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Sunday at Brecon Jazz Festival - 9th August 2009


by Ian Mann

August 16, 2009

More great music as Brecon comes back from the brink (Photo: Tim Dickeson)

Sunday at Brecon Jazz Festival 2009

9th August 2009
There had been some earlier events but for me Sunday began explosively with a supercharged session from saxophonist Derek Nash’s funk combo Protect The Beat. They played with a commitment and vivacity that quickly blew the cobwebs away I can tell you. 

Bad weather had scuppered my plans to see the group in Pontypool earlier in the year so I was keen not to miss out again. Having seen Nash in one of his other incarnations with Sax Appeal I knew we were in something good but this performance exceeded expectations.

Funk is a difficult genre to carry off convincingly and on record it can sound over produced and tepid. There was none of that here, Nash’s musicians may have incredible chops but they also have the groove and spirit to make this music really work. They hit the ground running and didn’t let up for the duration of this one and a half hour show.

Protect The Beat boasts an all star cast whose session credits look like a musical who’s who. Nash plays with Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, guitarist Tim Cansfield was formerly with Ray Charles and now works with Annie Lennox and The Bee Gees. Drummer Darby Todd is a highly talented rock musician who plays to enormous festival crowds with former Darkness singer Justin Hawkins yet here he was giving his all in front of less than a hundred in the Theatr Brycheiniog Studio. Multi talented Arden Hart appeared on both keyboards and trumpet and with regular bass player Winston Blissett of Massive Attack fame absent Roger Inniss completed the line up.
The band were clearly up for it from the opening number “Champagne and Truffles”. Todd and Inniss immediately hit an irresistible groove as Nash blasted out a passionate solo on his electric hooked tenor. The leader quickly built up a head of steam as he prowled the stage stomping and throwing shapes,  quite clearly getting totally into it. Hart followed his lead with a sparkling keyboard solo and after Todd blazed through a series of drum breaks it was Cansfield’s turn in the spotlight with some powerful, rock style guitar. It was an inspired start and one that quickly won over any doubters.

The old sixties hit “Sunny”  was mutated by the band into a glorious funk workout with solos from Nash on effects laden alto, Hart on keyboards and Inniss on electric six string bass. Birmingham based Inniss fitted seamlessly into the band’s repertoire, I’d guess that he’s depped for them several times before.

Next came an inspired arrangement of the Annie Lennox song “Cold” with Nash now switching to soprano sax. The highlight here was a searing solo from Cansfield at guitar. Apparently there’s a you tube version of this available if you want to see for yourself.

In many ways Protect The Beat are the natural heirs of the Morrissey/Mullen band that acquired such a following in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Indeed Jim Mullen has guested regularly with PTB over the years. Mullen has been unwell recently and Nash wished him well when introducing “Dragonfly”, an old Mullen tune dating back to the M/M era. Hart featured here on trumpet with Nash adding a searing alto solo over the rhythm section’s heavy grooves.
Nash’s “Draggin’ On The Ground”  is a tune that also appears in the Sax Appeal repertoire. Here it featured Hart soloing on muted, Milesian trumpet plus Nash on alto in an impressive new arrangement. 

“JBH” appropriates the funk grooves of James Brown in incendiary fashion. Nash and Hart soloed first but this was primarily a feature for bassist Inniss. His dexterity on his six string instrument was astonishing, at times almost sounding like Dick Dale’s surf guitar, at others almost futuristic through the dramatic use of electronic effects. This was followed by the impressive Todd’s thunderous, polyrhythmic series of drum breaks. It was all jaw dropping stuff.

Hart’s improvised gospel style intro took us into Nash’s tune “Rockin’ Rabbit” from the group’s most recent album “Intrepid”. Hart took the main solo followed by the composer on r’n'b style tenor.

Nash’s enthusiasm is contagious and an ecstatic crowd clamoured for the group to return for an encore. This was a slice of funk in the Pee Wee Ellis style led off by Nash’s tenor. A stunning dialogue between Inniss and drummer Todd was the real delight here. The drummer looks like a rock star, he certainly doesn’t look as if he belongs at a jazz festival but he’s a superb technician and clearly loves playing this music. 

I’ve written about Nash’s incredible work ethic before. Musician, band leader, studio owner, engineer/producer, record label boss he does it all. It was 1.45pm and it was just typical of a sweat drenched Nash that he had to be at Cardiff Airport by 3.00pm to fly to Edinburgh and play a gig with Jools Holland that evening. He’d given 100% here and still had a prestige gig later in the day. I’m sure he did just the same there too. Sums the man up I reckon. 

I saw Don Weller produce a magnificent performance here in 2007 when he appeared at Captain’s Walk as part of the Three Tenors alongside Art Themen and Mornington Lockett. This was one of the highlights of that years Stroller programme and if Weller couldn’t quite match those heights this time round there was still plenty to enjoy in his set.

Weller is one of the stalwarts of British jazz, a gentle giant of a man with a highly individual sound on the tenor saxophone. Joining him here were the versatile pianist Dave Newton, busy bassist Alec Dankworth ( my third sighting of him this weekend) and drummer Dave Barry.

The quartet opened with an unusual Latin tinged version of “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”  with Weller, Newton and Dankworth soloing and Barry enjoying a number of drum breaks. Essentially all the music was in the theme/solos/theme format and there were times when it appeared that the quartet were rather “going through the motions”.

Weller’s ballad “Juice”  was introduced by the excellent Newton at the piano. This man is one of the UK’s most adaptable pianists and he was superb throughout , getting the most out of the upright piano provided in the Studio venue. Weller soloed twice, once with remarkable tenderness the second time more forcefully and Dankworth once again demonstrated his qualities on the bass. 
Weller is particularly adept at casting standards in a fresh light as a subtly disguised “Hey There, You With The Stars In Your Eyes” proved. The solo order remained the same Weller/Newton/Dankworth/Barry but this was another interesting exploration of an old standard.

Newton’s driving blues “Old Blues Eyes” was the most uptempo number of the set and for me the most enjoyable. The pianist was the star of the show here with his introduction, sparkling solo and attention grabbing duet with drummer Barry. 
A change of pace for Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” with Weller showing his way with a ballad, languid yet inventive. Newton’s duet with Dankworth was another highlight and Barry took a back seat tastefully deploying the brushes. I found the drummer to be the weak link of the quartet, often too loud and sometimes lacking in subtlety. The other three couldn’t really be faulted although compared to his three tenors performance Weller did seem to be playing within himself.

A version of Junior Mance’s “Dis ‘Ere” (presumably a response to Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere”) played us out, a mix of blues and hard bop featuring strong solos from Weller’s tenor, Newton on piano, arguably his best so far, and Barry’s drums.

There was no encore and this was the shortest set I was to see all festival. It may be that Weller is not in the best of health these days, certainly the big man was feeling the heat in a small and crowded venue very badly and he was probably glad to get off. Dankworth was a late replacement for the absent Andy Cleyndert but he seems more than capable of turning his hand to anything so I doubt if this was a factor. There was good stuff here, particularly from Newton but I couldn’t help but feel a degree of disappointment comparing this to what we had already seen.

Superficially this gig bore a strong resemblance to the Don Weller performance we had just seen. Once more we were assembled in the Studio to hear a veteran of the UK scene and I was hoping that King could come up with something a little more convincing.

This time there was to be no disappointment. King and his quartet worked their way through an imaginative programme of standards and originals with drummer Martin Drew a vast improvement on Barry. Inspired pianist Steve Melling topped even Newton’s performance and bassist Mick Cody, a late addition, held down the bottom end in steady but undemonstrative fashion. 

Alto saxophonist King is a world class player, one of the best soloists the UK has produced. Originally inspired by Charlie Parker he has enjoyed a long and distinguished career working with leading musicians from both sides of the Atlantic. Now in his late sixties he rations his solos a little more these days but he is still fleet, powerful and inventive.

The quartet commenced with a version of Chick Corea’s composition “Inner Space”. This complex tune brought the best out of soloists King and Melling with Drew engaging in a couple of drum breaks. Drew is something of a man mountain, a huge presence behind the kit, He provides dynamic propulsion and swing but never overpowers the soloists or gets in their way. The tightly controlled power of his performance throughout the set was highly impressive.
Pianist Melling is a versatile musician. He worked as musical director on “A Place In The Sunlight” the latest album by singer Esther Miller ( a recording reviewed elsewhere on this site) but he also loves playing music in the bebop mould as here. I first encountered his playing when he was a member of the Clark Tracey quintet about twenty years ago but he’s done so much since then, working right across the jazz spectrum. Melling has worked regularly with King for a number of years and writes for the quartet too. His “V’s Groove” followed, introduced by Drew’s drums and featuring strong solos from Melling, King and bassist Cody.
King is also a composer and has in recent years has moved away from just playing standards. He likes to deploy his alto in fresh settings and his “World Of Trane”  is in effect a mini suite dedicated to the memory of John Coltrane. Here King’s transfers Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” approach to the alto. The tone of the piece has the same air of spirituality that Coltrane brought to his music and King incorporates two of Coltrane’s best known themes, “Resolution” from “A Love Supreme” and later “My Favourite Things”. Melling’s solo included dazzling, thundering right hand runs in the style of McCoy Tyner with the dynamic Drew approximating the role of Elvin Jones. This was an impressive, moving tribute to Coltrane’s genius.

Billy Strayhorn’s masterful ballad “Lush Life” was given an appropriately respectful reading by King proving that he can blow cool as well as hot. This was largely a solo performance with the band only coming in right at the end on this quiet tour de force.

While King went off for a “rub down” as he put it Melling enjoyed a piano feature on a magnificent version of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood”. Melling and Cody soloed first followed by Drew deploying only brushes on an absorbing solo passage for drums, a “difficult thing to pull off” as King informed us.

“Joshua”  by Victor Feldman took the set storming out. This fine bebop theme was a vehicle for further thrilling solos from King, Melling and Drew.
The energy and passion put into these performances by King and his colleagues ensured that this was a memorable gig with the quality of the playing uniformly high. Melling is very much King’s right hand man and his contribution was immense allowing King to solo sparingly but effectively. Melling was dripping by the end of the set having clearly put a real shift in. Drew too was hugely impressive, especially in the hot conditions. Compared to the Weller group who were broadly similar they’d gone up another gear. Surely nobody felt short changed here.


This was something of a “wild card” event for me. Although he’s been around for years (incredibly he’s aged 73) Manu Dibango has largely been off my radar. Born in Cameroon but now based in Paris Dibango scored a US hit back in 1973 with “Makossa Soul”. Michael Jackson later “borrowed” parts of it for his hit “Wanna Be Starting Something”. Dibango sued, Jackson settled out of court.

Dibango’s music stirs jazz, soul, funk and Afro beat into a highly danceable stew. His lyrics and stage patter are delivered in an undecipherable (to English ears) blend of French and the Douala language of Cameroon so for once I can’t give you song titles and personnel. Mind you this was music for dancing not analysis so I ended up putting down my notebook and getting on my feet.
Dabango’s band came on first with their leader blowing his alto off stage and eventually coming on in the style of the “great entrance”. He’s a real showman but there’s a discipline behind the genial fa?ade and his seven piece band is incredibly well drilled. They deploy keyboards,electric bass, guitar,tenor sax (doubling flute & clarinet), kit drums, percussion and voice with the leader on alto sax , voice and occasional keyboards. They hit the kind of grooves only African musicians can and the whole thing is vibrant, colourful and uplifting and a great way to end the festival. As at the Seth Lakeman gig on Friday the use of video screens was again highly beneficial to the enjoyment of the music, picking out the subtleties behind the good vibes. 

Dibango offered tributes to some of his musical heroes, firstly Afro beat star Fela Kuti with keyboards and guitar taking the instrumental honours, the latter with a scorching solo.

A tribute to Sidney Bechet honoured Dibango’s jazz roots with a thrilling dialogue between Dibango’s alto and his fellow reeds man on clarinet. Guitar, keyboards and bass were featured too.

The tune “Malenka”  slowed things down as the group’s stunning, statuesque female singer clad in a beautiful gravity defying white dress delivered an assured vocal performance with Dibango for once stepping out of the limelight.
From then on it was party time all the way with the old hit “Makossa Soul” getting an outing. The charismatic Dibango had the whole crowd on it’s feet dancing and clapping along. At one point the musicians left the stage one by one leaving only the drummer and percussionist to stage a furious drum battle. This was dazzling display of percussive pyrotechnics and the extrovert percussionist later proved himself to be a pretty decent singer too, almost upstaging his boss. 

Despite the delayed start everybody loved this gig and went home smiling. In the final analysis Dibango himself doesn’t actually do that much but with his shaven head, colourful clothing and omnipresent shades the man just exudes cool and charisma. He blows some sparse but effective alto and occasional soprano and delivers semi spoken vocals in his unique patois but his main role is as the figurehead for this incredibly talented band. His fellow reeds player is very much his right hand man and his keyboard/vocalist, guitarist and rhythm section are just incredible players, sharp, funky and right on the money. A great live experience and proof that music truly is an international language. 

It was great to see one of the UK’s best known and most enjoyable festivals come back from the brink. Summer without Brecon would be unthinkable and this year we got some genuine summer weather to go with it which was a godsend to the new organisers in their first year. I thoroughly enjoyed all the music I heard and I’m looking forward to 2010 already.
Obviously it wasn’t perfect. There were some delays but I was relatively unaffected by these and it was a shame that there were no official outdoor venues at all, particularly in view of the glorious weather. The event didn’t quite take over the whole town in quite the same (positive) way as it has done in the past. Ticket prices for individual events were reasonable and good value for money but did start to mount up if you wanted to make a weekend of it. The popular Stroller programme was much missed by many I’m sure, but perhaps it was a little too generous towards the fans and arguably contributed to the demise of the previous administration. Nevertheless it would be nice to see the format return in some form in future years. If not the burgeoning Fringe may prove to be an acceptable substitute. The fact that the festival was rapidly put together may account for the lack of programmes and other merchandise, something I’m sure will be remedied next year.

As for the programming it was probably sensible to go for the tried and tested in the first year with Brit jazz royalty-King and Barnes (didn’t that used to be a brewery?) plus the Traceys and the Dankworths-well represented. These players have loyal followings and were highly popular but next year it might be good to see some younger, more adventurous UK players , members of the F-ire and Loop Collectives perhaps. I’m sure we’ll start seeing some of the big American names returning again too. Lakeman and Dibango, both sell outs, were inspired choices for something a little bit different.
As regards the actual scheduling of the music the main disappointment for me was the late night appearance by the Anouar Brahem Trio. I’d like to have seen this but the 11.00pm start time was just too late. With the best will in the world and no matter how good the music is it’s hard to enjoy it if you’re struggling to keep your eyes open. Only “party slot” music should be scheduled for this hour when staying awake isn’t an issue.

Other minor quibbles were the lack of air conditioning at the Theatr and my wife complained about the state of the toilets at the same venue. Also the Town Council’s edict that all fast food outlets closed at 11.00 pm found us going hungry on Friday. I suspect that there may be strong pro and anti jazz lobbies on the council. A bit more tolerance and less of a “health and safety” obsession in future years would be appreciated. Don’t bite the hand that feeds, the loss to the local economy received a lot of column inches when the original festival went under.

All these are relatively minor quibbles and should be interpreted as constructive criticism. It’s great to have Brecon back, this years festival was a definite success and hopefully there will be many more to come.

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