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Cwmwl Tystion / Witness

Cwmwl Tystion II / Riot!

by Ian Mann

December 18, 2023


The Cwmwl Tystion project succeeds brilliantly and this new album represents another major artistic statement from Tomos Williams.

Tomos Williams

“Cwmwl Tystion II – Riot”

(Ty Cerdd Records TCR043)

Tomos Williams – trumpet, Soweto Kinch – saxophones, spoken word, Eadyth Crawford – vocals, Orphy Robinson – vibraphone, Aidan Thorne – double bass, Mark O’Connor – drums

“Riot!” is the second work to emerge from the Welsh trumpeter and composer Tomos Williams’ “Cwmwl Tystion” series.

The title “Cwmwl Tystion” (literally ‘a cloud of witnesses’) is originally Biblical in source and was derived from a poem by the Welsh poet, pacifist and nationalist Waldo Williams (1904-71) called “Beth yw Dyn?” (or “What is Man?”).  Cwmwl Tystion has now become a band name

The first Cwmwl Tystion album was released by the Cardiff based label Ty Cerdd in 2021 and was a live  recording documented at concert performances at Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea and Café Oto in London as part of a six date tour supported by the Arts Council of Wales. 

The music consisted of “Cwmwl Tystion / Witness”,  a seven part suite written by Williams that celebrated the history, culture and landscape of Wales, whilst also posing questions regarding Welsh identity, both past and present. A six piece ensemble featured Williams alongside Francesca Simmons (violin, saw), Rhodri Davies (harp, electronics), Huw Warren (piano), Huw V Williams (double bass) and Mark O’Connor (drums).

The first Cwmwl Tystion recording was a considerable success, garnering a substantial amount of critical acclaim, not leat from the Jazzmann, who reviewed the album here;

Tomos Williams has featured on the Jazzmann web pages on numerous occasions, primarily as the co-leader, with his saxophonist brother Daniel, of the jazz/folk sextet Burum.  The band’s albums “Caniadau” (2012), “Llef” (2016) and “Eneidiau” (2022) have all reviewed elsewhere on this site, as has a live appearance at the 2014 Brecon Jazz Festival.

Williams is also a member of Khamira, which sees a quartet of Welsh jazz musicians, all of them associated with Burum, collaborating with a trio of Indian born musicians to create a unique musical and cultural hybrid of jazz, Indian classical music and Welsh folk. Khamira’s eponymous debut album (2017) and the follow up “Undod / Unity” (2022) are both favourably reviewed elsewhere on this site. As a paying customer I have also enjoyed live performances by the band on different tours at the Borough Theatre in Abergavenny and the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.

Williams also leads Seven Steps, a jazz quartet dedicated to exploring the music of Miles Davis.
His other musical activities include his long term membership of the Welsh folk group Fernhill, and a duo with Welsh triple harpist Llio Rhydderch, with whom he recorded the album “Carn Ingli”.

Cwmwl Tystion is Williams’ most ambitious project to date and was initially inspired by Williams’ immersion in the music of his fellow trumpeters Leo Wadada Smith and Ambrose Akinmusire, and also that of saxophonist Matana Roberts with her celebrated “Coin Coin” series of recordings, as Williams explains;
“I had been listening to – and was moved by – a lot of overtly political music by musicians such as Leo Wadada Smith, Ambrose Akinmusire and Matana Roberts. I felt that the time was right for a Welsh contribution to this landscape. I wanted to create a piece that both celebrated and questioned the idea of Welshness and referenced notable events in Welsh history”.

This basic tenet extends to this second Cwmwl Tystion recording, but the new work sees Williams leading a new group of musicians, with only himself and O’Connor remaining from the previous incarnation. Williams says of the new line up;
“During lockdown it dawned on me that the core ‘Cwmwl Tystion’ concept could be developed for a different band and set of musicians. I spent some time thinking about the musicians I would most like to work with and who also have a political leaning and an extra layer of meaning to their own music. Orphy Robinson and Soweto Kinch presented themselves as obvious choices, I’ve been following both their careers for a long time and it was a thrill to get to perform with them night after night. Eadyth Crawford represents a new generation of young Welsh vocalists who are fearless in their creativity, - she’s a phenomenal talent”.

I remember being impressed by Crawford when she guested with Khamira at the Chapter live performance. Meanwhile Thorne and O’Connor represent the rhythm section for both Khamira and Burum and were therefore the natural choices for this current project.

With Williams now naming trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist John Zorn as additional musical influences the “Riot! Suite” is another seven piece work that examines Welsh history and politics and again asks pertinent questions with regard to Welsh identity. It draws inspiration from moments of rebellion and civil unrest in Wales in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

“As perennial underdogs there is a tendency in Wales to romanticise all Welsh riots”, comments Williams, “I wanted therefore to highlight a few slightly more uncomfortable events in our nation’s history”.

Like its predecessor the album is a live recording, this time documented at shows in Swansea, Bangor and Rhayader during the group’s tour in December 2021. The performances also included live visuals by Simon Proffitt, who is credited as a full band member, and who had also been part of the first Cwmwl Tystion project. Examples of his work can be found as part of the album packaging, which includes an informative bilingual booklet explaining the inspirations behind the music.

The album commences with “Cadw ty mewn cwmwl tystion”, which translates as “Keeping house in a cloud of witnesses”, the title a direct quote from the previously mentioned Waldo Williams poem. It incorporates Crawford’s beautiful accapella rendition of the Welsh folk song “Aderyn Du” (translating as “Blackbird”), which introduces the piece. Gradually bowed bass, drums and horns are added to her vocals as the music subtly edges closer to the avant garde, the combination of folk song and free jazz making for a fascinating combination. As Crawford’s vocals eventually subside Robinson comes into his own with a passage of unaccompanied vibes, later underscored by bowed bass, and eventually drums. Thorne and O’Connor then combine for a rousing section featuring the sounds of drums and arco bass. The music continues to ebb and flow, with squalling horns briefly joining the rhythm team. Thorne then puts down the bow as Robinson’s vibes swim briefly back into focus before later combining with bass and drums to underscore the exchanges between Kinch’s alto and the leader’s trumpet. The piece finally resolves itself with a passage of unaccompanied pizzicato bass from Thorne, who plays a major role throughout this opening movement. This is a piece that is constantly shapeshifting and once the opening vocal section has finished one suspects that the rest of the music is largely improvised, with the performances different every night.

The first piece to directly address the subject of civil unrest is “Merthyr Rising 1831”, which addresses the rebellion against declining wages that was led by Richard Lewis, better known as Dic Penderyn, who was hanged in Cardiff in 1831 and remains a Welsh folk here to this day. The Merthyr rising is also thought to be the first time that the red flag was used as a symbol of worker’s revolt.
Williams’ opening trumpet salvo represents a call to arms and he’s also the first featured soloist, dispensing angry flurries of notes above busy, turbulent rhythms generated by bass, drums and vibes. Kinch takes over on saxophone, probing deeply as the ensemble goes into sax trio mode, the hyperactive rumble of bass and drums underpinning Kinch’s increasingly belligerent proclamations as the music builds towards a rousing free jazz climax. The second half of the piece, perhaps representing the aftermath of the rising, features a soundscape of harsh electronic sounds, presumably generated by Robinson, a musician who makes extensive use of electronics in his role (with pianist Pat Thomas) as a member of the duo Black Top. The electronic timbres gradually become more gentle and ambient, paving the way for Crawford’s singing of the Welsh folk song “Dyffryn Cletwr” (“Cletwr Valley”).

“Tonypandy Riots 1910” addresses the miner’s revolt that protested against low wages and poor living conditions. The Home Secretary of the time, Winston Churchill, sent in the troops to assist the local police force in the quelling of the rebellion. More than a century later there is still a degree of antipathy towards Churchill in this corner of South Wales.
Thorne and O’Connor link up to create a rolling groove on a modal style piece that combines attractive, folk inspired melodies with the consistently impressive Robinson emerging as the first featured soloist. He’s followed by the similarly impressive Kinch, who solos with urgency and incisiveness. It represents a considerable coup for Williams to have got these two giants of UK jazz involved in this project.

If the anti-capitalist riots of Merthyr 1831 and Tonypandy 1910 are now generally regarded as being necessary, justified and essentially ‘good’ then there is a great deal more ambivalence about the subject of the next piece, “Tredegar Riots 1911”. Part of the wider “Great Unrest” which swept South Wales in 1910 and 1911 this uprising saw rioters burning and looting Jewish homes and businesses. The antisemitic aspect of the Tredegar Riots remains a contentious issue that still divides historical opinion.
The opening section of this movement features the hymn tune “Leoni”, which is sourced from a traditional Hebrew melody. Crawford’s wordless vocals are featured in conjunction with trumpet, sax, vibes and the mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers of O’Connor at the drum kit. There’s an air of sadness and lament about this passage, with O’Connor’s contribution becoming more dramatic as the piece progresses. The reflective mood continues into the next section, which emerges from Thorne’s plucked bass motif and features the melancholy ring of Williams’ trumpet, subtly underscored by bass and drums, with O’Connor still largely deploying mallets. Crawford and Kinch eventually return for a reprise of the opening melody.

The title of “Beth yw byw?” or “What is Living?” represents another quote from that Waldo Williams poem. Tomos Williams introduces the piece on trumpet, his bright and ebullient playing underscored by the martial rhythms of O’Connor’s drums. Kinch subsequently takes over on tenor sax, unaccompanied at first and with his playing heavily steeped in the blues. The blues influence extends into Crawford’s interpretation of the Welsh folk song “Si Hwi Hwi”, the lyrics of which were written by the North Walian quarryman and poet Rowland Hill, who in 1853 emigrated to Vermont where he became heavily involved with the abolitionist movement. His lyrics are written from the point of view of a mother whose baby is to be separated from her and sold into slavery. Crawford’s powerful and emotive vocals do ample justice to the subject matter, it’s a visceral vocal performance enhanced by the bluesy, passionate wail of Kinch’s sax. The piece resolves itself with a second extended trumpet and drum passage as Williams and O’Connor perform the Welsh folk melody “Ffarwel I Gymru” (“Farewell to Wales”).

Like the earlier “Tredegar Riots 1911” the “Cardiff Race Riots, 1919” are also mired in controversy. Part of wider rioting across the UK that resulted from racial tensions in port cities the Cardiff riots, which were centred in Tiger Bay, saw groups of white men attacking men of Yemeni, Somali and Afro-Caribbean descent, with the riots also spreading to the neighbouring ports of Newport and Barry. Williams says of the piece;
“I knew I wanted there to be rapping. Soweto’s spoken word lyrics bring the riots to life and highlight the relevance of events a century ago to our 21st century context”.
The music embraces an element of funkiness, which stems from Thorne’s opening bass motif and O’Connor’s stark drum grooves. Crawford adds soulful vocals that migrate between Welsh and English lyrics. She’s superseded by Kinch’s spoken word section, which sets the 1919 riots into their historical context, a history lesson in the form of a razor sharp rap, but with a reference to the Windrush Scandal to bring things right up to date.

The album concludes with “Mahmood Mattan” a tune that addresses another shameful episode in Cardiff’s history. In 1952 Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somali man living in Tiger Bay was wrongfully convicted of the murder of Lily Volpert. He was hanged in Cardiff prison and became the last person to be executed in Wales. It took seventy years before his family finally received an apology from South Wales Police. Courtesy of having family in South Wales I was aware of Mattan’s story, but I suspect that most English people are totally unaware of it.
Musically the piece is part lament, part anthem, paced by O’Connor’s solemn drum grooves and featuring the luminous shimmer of Robinson’s vibes and Crawford’s vocals as she intones Mattan’s name. The performance also includes a sinuous but lustrous alto sax solo from Kinch.

The album concludes with a reprise of Crawford singing “Aderyn Du”, this time entirely unaccompanied. Although presented as part of the “Mahmood Mattan” track it represents the perfect way to bookend and close the suite and the audience applause is truly rapturous.

Following the success of the first Cwmwl Tystion suite “Riot!” represents a very worthy follow up. The thought provoking subject matter is approached in consistently interesting ways with Williams’ writing encompassing a variety of jazz styles as well as embracing Welsh traditional music, blues, soul and even rap. Having musicians of the calibre of Kinch and Robinson on board is a huge plus, and on this evidence Eadyth Crawford must surely be a star in the making. Thorne, O’Connor and Williams himself all perform superbly and the suite coheres superbly as a whole, despite the many varied strands that make up this highly convincing musical tapestry.

The informative album booklet is good at explaining the historical inspirations behind the project and I found it an interesting and stimulating read. Having some background knowledge certainly helps to put the music into context and enhances the listener’s enjoyment of it, but having said that the music also convinces as a stand alone entity. As other reviewers have noted it’s not necessary to have a knowledge of Welsh history to enjoy the sounds.

My only regret was that I wasn’t able to get to see the music performed on that 2021 tour. I’d like to think that Williams will be able to tour with this project again, but I suspect that this is doubtful in the current economic environment,  and particularly with this stellar line up.

As a Welsh answer to Leo Wadada Smith, Matana Roberts, Ambrose Akinmusire, John Zorn and the late Don Cherry the Cwmwl Tystion project succeeds brilliantly and this new album represents another major artistic statement from Tomos Williams.


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