by Ian Mann
August 16, 2012
Now under new management the 2012 Brecon Jazz Festival got off to a great start. Ian Mann enjoys performances by Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion and the Kit Downes Quintet.
Friday at Brecon Jazz Festival, 10/08/2012
The much loved institution that is Brecon Jazz Festival has had a difficult few years. After years of sailing close to the financial wind the original festival went into liquidation in 2008, a situation exacerbated by the appalling weather experienced over the festival weekend. To add insult to injury this was the 25th anniversary of the festival, hardly the way to celebrate what should have been a joyous silver jubilee.
The Brecon brand was too important to let die and the festival franchise was taken over by Hay Festivals in 2009 as part of a three year deal. A successful stop gap festival in 2009 was followed by a larger event in 2010, also a success, but by 2011 Hay seemed to be trying too hard to impose their own imprint on the festival. Popular venues such as the Theatr Brycheiniog and Brecon Guildhall were abandoned in favour of a “tented village” in the grounds of Christ’s College. Sound leakage from one venue to another became an increasing problem and with the festival becoming increasingly distanced from the town it seemed as if Brecon Jazz was in danger of losing its soul.
Jazz fans voted with their feet (or wallets) and despite a strong programme attendances in 2011 were disappointing with the result that Hay Festivals, having fulfilled their contract, declined to take up their option to run the festival in 2012, preferring instead to concentrate on their own 25th anniversary celebrations.
Once again the Arts Council of Wales put the Brecon franchise out to tender with the Cardiff based media group Orchard eventually taking up the reins. Headed by Pablo Janczur the group set about putting a programme together at short notice and it’s to their credit that they were able to come up with a diverse programme of twenty two concerts featuring performers from several different generations and spanning a wide range of the jazz spectrum. Living legends such as Stan Tracey and Ginger Baker rubbed shoulders with emerging talents like young Cardiff based pianist Joe Webb.
It was also clear that Orchard had been listening to the fans. Theatr Brycheiniog and the Guildhall became official festival venues again, during the last year of the Hay tenure they’d been snapped up by the burgeoning Brecon Fringe Festival. Orchard also took the step of re-introducing a strong Welsh element to the programme, something that had largely been missing in recent years, appointing pianist Huw Warren as artist in residence and working closely with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. There were also joint promotions with local jazz clubs in Brecon and Abergavenny which I’ll look at in more detail elsewhere.
Whilst Hay had sought to distance the Festival from the town Orchard brought back elements of the much missed street entertainment the characterised the Brecon of the 80’s and 90’s. This was best exemplified by the free “pop up gig” by Sax Machine on Sunday afternoon which I’ll look at in more detail in my Sunday coverage. In other words Orchard are trying to bring back some of the things that made Brecon so popular and so unique in the first place.
And it has to be said that it worked. Feedback on the festival seems to have been almost universally positive and audience numbers were highly encouraging despite the rival attraction of the Olympics.
If anything Brecon seemed to benefit from the feel good factor generated by the games, the overall atmosphere was friendly and relaxed and the concert audiences knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Hopefully the new look festival met its financial targets and Orchard will be able to build on its success with a bigger and better festival next year.
And so, on with the music. My thanks to Tim Powell of Orchard who supplied concert tickets for myself and my wife, I was able to get to see pretty much everything I wanted to see, subject of course to some of the tricky choices that are inevitably part of festival life. But the fun started even before the first official concert. In the early years of the festival Brecon was visited each summer by members of De Krukke, the carnival band of Breda in Holland. The madcap Dutchmen were treasured visitors, traditionally playing at the opening and closing ceremonies on the long abandoned open air stage in the town square and popping up all over town long before the phrase “pop up gig” had even been thought of . After an absence of ten years it was good to welcome them back as part of the Fringe programme. Once again they were playing several gigs across a range of venues but their 4.00 pm appearance at the canal basin outside Theatr Brycheiniog was effectively the opening ceremony for both the official festival and the Fringe, I’d like to think that Orchard had something to do with getting them back after all this time.
As the crowds gathered outside the Theatr the Dutchmen made a grand entrance-arriving on a canal boat with the trademark sound of the sousaphone booming out to herald Brecon 2012. Sporting their usual brightly coloured clothes and exotic head gear they eventually moored and played a typically entertaining set on the quayside in glorious sunshine to the obvious delight of a happy festival crowd, many of them sampling their first pint of the weekend. Their brilliant horn driven version of the old Golden Earring hit “Radar Love” remains an essential part of the Krukke experience and there was also an incongruous medley of English Music Hall tunes from the time of World War One, “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”, “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” etc. What a fun way to kick off the weekend, and one that for seasoned Brecon visitors like myself brought back many happy memories. Let’s hope this is the start of a renewed regular association with our colourful friends from Breda.
On to the concert performances and the first of several difficult choices. Legendary drummer Ginger Baker’s new band Jazz Confusion was scheduled opposite pianist Huw Warren’s Worldwide Wales trio featuring Norwegian drummer Thomas Stronen and Austrian bassist Peter Herbert. I’d not seen the latter perform live before and would have liked to to have done so but Baker’s legendary status carried the day, he’s a name from my long distant youth but again one that I’d never seen in the flesh. Tim Powell suggested I dipped into both but with the Cathedral (Warren) and the Theatr (Baker) being at opposite ends of the town this wasn’t really practicable. Also I’ve attended enough gigs as a fan over the years to know how irritating comings and goings can be at seated gigs so as a mark of respect to Brecon’s paying customers I eschewed the numerous opportunities to “double up” over the course of the weekend. With my journo’s hat on that was one of the few advantages of the previous regime’s tents, you could wander in quietly and stand at the back or the side without disturbing anybody.
GINGER BAKER’S JAZZ CONFUSION
Baker will forever be most closely associated with Cream, the short lived but hugely influential late 60’s group he formed with guitarist Eric Clapton and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce. The original “power trio”, the three split acrimoniously in 1968 only to reform for a series of sell out London reunion shows in London in 2005.
Despite his rock and blues past Baker’s jazz credentials are strong having started out in trad and mainstream groups among them those of Acker Bilk and Terry Lightfoot. He got into blues and r’n'b through Graham Bond and Cyril Davies before eventually ending up as a superstar with the hugely popular Cream and the short lived “supergroup” Blind Faith. Baker has continued to produce a wide range of music ever since, embracing jazz, rock and blues plus a long held fascination with African music, particularly the rhythms of Nigeria, Ghana and Morocco. Baker’s jazz collaborations have included recordings with bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Bill Frisell plus a fruitful association with trumpeter and composer Ron Miles on the 1998 album “Coward Of The County” from which a number of tonight’s selections were drawn.
Jazz Confusion brings together Baker’s jazz and African leanings in a quartet featuring himself on kit drums and the Ghanian born Abass Dodoo on percussion. Veteran jazz/funk saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis (of James Brown fame) is on tenor with the hugely versatile bassist Alec Dankworth rounding out the group. The new band had debuted with a sold out performance at Ronnie Scott’s and a successful appearance at Glasgow Jazz Festival. Tonight they produced a value for money performance lasting for an hour and half featuring a mix of jazz and bop standards plus originals by Baker, Ellis and Ron Miles. Unsurprisingly the music was hugely rhythmic with Dankworth adding a tremendous drive to complement the work of the twin drummers. As the sole real melody instrument a lot of responsibility rested on Ellis’ burly shoulders and he rose to the challenge magnificently.
The quartet began with an arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s classic “Footprints” with Ellis taking the first solo, his tone hard edged, swinging and authoritative. Dankworth followed on deeply resonant double bass and the tune climaxed with something of a drum battle between Baker and Dodoo. Many of the tunes followed the same pattern, a format that could soon have become boring but was saved from this fate by the musical and rhythmic inventiveness and sophistication of Dankworth, one of the most imaginative bass soloists around. The percussion duels between Baker and Dodoo actually gained in intensity as the set developed and despite the apparent restrictions of a chordless instrumental line up the quartet held the attention of the audience throughout, gradually building up a considerable head of steam in the process.
Ellis’ punchy, accessible “Twelve Or More Blues” proved to be a big crowd favourite building from a solo tenor sax intro through solos by Ellis and Dankworth to a stirring series of sax and drum exchanges. Ellis’ hard hitting, good humoured amalgam of jazz and blues was followed by Charlie Haden’s “Ginger Blues”, specifically written for Baker and here featuring further fine soloing from Ellis and Dankworth.
First heard on the “Coward Of The County” album Baker’s tribute to his former mentor Cyril Davies mixed blues forms with African rhythms, a reminder of the close links between traditional African music and the mutated form that emerged in America as the blues. An arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Groovin’ High” represented Ginger’s acknowledgement to the pioneers of bebop.
Baker’s unaccompanied drums introduced Ron Miles’ tune “Ginger Spice” which the composer swears pre-dates the Spice Girls although some critics have been less than convinced. In any event it’s a great tune here given extra piquancy by Dankworth switching to electric bass to lay down a big, fat groove subsequently soared over by Ellis’ Middle Eastern inflected tenor. Dankworth later took a Jaco Pastorius type solo above a double percussive barrage. Thrilling stuff.
Next Baker tossed a Thelonious Monk tune into the mix that I couldn’t quite put my finger on (I think it may have been “Bemsha Swing”). This was notable for Baker’s brilliant cymbal work and another Dankworth electric bass solo, this time similar in execution to the style of Back Door’s Colin Hodgkinson.
The next piece was written by Baker and named after a town in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco but which I won’t attempt at trying to spell here. Baker, who lived a notoriously wild life back in the 60’s ran his car off the road somewhere near here but miraculously lived to tell the tale. The music itself had a distinct North African influence with solos by Ellis on tenor and Dankworth on electric bass above the exotic rhythms laid down by Baker and Dodoo. The percussionist is an extrovert performer with a great sense of fun and he was heard to good effect here.
Baker’s “Oi!” began boppishly but deployed a catchy hook to encourage an enjoyable element of audience participation (we were required to shout “Oi!” periodically, great fun).
The set closed with an imaginative arrangement of Sonny Rollins’ classic jazz calypso “St. Thomas” with Ellis’ tenor whinnying impatiently and Dankworth laying down a powerful underpinning bass groove. But the fireworks came with the most exciting percussion feature of the night, beginning with a solo from the exuberant Dodoo and developing into a full on battle with Baker as Dodoo made stunning use of a set of suspended small cymbals. A thrilling end to a surprisingly enjoyable concert.
The South London born Baker’s terse announcements had been delivered in a breathless cockney rasp, the weakness of his voice belying the controlled power of his drumming. Baker may not play with the flamboyance and sheer brute power that he did in his Cream days but he’s still an immaculate time keeper with finely honed jazz chops. For a man now aged 72 his performance was highly impressive both in terms of technical expertise and physical resourcefulness. It was a very hot night and at at the end of the set a fragile looking Baker had to be helped from the stage. Nobody could deny that he’d given it his all. A very good set from a highly accomplished band of seasoned professionals.
KIT DOWNES QUINTET
Up at Brecon Cathedral young pianist and composer Kit Downes offered something very different. Only twenty six Downes is a prodigious talent whose début album “Golden” was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize. A piano trio album “Golden” also featured the talents of double bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren, both of whom were in tonight’s line-up.
“Quiet Tiger”, the follow up to “Golden” expanded the line up to a quintet with the addition of James Allsopp (reeds) and French born cellist Adrien Dennefeld. I saw this configuration plus second saxophonist Josh Arcoleo give a brilliant performance at the 2011 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. These days the quintet has a regular working line up featuring Downes, Gourlay, Maddren, Allsopp and cellist Lucy Railton and it was this grouping that played at Brecon.
Tonight’s programme included music from “Quiet Tiger” and from the impending new album “Light From Old Stars” which is due to be released by Basho Records in the spring of 2013. They began with “Boreal”, the opening track from “Quiet Tiger”, a delicate piece of chamber jazz that acted as a kind of overture to the newer “What’s The Rumpus?”, a title inspired by the movies of the Coen Brothers. The two pieces were linked by a solo passage from Maddren with “Rumpus” also incorporating solos from Allsopp on tenor sax, Downes on piano and Railton on cello. Downes and Railton introduced elements of wilful dissonance into their solos, a link perhaps to the cellist’s earlier work on London’s free improv scene.
“Outlawed” , Downes’ dedication to American guitarist and composer Bill Frisell saw Allsopp moving between clarinet and bass clarinet on a piece that embodied Frisell’s virtues of melodicism and simplicity, a kind of less is more approach exemplified by Maddren’s implacable but hugely effective drum groove. Impressive solos were delivered by Gourlay on double bass and Allsopp on bass clarinet.
Computer games inspired the title of the episodic “Wandering Colossus”, another new addition to the group repertoire. Downes is still only 26 and admits to still being obsessed with the games console. The intro including spookily strummed and plucked piano innards and eerie, almost subliminal cello. Allsopp’s bass clarinet provided rich patterns and textures with Downes eventually emerging as the featured soloist.
Another newie, “Trico Tarico” was a delightful duet between Downes and Railton, a piece with a semi classical feel but full of hypnotic patterns, dark sonorities and a surprisingly wide range of dynamics as Railton played both pizzicato and with the bow.
Railton’s cello also introduced “Two Ones” with Allsopp beginning on clarinet before switching to to tenor sax as the piece segued into the more orthodoxly jazzy “Bley Days”, Downes dedication to Canadian born pianist and composer Paul Bley. Feverish solos from Allsopp on squalling tenor and Downes on piano were underpinned by Maddren’s restless rhythms. The fiery duo exchanges between Allsopp and Maddren almost seemed out of place in such a refined space, but both were really going for it and were awarded with a round of spontaneous applause.
The quintet closed with two further dedications to Downes’ musical heroes. The young pianist was introduced to the music of the late Swedish pianist and composer Jan Johansson by saxophonist Iain Ballamy. Johannson was one of the pioneers of the art of introducing folk melodies to jazz and despite his premature death in 1968 he has been an enormous influence on the course of contemporary Scandinavian jazz. Downes described Johansson’s music as “an influence in this quintet” and as “open and spacious but dark”. Downes tribute, simply entitled “Jan Johansson” embodied these virtues with Maddren’s softly brushed introduction ushering in a simple folk like melody underpinned by a contemporary, Magnus Ostrom type drum groove. The rich blend of piano, cello and clarinet provided the crepescular element to which Downes had alluded.
The concert closed with Downes tribute to the tragic figure of Skip James, one of the founding fathers of the delta blues. From “Quiet Tiger” this is one of Downes’ most accessible pieces with a simple and memorable blues based theme (which sounds as if it may be based on the “St. James Infirmary Blues”) that is strangely moving and here provided the basis for some inspired soloing from Downes above the rich textures generated by cello and bass clarinet. Maddren’s incessant groove also acted as a spur to the piano soloist on a piece that really raised the energy levels and concluded the concert on a high note.
Much as I enjoyed tonight’s performance I felt that overall it fell short of the sextet’s Cheltenham appearance last year. Perhaps it was the venue, the Cathedral certainly suited the kind of “chamber jazz” approach the quintet adopted for much of the time but my memories of Cheltenham are of the music being far more open and of the soloing much more exuberant and unrestrained. Also the piano was sometimes rather buried in the mix and I couldn’t always hear Downes quite as clearly as I would have liked. Regular Brecon attendee Roger Hudson suggested that with regard to the Cathedral “the smaller the group the better the sound” (he’d also been there for Huw Warren) an argument I couldn’t fault and one which was supported by the brilliant concert by Andy Sheppard’s Trio Libero the following day. The Sheppard gig was the best thing I’d seen in the Cathedral since Hakon Kornstad’s solo sax and electronics show in 2010 which suited the venue perfectly, another strong argument in favour of Roger’s theory.
Minor misgivings aside the experienced Baker and the youthful Downes (and not forgetting the crazy Dutchmen from Breda) had got the 2012 festival off to an excellent start.
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