by Ian Mann
August 18, 2021
Ian Mann enjoys the second full Sunday of music at The Castle Hotel and two very different performances from the Capital City Jazz Orchestra and the Dee Byrne / Rebecca Nash Quartet
“Wherever You Are”
Brecon Jazz Festival 2021
The Castle Hotel, Brecon, Sunday 15th August 2021
I explained the rationale behind the 2021 Brecon Jazz Festival, incredibly the 38th, in my coverage of the first full Sunday of the Festival here;
This year’s Festival is a ‘hybrid’ production featuring a mix of live and online performances. Both of today’s events played to a live audience in the ballroom of the Castle Hotel and an online audience worldwide, with the performances being filmed and recorded by a team from Ratio Studios, based in nearby Merthyr Tydfil, and transmitted by the French hosting company Vialma.
Today’s concerts featured two very different acts, the sixteen piece Cardiff based Capital City Jazz Orchestra, who delivered two sets of swinging big band jazz with its roots in the swing era, followed in the evening by a quartet co-led by the London based musicians Dee Byrne (alto sax) and Rebecca Nash (keyboards). The quartet featured a much more contemporary sound, focussing exclusively on the compositions of the co-leaders.
CAPITAL CITY JAZZ ORCHESTRA
We start with the CCJO, a Cardiff institution that was first established in 2007 to play regular big band nights at the famous Cardiff venue The Four Bars Inn, later Dempsey’s.
With a line up featuring some of the leading jazz musicians in South Wales the CCJO quickly established a loyal following and besides its regular performances at the Four Bars at Dempsey’s it has also appeared at the Brecon and Swansea Jazz Festivals and at the Welsh Proms. The CCJO has regularly backed visiting guest vocalists and instrumental soloists and I recall seeing the band perform with guest vocalist Lee Gibson at the 2015 Swansea International Jazz Festival.
The CCJO was founded by alto saxophonist Ceri Rees, who also acts as the band’s musical director and still leads the current line up, which comprises of;
Ceri Rees – alto sax, musical director
Julian Tucker – alto sax
Dic Hamer, Tommy Harris – tenor saxes
Jenny Weir – baritone sax
Bob Moeller, Gethin Liddington, Rob Smith, Neil Martin – trumpets & flugels
Gareth Roberts, Gwyn Daniels, Phil Jarvis – trombones
Roger Argente – bass trombone
Jim Barber – piano
Don Sweeney – double bass
Paul Shepherd – drums
The band took to the stage dressed in uniform black and were seated behind distinctive music stands adorned with images of Cardiff landmarks, such as City Hall and the Millennium Centre.
Following a bilingual introduction by Heulwen Thomas the CCJO launched into a swinging version of Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, generating an authentic big band sound with features for pianist Jim Barber, veteran tenor man Tommy Harris, bassist Don Sweeney, a late but highly capable ‘dep’, and drummer Paul Shepherd. There was also some spectacular high register trumpet in the final choruses. This was the first time in ages that I’d seen an ensemble of this size perform and I’d forgotten just how loud and powerful a jazz big band can be, even without the benefits of amplification.
Next up was “Scoot”, by the celebrated big band composer and arranger Neal Hefti, another swinging arrangement featuring a mix of muted and open bell brass sounds from the trumpets and trombones. Solos came from Dic Hamer on tenor sax, Jim Barber on piano, Julian Tucker on alto sax, Rob ‘Teddy’ Smith on trumpet and Gareth Roberts on trombone.
This was the CCJO’s first public performance since March 2020 and the band members were all raring to go. There was to be no letting up in terms of energy levels as the ensemble tackled an arrangement of Buddy Rich’s “Big Swing Face” with solos from Barber (piano), Tucker (alto) and Smith (trumpet).
An inventive swing arrangement of the Jerome Kern / Oscar Hammerstein song “Ol’ Man River”, from the musical “Show Boat”, slowed the pace a little with solos from Harris (tenor), Smith (trumpet), Barber (piano) and, as the music gathered momentum, Shepherd at the drums. The closing stages of the song also included a striking solo tenor sax cadenza from Harris.
Even more relaxed was an arrangement of trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” with solos from Tucker on alto, Liddington on his distinctive four valved flugel horn, Hamer on tenor and Barber at the piano.
An arrangement of the enduringly popular George Gershwin composition “Summertime” proved to be a feature for trombonist Gareth Roberts, a bandleader in his own right and a highly popular figure with jazz audiences in South Wales and beyond. Other soloists included Barber at the piano and Shepherd at the drums.
A highly charged first set concluded with Gordon Goodwin’s tune “Count Bubba” in an arrangement that included ‘section solos’ - episodes that saw the sax, trombone and trumpet sections playing short unaccompanied passages. More conventional jazz solos then followed from Harris on tenor and Liddington on trumpet.
A rumbustious arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” got the second set off to a rousing start with the featured solos coming from Tucker on alto, Smith on trumpet, Harris on tenor and Shepherd at the drums.
Rees then elected to cool things down with the only genuine ballad of the afternoon, an arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s beautiful “Chelsea Bridge” that saw Liddington demonstrating his lyricism on both flugelhorn and trumpet.
Dic Hamer was featured on tenor on his own arrangement of the Duke Pearson jazz waltz “Jeanine”, with Liddington also soloing on trumpet.
Bob Mintzer’s composition “Carla”, presumably named for Carla Bley, introduced something a little more contemporary in an arrangement that was rich in terms of colour and texture and featured some unusual horn voicings. It also acted as a vehicle for the piano soloing of Jim Barber, a highly versatile musician who is an important presence on the Cardiff jazz scene.
Next up was a highly successful version of the Lennon / McCartney tune “Norwegian Wood” in an arrangement written by Bob Holman for the Buddy Rich Big Band. This proved to be both rousing and swinging and included features for trombonist Phil Jarvis and alto saxophonist Julian Tucker.
The second set concluded with an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll”, introduced by Barber at the piano and featuring further solos from Liddington on flugel, Hamer on tenor and Barber himself at the keyboard.
The annual big band concert, previously a dinner/dance event, has proved to be one of the most popular items on the Festival programme in recent years and this afternoon’s event was particularly well attended and very well received, with many of the audience members getting to their feet to give the CCJO a standing ovation.
The inevitable encore was an arrangement of Count Basie’s “Whirlybird” with solos from Barber at the piano, a ‘section solo’ from the saxes and further features for Harris on tenor and the impressive Shepherd at the drums.
Although he was content to remain part of the ensemble and didn’t feature as a soloist Rees led the band with an astute balance of discipline and humour, his wry Welsh wit helping to endear him and the band to the crowd.
This was a hugely successful event, one that both the audience and the band enjoyed immensely as the shackles of the last seventeen months were finally kicked off with this display of rousing, fiercely swinging big band jazz. The CCJO are highly effective as an ensemble and the band also contains a number of exceptional soloists. I think it’s probably fair to say that everyone went home happy.
DEE BYRNE / REBECCA NASH QUARTET
Dee Byrne – alto sax, Rebecca Nash – keyboard, Will Harris – double bass,
Matt Fisher - drums
The evening concert featured the music of a new quartet assembled by co-leaders Dee Byrne (alto sax) and Rebecca Nash (keyboards).
Nash is an old friend of the Festival and performed in this same room as part of the Steve Waterman Big Band at the 2019 Festival. She is also a member of Byrne’s quintet Entropi, appearing on both of that band’s album releases. Nash also released her own solo début, “Peaceful King” on the Whirlwind Recordings imprint in 2019. This featured her quintet Atlas, a group that includes tonight’s drummer, Matt Fisher.
In addition to leading Entropi Byrne is involved with a myriad of other projects, among them the electro-improvising duo Deemer, the Anglo-Swiss sextet MoonMot and the international quintet Ydivide, led by Swiss drummer and composer Clemens Kuratle.
Byrne also collaborates frequently with fellow saxophonist Cath Roberts (baritone). The pair are both part of MoonMot and also work together as an improvising duo. Byrne is also part of Roberts’ large ensemble Favourite Animals and the pair have also co-led the quartet Word of Moth. As organisers they have established the Lume musicians collective, running their own Luminous record label and co-ordinating the Lume Festival, a celebration of jazz and improvised music.
Given Byrne’s commitment to free improvisation and the avant garde I was wondering just what she and Nash would be bringing to Brecon. I couldn’t imagine them toning things down and performing a standards set.
But Byrne is also a composer, having written for MoonMot as well as for her own Entropi group. Therefore I wasn’t too surprised to find that Byrne’s compositional contribution to today’s set was comprised of material sourced from the two Entropi albums “New Era” (2015) and “Moment Frozen” (2017). Today’s line up also featured three fifths of Entropi – Byrne, Nash and drummer Matt Fisher. The Entropi line up also includes trumpeter Andre Canniere and bassist Olie Brice.
Today’s quartet represented a brand new configuration with Byrne, Nash and Fisher joined by bassist Will Harris, a highly versatile and adaptable musician with a presence on both the Bristol and London jazz scenes.
Tonight’s single set featured compositions from both of the co-leaders, with Byrne and Nash each announcing their own tunes. Both writers drew their inspiration from the world of science, the Entropi material drawing upon Byrne’s fascination with space and cosmology. Meanwhile several of Nash’s pieces were sourced from a recent Bristol Jazz Festival commission based on the periodic table and titled “Redefining Element 78”, the element in question being platinum. It is intended that these compositions will be recorded for a forthcoming album.
It was Byrne’s “Space Module”, from the “New Era” album, that opened the proceedings, ushered in by the spacey electric piano sounds of Nash’s Nord Stage keyboard and with Byrne taking the first solo on fluent but incisive alto. Nash’s electric piano was complemented by Harris’ bass counter melodies and the often explosive prompting of Fisher at the drums. This evolved into a full on drum feature from Fisher, who was proudly wearing his new Brecon Jazz Festival T shirt - “all logoed up” as he later put it.
Nash’s first composition “Iridium” formed part of the “Element 78” suite and wasn’t named after the New York City jazz club as I first thought. This was ushered in quietly by Byrne’s unaccompanied alto and Fisher’s brushed drums and featured the gently shimmering sounds of Nash’s keyboards, intertwining atmospherically with Byrne’s alto and with Harris picking up the bow to add eerie arco bass at the close.
From Entropi’s “Moment Frozen” album came “Elst Pizarro”, named for a mysterious astral body that was discovered circulating in the asteroid belt in 1979. This was ushered in by Fisher at the drums, his cymbal shimmers joined by Nash’s spacey keyboards and Byrne’s subtly probing sax melody lines. As the music gathered momentum Nash soloed more expansively on electric piano while Byrne’s playing acquired an edge that was sometimes reminiscent of Ornette Coleman. The contributions of the co-leaders were spurred on by Fisher’s increasingly dynamic drumming.
Nash’s “Ruthenium” represented a second piece from the “Element 78” project, another quiet piece introduced by the composer on unaccompanied electric piano, later joined by Fisher’s cymbal shadings and eventually bass and alto sax, with Byrne soloing towards the close. Nash’s ethereal keyboard sounds reminded me of Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way” and of early Weather Report, possibly with a hint of UK prog rock added to the mix. In any event it was all very atmospheric and highly effective.
From the “Moment Frozen” album came Byrne’s “Stelliferous Era”, introduced by the dramatic sounds of incisive alto sax, doomy arco bass, other worldly keyboards and a combination of cymbal shimmers and mallet rumbles. Harris then switched to pizzicato bass to pick out a motif that provided the springboard for extended solos from Nash on keyboards and Byrne on alto, these followed by a powerful drum feature from Fisher.
Nash dipped into the “Peaceful King” repertoire for “Dreamer”, a composition that in its recorded version features the voice and lyrics of Birmingham based jazz singer Sara Colman. Inspired by the compositional methods of the late, great pianist John Taylor, himself once a performer at Brecon Jazz Festival, the piece has a suitably song-like construction and here featured Nash’s lyrical keyboard soloing and Byrne’s soaring alto, with Harris and Fisher adding sympathetic and intelligent rhythmic support.
The set closed with Byrne’s “Interloper”, a composition about an “unwanted intruder” sourced from the “Moment Frozen” album. An abstract introduction featuring the sounds of fluttering saxophone and clattering drums ushered in an edgy sounding piece that its composer has described as being “dark and aggressive”, with Byrne’s subsequent alto solo proving the point by introducing elements of wilful dissonance.
The crowd was smaller than it had been for the CCJO and there had been a little applause for the individual soloing. As a long time admirer of the music of both Byrne and Nash I thought this had been an excellent set, but I was a little anxious about how my fellow audience would react to this programme of contemporary jazz in a performance that largely eschewed conventional 4/4 rhythms and clearly demarcated soloing. I needn’t have worried, those were that there had clearly enjoyed it and this was music that embodied the adventurous spirit of BJFs gone by.
A highly positive audience reaction resulted in calls for an encore, something that Byrne and Nash clearly hadn’t planned for. After some discussion they decided to reprise Nash’s composition “Iridium”, agreeing to perform it as a “meditation”. Although the contemplative mood was retained this second performance was very different, this time commencing with the sound of Harris’ unaccompanied pizzicato bass, to which were added keys, brushed drums and the gentle incantations of Byrne’s alto sax, now underscored by the sounds of Fisher’s mallets on drums and cymbals. Finally the piece ended as it began with the sound of Harris’ softly plucked bass.
Speaking to Byrne and Nash afterwards both were delighted to have been able to return to live performance and were pleased with how this Festival date had gone, with Byrne also selling a number of Entropi and MoonMot albums.
I shall now look forward to the release of the forthcoming Ydivide album and to the recording of Nash’s “Element 78” project. This was an excellent set that proved that adventurous contemporary jazz still has a place at Brecon and that the Festival’s booking policy remains admirably diverse.
Brecon Jazz Festival continues until 31st August 2021. For full details of the extensive live and online programme please visit http://www.breconjazz.orgblog comments powered by Disqus