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Cwmwl Tystion / Witness

Cwmwl Tystion / Witness

by Ian Mann

April 06, 2021


A considerable triumph for Tomos Williams. His ambitious and intelligent compositions are brilliantly played by a hand picked, all Welsh ensemble featuring some of the country’s leading musicians.

Cwmwl Tystion / Witness

“Cwmwl Tystion / Witness”

(Ty Cerdd TCR029))

Tomos Williams – trumpet, Francesca Simmons – violin, saw, Rhodri Davies - harp, electronics,
Huw Warren – piano, Huw V Williams – bass, Mark O’Connor – drums

“Cwmwl Tystion / Witness” is a jazz suite composed by the Welsh trumpeter and composer Tomos Williams, performed by the sextet of musicians detailed above. The title has also become a band name and the line up also includes the visual artist Simon Proffitt who provided the live visuals during the group’s tour in June 2019. Examples of Proffitt’s work can be seen as part of the album packaging.

The music on the album was recorded at live performances at Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea and Café Oto in London as part of a six date tour. The tour was supported by the Arts Council of Wales and the album appears on the Cardiff based record label Ty Cerdd, an organisation devoted to supporting all forms of Welsh music.

The initial inspiration for “Cwmwl Tystion” came from Williams’ immersion in the music of his fellow trumpeters Leo Wadada Smith and Ambrose Akinmusire, and also that of saxophonist Matana Roberts, 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”.

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?”).

The music of the seven part suite celebrates the history, culture and landscape of Wales and asks questions regarding its identity, both past and present. The six piece instrumental line up is comprised entirely of Welsh musicians, several of them bandleaders in their own right.

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) and “Llef” (2016) have both 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. My review of Khamira’s début album can be read here;

Williams’ 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”.

The “Cwmwl Tystion” suite commences with “Mynyddoedd Cymru” (or “Mountains of Wales”), a twenty one minute celebration of the Welsh landscape and its ever changing moods. Introduced by O’Connor at the drums, subsequently joined by Huw V Williams’s bass and then by the rest of the ensemble, the piece expresses both the beauty and mystery of the landscape. Warren’s sometimes turbulent piano replicates the rush and tumble of a mountain stream, the leader’s trumpet combines with Davies’ harp to convey the grandeur of the scenery, while Simmons’ violin introduces a folk element alongside the jazz and improv inclinations. Simmons, recently seen on Grayson’s Art Club, is a key component in the music, her violin helping to bring an air of Celtic mysticism to the proceedings. She also proves to be a highly capable improviser, combining effectively with Huw V Williams’ bowed bass as the music moves into more freely structured territory. The Welsh mountainscapes can be fierce and threatening as well as beautiful and mysterious, as expressed by a tumultuous section featuring the blazing of the leader’s trumpet, the pounding of the piano and the visceral, guitar like sounds of Davies’ electronically manipulated harp. An extended drum led episode featuring the consistently excellent O’Connor then leads to a final, more lyrical episode representing the calm after the storm and featuring the sound of Tomos Williams’ Miles Davis inspired muted trumpet.

“Glyn Tawe” is a new arrangement of a traditional Welsh folk tune by Simmons and Warren, who perform the piece as a duo. The beautiful, slightly melancholic sound of the violin is augmented by the lyricism of the piano as Warren demonstrates his versatility and sensitivity as a musician. The piece represents a delightful musical ‘palate cleanser’ and a highly effective contrast to the labyrinthine complexities of the earlier Mynyddoedd Cymru”.

The title of “Paul Robeson ac Eisteddfod y Glowyr 1957” references the occasion that the celebrated Afro-American singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson addressed the 1957 Miner’s Eisteddfod in Porthcawl. As a political activist Robeson had established strong ties with the Welsh mining community and was sympathetic to their struggle. At this time, with McCarthyism rampant in America,  Robeson had been blacklisted and his passport confiscated, thus he spoke and sang to his Welsh comrades via an international telephone line from the US.
Robeson is still revered in Wales, a fact reflected by Williams’ composition. Musically the piece opens with a feature for the extraordinary harp playing of Davies, a leading figure on the UK improvised music scene who brings something of the ‘extended technique’ of freely improvised jazz to the playing of the harp. Simmons also features strongly in the arrangement, imaginatively teamed with the leader’s trumpet,  and there’s a joyous and expansive solo from Warren at the piano. Huw V Williams’ solo double bass excursion is eventually joined by the avant garde flourishes of interior piano embellishments and provides the link into the next movement, “Lyfrau Gleision 1847”.

Translating as “Blue Books” the phrase “Lyfrau Gleision” refers to the three volume Parliamentary Report of 1847 that actively discouraged the use of the Welsh language and of the teaching of it in schools. Signs instructing pupils to “Welsh Not” became a familiar sight in Welsh classrooms and I recall seeing such an object on display in Brecon Museum.
The anger evoked by this disparaging of Welsh culture can still be felt all these years later and here finds expression in the clangorous sounds of Davies’ electronically distorted harp, Tomos Williams’ fiery, eloquent trumpeting and the eerie, other worldly wail of Simmons’ saw, a little akin to the sound of the theremin.  Pianist Warren also emerges as an increasingly forceful presence and the whole piece is driven along by the muscular but flexible and intelligent rhythm section of Huw V Williams and Mark O’Connor.

The near sixteen minute “Pa Beth yw Cenedl?” ( or “What is a Nation?”) skilfully merges three Welsh folk songs, “Castell Rhos y Llan”, “Loer Dirion” and “Marwnad yr Ehedydd”. In this respect it follows on from Tomos Williams’ work with Burum, a group that specialises in jazz arrangements of Welsh folk tunes. But in the context of Cwmwl Tystion the music takes on an additional political dimension that grants it an even greater power and significance. Tomos Williams and drummer O’Connor have worked together in both Burum and Khamira and they usher in the piece as a duo, their well established rapport combining both power and eloquence. In time they are joined by Huw V Williams’ double bass and Warren’s piano as the piece continues to unfold. In many ways the performance is a showcase for the leader, whose plangent playing recalls that of his trumpet heroes, Davis, Smith and Akinmusire. I’ve heard a lot of Tomos’ playing in recent years and he’s never sounded better. Welsh struggle is epitomised by turbulent passages featuring trumpet alongside Simmons’ violin, alternately mournful and impassioned, before Warren eventually breaks free with a dazzling piano solo. A later, more subdued passage of unaccompanied piano provides the link to a dialogue with Davies, featuring the mbira like sounds of the harp as the music reaches deep into avant garde territory, with muted trumpet and eerily bowed violin also eventually being introduced. It is perhaps befitting that the piece seems to end with something of a ‘musical question mark’.

The title of “Tryweryn 1965” refers to a more recent episode in Welsh history and the drowning of the Welsh speaking village of Capel Celyn to create Llyn Celyn, a reservoir supplying the English city of Liverpool. The slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn (Remember Tryweryn) has been drawn or painted at many locations throughout Wales and represents a plea to the people of the country to support and protect the language.
Busily interlocking piano and harp patterns are joined by double bass and alternately keening and soaring violin, with trumpet only added towards the end. Even in the virtual absence of conventional kit drumming this is still a highly rhythmic and vibrant piece.

The closing “Pa Beth yw Dyn?” (“What is Man”) opens with an ominous electronic rumble that is eventually superseded by the more conventional sound of double bass, then by drums, played with bare hands I’d surmise, and piano. Davies adds an electronic drone akin to the sound of an alarm clock, a wake up call later augmented by the harsh, guitar like sounds of heavily distorted harp.
The leader’s trumpet is added to the mix as the piece advances, seemingly implacably, before the rest of the group hand over to the trio of Warren, Huw V Williams and O’Connor as the pianist brings a touch of flowing lyricism to the proceedings, thereby helping to conclude the album on an elegiac note.

“Cwmwl Tystion” represents a considerable triumph for Tomos Williams. His ambitious and intelligent compositions are brilliantly played by a hand picked, all Welsh ensemble featuring some of the country’s leading musicians. The pieces cover a wonderfully broad stylistic and dynamic range, combining jazz, folk, electronic and contemporary classical influences, all infused with a healthy free jazz / avant garde mentality.  There is a strong spirit of adventure and also a convincing element of political commitment that helps to give the work a discernible attitude and ‘edge’. This is also music that is rich in terms of colour and texture and which is evolving constantly, helping to maintain the listener’s attention throughout.

Although I’m English I have strong family connections in Wales and I enjoyed learning about the inspirations behind the compositions, these only serving to add to my appreciation of the music. However, having said that the music stands up magnificently on its own terms. Any reasonably adventurous listener chancing upon one of these pieces played in isolation on the radio would surely appreciate the quality of both the writing and the playing. “Cwmwl Tystion” compares extremely well with similarly conceptual works by Williams’ trumpet heroes Ambrose Akinmusire and Wadada Leo Smith.

My only regret is not having seen a live performance of “Cwmwl Tystion” when it was premièred in 2019. Although the applause has been edited off the CD the frisson of live performance is still readily discernible in the playing, with every individual right on top of their game, but with everybody also functioning superbly as a team player.

I was already familiar with the playing of both Tomos and Huw V Williams and also with that of Warren and O’Connor. Thus it was Simmons and Davies who were revelations for me. I was aware of Davies’ pedigree as an improvising musician but had never actually heard him perform. In an era when the sound of the harp in a jazz context is becoming increasingly popular and familiar Davies pushes the instrument into previously uncharted areas. Note to self – check out his playing in other contexts.

In the meantime there is this excellent album to enjoy. “Cwmwl Tystion” has enjoyed universally excellent reviews, including one from the esteemed music writer Richard Williams on his Blue Moment blog. It certainly represents Tomos Williams’ most ambitious and successful work to date, a real high water mark in his musical career. Let’s hope that he is able to give more live performances of the suite in the event of life ever returning to something resembling ‘normal’.


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