solos from Warren who played the instrument with verve and skill throughout the course of the evening. His interplay with guitarist Robson was also highly impressive.
Warren excelled again on “Dance Me To The End Of Love” (from the Cohen album “Various Positions”) which also included Tobin’s scat vocalising.
Whitford’s solo bass introduced “Tower Of Song”, a quartet item that saw Warren making a temporary exit. Whitford linked well with Adewale, the latter exotic array of instruments far removed from the traditional drum kit. Robson impressed as the chief instrumental soloist and Tobin combined further scatting with an emotive interpretation of one of Cohen’s most evocative lyrics.
The four piece line up remained in situ for “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, a latter day Cohen song that has gained exposure through its deployment in the Cohen Brothers film “The Good Thief”. Cohen’s lyrics are as poetic and world weary and ever and were superbly voiced by Tobin with Whitford again taking the instrumental honours.
The Abergavenny show had been punctuated by songs from other writers including Joni Mitchell and Bobbie Gentry, plus a smattering of jazz standards. Tonight the only “outside item” was one of Tobin’s own songs, “No Love, No Thrill”, highly rhythmic and propelled by an accordion and percussion fuelled bounce. Tobin’s scat vocals combined with Robson’s guitar and the piece was climaxed by an absorbing solo percussion feature from the admirable Adewale.
From the album “I’m Your Man” “Everybody Knows” is a Cohen classic, his lyrics succinct, cynical and cutting. Tobin’s version more than did it justice, with Warren’s accordion combining effectively with Christine’s scat vocal.
The accordionist sat out “Song Of Isaac” from Cohen’s second album “Songs From A Room”. One of Cohen’s most disturbing songs the piece was given a suitably dark arrangement with Robson’s distorted, FX laden guitar adding to the already unsettling atmosphere.
The full quintet was re-assembled for “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” with Whitford the featured soloist and with Adewale’s subtle but exotic percussion details also a source of fascination.
When writing “Take This Waltz” Cohen was inspired by the Spanish poet Lorca. Lyrically it’s one of his most evocative pieces but the “la la la” chorus invites audience participation and Tobin encouraged the crowd to sing along. She cited our performance at Abergavenny as one of the best of the tour. In the refined atmosphere of the Cathedral we were all a little reticent, but Christine informed us that the poorest effort to date had come at the Purcell Room in London. Too posh to sing, perhaps?
“Anthem”, with it’s famous “How The Light Gets In” lyrical couplet, was delivered as an intimate duet between Tobin’s voice and Warren’s piano and was an unexpected delight. The recorded version is performed in the same format with the pianist’s role taken by Gwilym Simcock who also provided the arrangement.
This delightful palette cleanser was the prelude to the closing “Suzanne” with the Tobin/Robson arrangement representing a complete transformation of the song. Introduced by Adewale’s percussion and Whitford’s bass the song is given a perky Brazilian style makeover that turns Cohen’s dirge into a celebration. It’s arguably the most radical interpretation on the album and ensures that Tobin & co’s performances of Cohen’s material conclude on a high note.
A deserved encore proved to be a setting of a poem by one of Tobin’s literary favourites, the Brooklyn based poet Eva Salzman (born 1960). Appropriately titled “Bye Bye” the piece had been performed previously on Tobin’s “Sailing To Byzantium” tour in support of her album featuring settings of the Irish poet W.B.Yeats. Tonight’s version featured Warren’s use of prepared piano sounds in a series of exchanges with Robson’s blues tinged guitar.
Tobin’s re-working of Cohen has attracted a compelling amount of critical praise and has also proved to be extremely popular with audiences. Tonight’s show was a typically professional performance that did full justice to its source material but with the singer and her musicians putting their own stamp on some of Cohen’s best songs. The Irish born Tobin is rightly regarded as one of our best jazz singers and her band includes some of the finest players in the UK. I may have seen this show before but it was still gripping and enthralling and with Warren and Adewale in tow there were plenty of new things to focus on with Warren’s accordion playing proving to be something of a revelation. I wouldn’t expect anything but excellence from Christine Tobin and this concert was a great way to bring the curtain down on Brecon 2014.
Orchard can congratulate themselves on another successful Brecon Jazz Festival. The resurrection of Captain’s Walk proved to be an inspired idea and appeared to be hugely popular with audiences despite the inclement weather on Sunday. In general the concert events were well attended and Orchard’s policy of bringing the festival back to the street ensured that the town centre was busy and vibrant, particularly on the Saturday. Meanwhile Fringe events seemed to be happening in pubs, clubs, bars and caf?s all over town and the old “Brecon buzz”, so noticeable in 2013, was still very much in evidence. Scheduling clashes entailed that it was impossible to see everything one might have liked, but making choices is part of festival life and the programme certainly included something for everybody with a wide variety of jazz styles represented. It was good to see home grown Welsh talent rubbing shoulders with leading British, European and American names.
I’m not sure if Orchard have now fulfilled their contract. If so then I hope they decide to renew, the past three years under their stewardship have seen the festival getting back on track and beginning to recreate past glories. Here’s to 2015.
From Deborah Hancock via Facebook;
Thank you Ian for your very generous review. I could not have been more surprised or delighted. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole Brecon weekend as a punter, steward and performer. It was a real treat to meet like minded folk enjoying themselves.
I am amazed at the level of detail and knowledge in your reviews. They seemed an accurate and levelled account of what was happening. It must take you hours. Your passion for the subject is evident.
Thanks once again. Debs Hancock