Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Julia Biel

Julia Biel Trio, Brecon Jazz Festival, 09/08/2015.

Photography: Photograph of Julia Biel by Bob Meyrick

by Ian Mann

August 20, 2015


A very impressive performance from Biel and her colleagues. The leader was in fine voice throughout and her instrumental skills were a revelation.

Brecon Jazz Festival 2015

Julia Biel Trio, Chapter Stage at Brecon Cathedral, 09/08/2015

The final concert of the 2015 Brecon Jazz Festival was this performance at Brecon Cathedral by the London based singer and songwriter Julia Biel.

Biel made a big impression a decade ago with her début album “Not Alone”, a collection of songs co-written with Oriole guitarist Jonny Phillips and performed by a band packed with F-ire Collective luminaries including Phronesis bassist Jasper Hoiby and Polar Bear drummer Sebastian Rochford.

Biel seemed destined for a bright future but instead seemed to disappear from view as Phillips decamped to Spain to explore the worlds of Latin and flamenco music more fully. Meanwhile Biel worked intermittently with guitarist and songwriter Ben Watt, once of the band Everything But The Girl. She also sang with Soothsayers, the group co-led by her life partner, the multi-instrumentalist Idris Rahman.

Fast forward to 2015 and Biel’s long awaited second album has finally arrived, again to a flurry of critical acclaim, not least from the Jazzmann. “Love Letters and other Missiles” is a collection of primarily self penned songs with intelligent, sometimes highly personal lyrics and finds Rahman installed as Biel’s main creative partner as he plays a key role not only as a musician but also in the arrangement and production processes. Hoiby and Rochford also play on the album and I was a little disappointed that neither played at this gig as both were present in Brecon on the day of the show, Hoiby having performed earlier with Phronesis and Rochford with Sons of Kemet.

Instead tonight’s line up was a trio that featured Biel on both piano and electric guitar together with Rahman on electric bass, rather than the saxophones and clarinets that he is normally associated with. The group was completed by drummer Saleem Raman, no relation to Idris and a new name to me but a musician who delivered an excellent performance to complement the efforts of his colleagues. This is Biel’s regular working group and the trio have been playing some of the biggest jazz festivals in Europe over the course of the summer and have also made their first forays into the United States.

Biel’s music has always mixed elements from different musical genres including jazz, folk, pop and rock and at the time of “Not Alone” Biel’s singing was compared with artists as diverse as Billie Holiday and Bjork. This time round her confessional, streetwise lyrics and cockney inflected vocal delivery have evoked comparisons with the late Amy Winehouse. “Love Letters…” is less folk influenced than its predecessor and in this pared down trio situation there was something of an indie rock mentality about the playing and the presentation. What was also notable was just how much playing Biel was required to do as the main melodic and harmonic focus of a three piece band, tonight for the first time I truly realised what a highly accomplished instrumentalist she has become.
With this in mind I now found myself making comparisons with Sarah Gillespie, even though Biel’s songs are largely less obviously political.

Inevitably the bulk of tonight’s material was sourced from “Love Letters…” and the performance began with Biel solo at the piano singing the evocative “You made me write a love song”.

Introducing her band she moved to guitar for “Secret party” which featured Idris on backing vocals and Saleem’s brushed, hip hop style grooves. This was the first of a series of guitar songs that included the album highlight “We watch the Stars”, a co-write with Idris that here included a rousing drum feature from Saleem ‘the Dream’. The new song “Say It Loud” then dealt with the subject of openness in human relationships (or the lack of it) and the English national trait of reticence and emotional suppression.

Biel returned to the piano for “Licence To Be Cruel” a song from the album exploring the notion of love as a battlefield and “a reflection of the everyday emotional violence that we do to each other”, a concept that also gives the album its title. The new ballad “Out Of My Control”, performed solo introduced a greater degree of tenderness and another new song dedicated to Biel’s young niece Emily was positively playful with a lively trio performance that again featured Idris’ backing vocals.

Another clutch of guitar songs included album opener “When the Sun goes in”, the new, hard hitting political song “Dead Set Rough” and a straight ahead new rock song that may well have been called “Wild Horses”, not to be confused with the Rolling Stones - or even Susan Boyle!
A brief revisit to ” Not Alone” and the Jonny Phillips co-write “By The Light Of You” concluded this section on a gentler note.

Biel returned to the piano for “You do my head in” before rocking out on the lascivious “Out of control” with its vigorous piano and drum exchanges. Next up was the single “Nobody loves you like I do”.

It was back to guitar for the recriminations of the revenge song “Playing You” with both Ra(h)mans adding their voices to the choruses. Incidentally Idris’ pianist sister Zoe had played this same venue the night before in a duo performance with Courtney Pine (bass clarinet). Zoe also makes a cameo appearance on “Love Letters…”.

It was back in 2006 that I last saw Julia Biel play live, a somewhat disappointing set in the foyer space at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff. She and her excellent band (Idris Rahman, Jonny Phillips, Jasper Hoiby, Seb Rochford and cellist Ben Davis) were ill served by shoddy sound engineering and an unsympathetic venue. Tonight was just so much better and Biel has become a much more confident stage performer in the intervening years. Here she had the audience providing vocal harmonies on the only cover of the set, Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”. Simone, along with Billie Holiday was a formative influence on Biel but Julia has now very much developed a style of her own that touches many bases and sounds thoroughly contemporary.

A lengthy, value for money show that clocked in at just under two hours concluded with the furiously rocking confessional of “Little girl” with its “is there anybody out there” refrain. The piece was crowned by an explosive drum feature from Saleem and was possibly the loudest thing ever heard in Brecon Cathedral as the three musicians switched into rock power trio mode.

This was a very impressive performance from Biel and her colleagues. The leader was in fine voice throughout and her instrumental skills were a revelation, as was Idris Rahman’s highly efficient performance on electric bass, an instrument that I didn’t even know he played. I also enjoyed Saleem Raman’s contribution, he and Idris also play together in the twelve piece afrobeat ensemble the Fontanelles.

Even in this pared down setting the quality of Biel’s voice and of her songwriting shone through and in a set that was much longer than I had anticipated the amount of good quality new material was also highly encouraging. Let’s hope the gap before next Julia Biel album is much shorter than the one between the first two!

Although less well attended than most of the other events I’d seen over the course of the weekend (well it was getting late on the last day) Biel still got a good reaction from the Brecon crowd and album sales looked to be correspondingly healthy.

The Festival as a whole was very well attended and very efficiently run and Orchard can once more be proud of their efforts. There were one or two unfortunate programme clashes, an inevitable part of festival life, but there were one or two instances of events only overlapping by a few minutes, something that the organisers might like to address next time round with a view to maximising ticket sales as well as ensuring customer satisfaction. Overall though these are minor quibbles about a festival that is still very much on track and still delivering some excellent music across a variety of jazz genres and beyond.   

blog comments powered by Disqus