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Various Artists

Live: HSBC Brecon Jazz Festival 2008 - Sunday


by Ian Mann

August 22, 2008


Despite the weather it had still been a great weekend with some fantastic music. Here's to the next one.

With the weather on Sunday offering only a marginal improvement on Saturday’s downpours we decided to forfeit a visit to the Bishop’s Garden to see perennial festival favourites The Heavy Quartet.

Instead we opted for the warmer and drier confines of the Watton Marquee for a performance by another bunch of festival regulars the Pendulum Jazz Orchestra with guest soloists Julian Siegel (reeds) and Christian Garrick (violin).

Conducted by the indefatigable and larger than life Patrick Kelly, Pendulum began life as the Berkshire Youth Jazz Orchestra and made several appearances at Brecon under this banner. As Pendulum their Sunday lunchtime appearances with a variety of distinguished guests has become a festival staple. In some ways however it was unfortunate that they were pitched directly opposite the orchestra of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama who were playing at Captain’s Walk with their guest, trumpeter Steve Waterman. Big band aficionados may well have liked to have caught both.

Besides Siegel and Garrick, Kelly had also recruited a distinguished guest rhythm section featuring drummer Clark Tracey, pianist Bill Monk plus Laurence Cottle on electric bass. They augmented the seven saxes, six trumpets and four trombones to make for one hell of a big band with one hell of a big sound.

Kelly has a particular affinity for the compositions of the distinguished trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. Three Wheeler tunes were featured alongside a selection of jazz standards and a piece by alto man Pete King.

Although Siegel and Garrick handled the majority of the soloing there were also features for Monk and Cottle. But it wasn’t just about the guest musicians. There were some fine young soloists within the Pendulum ranks and they were encouraged to give of their best by the father figure of Kelly.
Piers Green on alto was particularly impressive, soloing on “Body And Soul” and duetting with Siegel’s soprano on the coda to King’s “World On A Trane”

Trumpeter Paul Giordano took the honours on “October Arrival” and shared the spotlight with Garrick and Siegel on Wheeler’s “Gentle Piece”.

Wheeler’s “Sophie” and the inevitable “Sweet Georgia Brown” were features for Garrick’s violin.
The closing Wheeler composition “Widow In The Window” saw him wailing on his solid bodied electric model alongside Cottle and Siegel on tenor. Siegel had moved between tenor and soprano and delivered several characteristically excellent solos over the course of the set.

All in all a great way to start the day.

Arnie Somogyi has been one of Britain’s “first call” bassists for many years but with his band Ambulance he is now gaining an impressive reputation as a band leader. The group’s latest release “Accident And Insurgency” has been particularly well received and Ambulance delivered an excellent set of mainly original compositions at Captain’s Walk.

Joining Somogyi were album personnel Rob Townsend (saxes), Tim Lapthorn (piano) and Dave Smith (drums). Second saxophonist Paul Booth was absent as was the album’s guest trumpeter Eddie Henderson. The dependable Neil Yates did a fine job in taking over from the American.

The set opened with a tune by the US pianist Larry Willis entitled “To Wisdom The Prize”. This proved to be the vehicle for a string of fine solos from Townsend on soprano, Yates on trumpet and Somogyi himself on bass. Pianist Lapthorn, playing in stockinged feet, as is his wont, made the first of several scene stealing contributions with a sparkling solo.

Lapthorn was at it again on Somogyi’s slyly funky “Captain Courageous” with Townsend weighing in on tenor.

“There Will Never Be Another You” proved to be the only standard of the set and was a feature for Yates’ muted trumpet.

Lapthorn’s beautiful ballad “Tumbledown” featured the velvety tones of Yates on flugelhorn alongside Townsend’s warm tenor murmurings

“Walking Wounded”, also from the pen of Lapthorn, opens the album and is one of the earliest pieces played by the band. Somogyi’s bass intro introduced a passage of almost free playing before Townsend switched from tenor to soprano for his solo. He was followed by Lapthorn, Yates on flugel and Smith.

Lapthorn also took the compositional plaudits for the closing “Solace”, a piece also sometimes played by his trio. Townsend was featured on tenor here with Yates remaining on flugel. 

Ambulance’s sparkling updating of the Blue Note sound was enthusiastically received by a large crowd who called them back for an encore. Steve Grossman’s “Take The D Train” incorporated rousing solos from Townsend on tenor, Yates on flugel, and a display of pyrotechnics from the outstanding young drummer Smith.

It had been a substantially different Ambulance set to my last sighting of the band at the 2007 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Booth and Henderson had featured here and there was a considerable electronic contribution from Townsend’s laptop, a device he did not deploy at Brecon. Then as now, however, the instrumental honours went by a short head to Lapthorn, surely one of this country’s outstanding young pianists. Greater critical and public acclaim is surely his due.

“Accident And Insurgency” will be reviewed on the Jazzmann at a later date. In the meantime this excellent set was more than enough to keep me going.

Local heroes and Jazzmann favourites the Jones O’Connor Group turned in a characteristically enjoyable set at the Beacons Venue. The four piece’s intelligent, quirky and accessible updating of 70’s Brit fusion has the potential to appeal to discerning rock listeners as well as to jazz audiences.

The group’s excellent second album “A Crow For Every Crow” (2007) is reviewed elsewhere on this site and provided the majority of the material for this afternoon’s set. Until only very recently the group’s live performances were still drawing heavily on their début album “Alpha” (2005). In case you were wondering, yes, it’s very good too.

The group consists of Paul Jones (keyboards) and Richard Jones (guitars) who aren’t brothers, and Chris (bass) and Mark (drums) O’Connor, who are. The Jones boys handle the writing, splitting the duties pretty much 50/50, in an all original programme.

Today’s set was one of the best I’ve seen the band play. The fact that a grand piano was available allowed Paul Jones to expand his sonic palette. He is a more than capable player on both acoustic and electric keyboards and also deployed his trademark Rhodes sound on the opening “Pumpkin” , later switching to synthesiser for “No Wave”.

Richard Jones is a tasteful exponent of jazz/rock guitar, whether it be providing chordal accompaniment or rocking out on a number of distinctive solos. He uses his effects judiciously and sometimes hits upon a sound reminiscent of the great Phil Miller of Hatfield And The North and National Health fame. Interestingly Jones claims never to have heard of Miller, they just came to that sound from different places-in terms of both time and geography!

The O’Connor brothers lay down a great groove for their front line colleagues. They too, avoid all the fusion cliches and add more modern influences from the likes of Polar Bear to the sound. There is even a nod in the direction of hip hop. Mark’s playing with the group is markedly different to his work with Paula Gardiner but is still full of delightful details. “True Story” from the album “Alpha” offered him a short spell in the spotlight. Chris showed up strongly on “Moondog”.

The group’s compositions are full of strong tunes and killer riffs. Other highlights of the set included memorable versions of “Johnny Two Hats” and “Dead Ahead” both from the recent album.
The hypnotic title track and the riff driven “Cinesine” are both guaranteed attention grabbers.

However the shimmering atmospherics of “Sirens”, which closes both the album and this set shows that the group are capable of sensitivity and restraint.

The Jones O’Connor Group are due to set out on a national tour in November in an attempt to bring their music to a countrywide audience. The tour will include an appearance at the prestigious London Jazz Festival.

My only criticism of the group is the unpolished nature of their stage show. Muttered discussions about which tune to play next are fine for the kind of “pick up” bands and one off aggregations that often appear at festivals. However for a regular working unit with two albums under it’s belt I don’t really find it very convincing-especially when they’ve already taken the trouble to prepare a set list!. I suspect that none of the band members really wants to be the spokesman but if they want to convince London audiences someone should really take it on. Younger bands like Empirical and Portico demonstrated this weekend that it can be done. You don’t have to tell jokes-just a few words of explanation about a song can add greatly to the enjoyment of the listener- not to mention making the reviewer’s job easier!

The Jones O’Connor Group have got the tunes, they’ve got the chops and they’ve will to succeed. They’ve even got the artwork and in jazz terms market themselves quite well in every respect except their spoken delivery. Just a little bit more slickness and professionalism in this regard would make them the complete package.

Sorry to carp lads, but I’ve got your best interests at heart. Hope the tour is a great success.

Trumpeter (and one time violinist) Henry Lowther is one of the veterans of the UK jazz scene having begun his career back in the 1960’s. This was his second gig of the day having played with Jim Mullen in their “Great Wee Band” earlier at the Guildhall. Unfortunately the hall was jam packed for that one and I couldn’t get in. Nonetheless I was looking forward to this second opportunity to see Lowther in action.

The Still Waters quintet is the main outlet for Lowther’s considerable compositional skills, but to the best of my knowledge the group has not recorded since 1997 when the album “I.D.” appeared on Paul Clarvis’  Village Life label.

Drummer Clarvis appeared with Lowther today along with other album personnel pianist Pete Saberton and bassist Dave Green, the latter also a member of The Great Wee Band. Another long time collaborator, saxophonist Pete Hurt completed the line up having taken over from the album’s Julian Arguelles.

The group opened with a segue of Lowther compositions with “Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe” flowing seamlessly into “I’ll Be Glad”. After the fanfare opening there were fine solos from Lowther on trumpet, Hurt on soprano and Saberton at the piano.

Lowther takes a delight in creating quality jazz from unlikely source material. There is a beautiful version of the Christmas carol “In The Bleak Mid Winter” on the “I.D.” album. Here he chose Richard Rogers’ “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” from the musical “Oklahoma”. An ironic choice given the weather this saw Hurt switching to tenor in a surprisingly effective rendition of the tune.

Lowther is something of a polymath and possesses a fearsome intellect. His announcements were dry and succinct, full of mordant wit and with an ironic air of the “grumpy old man” about them. The apparent influence of London’s North Circular Road on his choice of song titles bordered on the surreal.

Nevertheless “The Lights Of The North Circular” drew more fine playing from Saberton, Lowther on trumpet and Hurt on tenor. The sheer childlike joy Clarvis took in his drumming made a nice contrast with Lowther’s rounded, almost solemn trumpet tones. Clarvis was the baby of the group here, completely the opposite to his role as the “father figure” when I saw him play at Cheltenham with young improvising trio Blink. (A performance covered as part of the Jazzmann’s Cheltenham festival feature)

Saberton took the compositional honours for “The Snake And The Tiger”, a slowly unfolding piece that saw Lowther deploy both the muted and open horn with Hurt again on tenor.

Although it is over a decade since “I.D.” was released a couple of the tunes from the album still remain in the group repertoire. The beautiful “Golovec” featured a solo bass intro by the peerless Green and Lowther’s lyrical touch on flugel horn.

“Veneer Of The Week”, another North Circular inspired title (don’t ask!) saw the group up the tempo and allowed the leader to demonstrate his agility on the trumpet. There was also a feature for the irrepressible Clarvis.

Another tune from the “I.D.” album closed the set. “White Dwarf” featured staccato rhythms and solos from Hurt on tenor and another outing for Clarvis.

A knowledgeable crowd gave this quintet of seasoned musicians a great reception. It’s high time Lowther found his way to a recording studio again.

It is a shame that there is no longer an official closing ceremony in the streets, I still miss those madcap Dutchmen De Krukke.

However in this 25th anniversary year it was appropriate that the Root Doctors should have been allocated a prime “party slot” and effectively given the opportunity to close the festival.

A Cardiff institution the Root Doctors have played virtually every Brecon Festival. Their infectious blend of jazz, blues, funk and soul is a great crowd pleaser and draws it’s inspiration primarily from New Orleans and particularly from the music and imagery of Dr.John.

Trombonist and vocalist Mike Harries had been playing in trad bands in Cardiff for years before forming the Root Doctors in 1987. Despite numerous personnel changes over the years the group style has remained much the same, a musical gumbo guaranteed to get even the most staid of audiences up and dancing.

Ironically the aging Harries wasn’t well enough to join his band on stage on what was a very prestigious gig for them. However the remaining members did a brilliant job without him. The group’s material was adjusted slightly to cater for for the more prominent role taken by Harries’ vocal foil the soulful singer Sarah Campbell. There were a greater number of soul tunes tonight than when I’ve seen them previously, presumably to fit Campbell’s range. Keyboard player Dr. Gos shared some of the vocals as well as contributing some fine instrumental passages. Guitarist Hywel Maggs and saxophonist John Farrow also weighed in with some short, sharp tasty solos and bassist Gregg Evans and drummer David Lewis constituted a taut and funky rhythm section. Even without Harries on stage this was a well drilled, professional outfit.

Not that the Root doctors are about analysis. It’s all about dancing and a large crowd soon gathered at the front with Gos jumping down from the stage to pull any waverers to their feet.

Many of the old Root Doctor favourites were here from “You Can Have My Husband…” to “Tipitina”.  Norah Jones’ “Turn Me On” came as a surprise as did the samba of “Low Life” which saw the Doctors throwing another flavour into an already bubbling pot.

The biggest surprise of all was a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love” albeit in the arrangement by Madeleine Peyroux. Lets face it you wouldn’t normally expect to find Laughing Len and Dr. Root within a million miles of each other, but of course it worked brilliantly.

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed the Root Doctors. I used to love them when I first started going to Brecon but effectively their act hasn’t changed in all that time and I’d got bored with them in recent years. Having not seen them for a while it was like running across an old friend.

Musically I was impressed with their tightness, the concise but blistering solos and the way they rose to a challenge. Campbell, so often in Harries’ shadow visibly grew in confidence as the show progressed.

At the end an emotional Harries joined the group on stage to thank the crowd. Hopefully he’ll be fit enough to be gigging again soon.

So that was Brecon 2008. Despite the weather it had still been a great weekend with some fantastic music. Here’s to the next one.

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