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Live: HSBC Brecon Jazz Festival 2008 - Friday & Saturday


by Ian Mann

August 21, 2008


The beauty of Brecon is the sheer variety of music on offer, covering all jazz styles from trad to the avant garde.

It is incredible to think that the HSBC Brecon Jazz Festival is celebrating it’s twenty fifth anniversary. From small beginnings it has grown into one of the UK’s, and even Europe’s,major jazz festivals. Many legends of the music have played here over the years including Pat Metheny and Sonny Rollins but the Festival has not forgotten it’s roots. Musicians from the vibrant Welsh jazz scene continue to feature prominently on both the concert and “Stroller” programmes.

The beauty of Brecon is the sheer variety of music on offer, covering all jazz styles from trad to the avant garde. The Stroller programme in particular offers fans the unique opportunity to dip in and out of the various styles available.  Also the way that the Festival takes over the whole town still makes it something truly special, even if the decline in free street music over the years is to be regretted.

I must have attended twenty one of the twenty five festivals and Brecon remains a central event on my musical calendar. In the early days I chose to attend selected concerts but for many years now I have chosen to concentrate on the Stroller programme and really absorb myself in the Festival . I have seen some great music on this over the years.

It was appropriate in this anniversary year that Elaine Williams had assembled the strongest Stroller line up for many years, so congratulations to her and her team for that. Of course this made for some difficult decisions as to who to see and when, but that’s festival life. Sadly some of these decisions were dictated by the weather which was as bad as I can ever remember at Brecon. We have had showers and thunderstorms before of course but there was little respite from the rain on Saturday and Sunday was only a marginal improvement. My heart goes out to the musicians who were booked to appear on the open air bandstands. They must have had a very difficult time of it. On the other hand those playing indoors enjoyed full houses and all that goes with it. One man’s loss is another man’s gain, and all that.


At least Friday night was dry if not particularly warm and an exceptionally strong line up provided me with my first selection headache. I could quite gladly have been in five places at once. Tom Cawley’s Curios appear in this site’s Lichfield feature and local hero Gareth Roberts’ excellent début album “Attack Of the Killer Penguins” has also been reviewed.

In view of this I decided to watch a new name to this site, saxophonist and composer Dan Stern.
Stern’s début recording “Traces” is one of this year’s most intriguing UK releases. It consists of two suites of intriguing but accessible music. The first, “Traces” consists of five pieces performed by a top class band featuring pianist Gwilym Simcock and drummer Asaf Sirkis. There are guest appearances by heavyweight American saxophonists David Binney and Stern’s mentor David Liebman.

The second suite “Mirrors” comprises of six shorter pieces with Stern overdubbing himself on tenor saxophone and clarinet. This is surprisingly effective and in addition to his own compositions Stern also tackles pieces by the early music composers da Palestrina and Perotin.

For his Brecon appearance Stern had assembled a strong line up with Sirkis appearing on drums alongside the brilliant pianist Robert Mitchell and young bassist Will Collier. I had expected them to be playing in Christ College’s Memorial Hall but in fact they were playing on an open air bandstand in the grounds. This proved to be a most unsympathetic venue for the musicians. The stage itself was covered and there were two covered seating areas for the audience. However these seats were a good twenty yards from the stage and there was an enormous space between the musicians and their
intended listeners. No doubt the organisers had expected people to lay out on the grass in front of the stage but on an unseasonably chilly evening the grass was already too damp and weather wise this was as good as it was going to get! Perhaps the seats were moved closer to the stage for the rest of the festival but I couldn’t say as I didn’t go back!

The distancing of the band from the crowd only encouraged audience chatter and suitably irritated by this we moved to a standing position to the side of the stage in order that we could hear the music better. One or two others followed our lead but most listeners remained seated.

As for the music I thought it was excellent. “Traces” was recorded a couple of years ago so only the opening “Into The Line” remained from the album. This featured Stern on tenor and Mitchell on electric piano. I have seen Mitchell at the grand piano before and he brought all his characteristic intensity and virtuosity to the electric instrument. In the first of several excellent solos his two handed, lightning fingered technique was as dazzling as ever.

Stern then introduced another suite of five pieces. This featured him on keening clarinet on the second movement before switching to tenor to power his way through the cerebral funk of the typewriter inspired “Qwert”. The ballad “Third Door” found the band battling with the sound of a Thin Lizzy cover being played by a rock band at the back of The Boar’s Head. (I told you it was an unsympathetic venue). At least the closing “Only The Paranoid Survive” with Stern’s biting alto and Sirkis’ powerful drums possessed enough power to drown out the musical invaders.

Stern was not to be diverted from his chosen set and the ballad “Rhapsody” featured talented young bassist Collier as Sirkis took a breather.

Mitchell sat out “And Then” an Ornette style sax bass and drums work out with a great dialogue between Stern and Collier.

“Lost and Found” was a duet between Mitchell and Stern with the saxophonist achieving an almost Garbarek like purity of tone on soprano.

Bassist Collier provided the only non -Stern composition in the set, the attractive “No Such Impediment” (I think) with the leader switching to tenor.

The last title I didn’t catch at all, but it featured Stern on soprano and a great band performance.

Stern and his group had delivered a set of full of intriguing writing and excellent playing from four   superb technicians. However the circumstances in which they found themselves meant that they struggled to make an impact. Music of this quality demanded a more appropriate setting and Stern can consider himself a little short changed. Still it could have been worse, it could have been raining.

In the meantime “Traces” is well worth a listen and Stern’s future career will be watched with interest here at the Jazzmann.

This young quintet have attracted a compelling amount of critical praise for their eponymous debut album. The album, which appears on Courtney Pine’s Destin E label is reviewed elsewhere on this site.
I last saw Empirical when they played a strong set at the 2007 Lichfield Real Ale Jazz and Blues Festival. They were good then, but now they are even better with a more relaxed stage demeanour and a confidence born of regular gigging. In short these precocious youngsters have grown up and their ambitious but accessible material was well received by a large crowd at the Captains Walk venue.

Empirical update the classic Blue Note sound with more structured compositions and subtle contemporary touches. They opened with “Export” a new tune by pianist Kit Downes and the only piece played tonight that does not appear on the album. It’s horn fanfares immediately grabbed the attention and there was a feature for bassist Tom Farmer, the band’s latest recruit, who has replaced the album’s Neil Charles.

Jay Phelps 9/11 inspired “A Tyrant’s Tale” followed and exhibited in Phelps’ words a distinctive “military feel” emphasised by the martial patterns of drummer Shaney Forbes. There was a powerful alto solo from Nathaniel Facey and a duet between Phelps’ breathy, mournful trumpet and Farmer’s bass. This was an expansive piece of writing in which Phelps openly acknowledges the influence of Booker Little.

Downes has been attracting a good deal of attention in his own right (including winning the “Rising Star” category at the 2008 BBC Jazz Awards) and an astonishing passage for solo piano provided the bridge into his own composition “Dark Lady”. Downes produced torrents of notes, sometimes deploying his elbow on the keyboard before the simple melody of the “Dark Lady” took shape. The “Dark Lady” is a distant cousin to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, the inspiration behind Downes’ tune. A duet between Downes and Facey’s plangent alto was a feature here before they were joined by Forbes and Farmer.

Facey’s Tolkien inspired “Palantir” was of appropriately epic proportions, growing from the seeds of Forbes’ solo drum intro. Building in intensity the piece featured typically sparkling solos from Phelps and Facey plus a lengthy passage with Downes, Forbes and Farmer in piano trio mode.

Facey’s gospel tinged “Blessings” provides a stirring opening track to the album. Here it was an even more stirring set closer with blaring twin horns and marching drums and dazzling solos from the whole band.

With the set finishing in such rousing style it was inevitable that the group would be back for an encore. This was to be “Tulumba” by the great Malian musician Ali Farka Toure in an arrangement by Jay Phelps. Forbes added to the atmosphere of the beautiful folk melody with his subtle use of shakers and hand drums.

It had been an excellent set by this brilliant young band. They are all excellent technicians and they show an ambition and scope in their writing that promises of even greater things to come.



The dreadful weather on Saturday saw us heading for the new, improved , all covered Beacons Venue. This was not just a question of keeping out of the rain. One of the bands I had to forego on Friday was the Quentin Collins/Brandon Allen Organ Quartet.

This at least offered me another opportunity to see the front-line of trumpeter Collins and tenor man Allen in another context. Here they were joined in a selection of material associated with the late Ronnie Scott by an ex Scott quintet member, the evergreen John Critchinson on piano. A top notch rhythm section in the form of bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Matt Home completed the line up.

Although this was essentially a “pick up band” there was some great soloing from both the young horn men as well as from the veteran Critchinson. I have seen Scott tributes at Brecon before, usually featuring Scott’s former sidemen. Without the charismatic Scott himself some of these have fallen a bit flat but Collins and Allen breathed new life into the old material with their youthful enthusiasm.

“Dancing In The Dark” got things off to a great start with blistering solos from Collins and Allen and a series of enjoyable drum breaks from the neatly energetic Home who meshed well with bassist Brown.

The band breezed through Bud Powell’s “Bouncing With Bud” before tackling Dick Pearce’s arrangement of David Sanborn’s “White Caps” , a feature for Collins on flugelhorn.

The old Tubby Hayes warhorse “A Pint Of Bitter” was next before a segue of ballads. Collins’ beautifully rounded flugel tones were heard on “Body And Soul” before Allen showed his sensitive side on “Easy Living”.

Critchinson revealed that the late Hank Mobley had been a big influence on Ronnie so it was only appropriate that the band should play the Mobley tune “Take Your Pick”. The two horns blazed away to good effect and Home was again featured.

The ballad “Think Of Me"featured in another arrangement by Dick Pearce with Collins again switching to flugel. He remained there for a surprisingly energetic take on Victor Young’s standard “Stella By Starlight”

Of course no tribute to Ronnie Scott would be complete without the jokes. Delivered by the amiable Critchinson these ranged from the cringe inducing to the genuinely funny. However the best moment came during the “commercial break”. “There are CD’s for sale “said Critchinson “Quentin’s got some by his quartet and I’ve got some by my trio”. He turned round to the rest of the band. “Has anybody else got anything to sell?” he asked. “My mum’s made some rather nice muffins” dead panned Allen. Well it made me laugh.

It had been a fun, good natured start to the day with some sparkling playing, the quality of which ensured that the sometimes tedious head/solos/head format never became boring. Well done to all concerned.

It was good to see the Stroller programme featuring some heavyweight American talent for the first time in years. Back in the 90’s I recall memorable Stroller sets from Bobby Watson, the B Sharp Jazz Quartet, Astral Project and Wayne Krantz.

Alto saxophonist Davis was also appearing on the concert programme with Harry Allen but took time out to bring his quartet to the Beacons venue. A native of New Orleans Davis’ seamless improvising received sympathetically swinging support from pianist Herve Selin, veteran bassist Reggie Johnson and Spanish drummer Esteve Pi.

The quartet opened with fellow alto man Gary Bartz’s “Uncle Bubba” with Davis’ alto soaring above Johnson’s implacable bass walk and Pi’s crisp, energetic drumming. Former Johnny Griffin sideman Selin adopted a largely supportive role, except when called upon for the inevitable solo features.

“The Cup Bearers” by Tom Mckintosh came next and like it’s immediate predecessor acted as a blowing vehicle for the whole band. The first two numbers were heavily extended, clocking in at some fifteen minutes each.

At this point I reluctantly slipped away to ensure that I caught Mercury Music Prize nominees Portico Quartet at the Guildhall. Feedback from fellow fans I spoke to later implied that as Davis loosened up his playing became even more inspired. Selin too, came more into his own and their praise for the pianist was high.

Yet another of those tricky festival decisions, but I didn’t want to miss Portico and Davis’ approach was a bit too similar to the previous band, the Scott Effect.

This prodigiously talented and scarily young looking quartet are good value for their Mercury nomination and produced one of the gigs of the weekend. The quartet have attracted considerable attention through their use of the hang drum, which despite it’s Oriental sounding name was actually invented in Switzerland-and very recently at that.

I’ve heard and enjoyed the Quartet’s début album, the Mercury nominated “Knee Deep In The North Sea” but this was my first experience of the hang as played live. I suspect that most of the other members of the Brecon audience were first timers too. The hang has variously been described as looking like “a flying saucer”, ” a giant pie” “a wok” and “the head of the Cadbury’s Smash alien”. It’s sound is reminiscent of both the West Indian steel pan and the Indonesian gamelan and helps to give the Portico Quartet a unique identity. The instrument can be used both melodically and rhythmically which adds greatly to it’s appeal.

However there is more to the Quartet than just the hang. Kit drums and double bass combine with the hang to form flexible, interlocking rhythms inspired by the likes of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The (mainly) soprano sax of Jack Wyllie dances airily above the rhythmic framework on any number of winning tunes. The Quartet’s repertoire is full of engaging melodies that draw on post Loose Tubes style pastoralism and Penguin Cafe Orchestra style eclecticism. The strength of the writing belies any claims that they are just a “novelty act”.

The Quartet opened with “Dawn Patrol”, a new tune featuring Nick Mulvey at centre stage front seated behind a brace of hang drums. These were played either with two soft head mallets ( occasionally four, vibes style) or with the bare hands. Behind Mulvey was kit drummer Duncan Bellamy, who also sometimes doubled on hang, with Wyllie and double bassist Milo Fitzpatrick in the wings.

“News From Verona” the opening track from the album and one of the Quartet’s strongest tunes was next before Wyllie switched to tenor for the as yet unrecorded “The Full Catastrophe”.

“Steps In The Wrong Direction” featured a major solo from shoeless bassist Milo Fitzpatrick. He is a highly impressive player both with and without the bow. “A Monster” as Mulvey subsequently described him.

Following another new, and as yet untitled number Bellamy and Mulvey swapped places as the Quartet breezed their way through the infectious “Zavodovski Island”. This is one of the most popular items in their repertoire even if one audience member confused it with Pink Floyd’s “Zabriskie Point” in a garbled attempt at a request.

This certainly amused the band, who exhibited a relaxed stage presence with Mulvey an engaging interlocutor between tunes.

The Quartet were on a roll now and finished with three more strong album tunes, the title track itself, “Citagazze” with it’s jaunty tune and closing vocal chant and the lilting “Pompidou”.

“Cittagazze” saw Mulvey and Bellamy both playing the hang, the former with mallets and the latter by hand. Fitzpatrick used the body of his instrument to supply additional percussive effects.

On “Pompidou” Wyllie was the second saxophonist of the weekend to approximate Jan Garbarek’s purity of tone on soprano. At other times his playing reminded me of Oregon’s Paul McCandless, especially given the exotic, though markedly different, instrumental backdrop.

The Portico Quartet’s brand of catchy tunes, musical exotica and youthful enthusiasm had the audience eating out of their hands. Having honed their skills busking on London’s South Bank they certainly know how to handle a crowd. At the end the CD’s were flying off the shelves-or certainly off the piano on which they were rather fetchingly displayed.

The quartet are obviously working on their follow up already. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain their progress. There is talk of them expanding their instrumental palette, perhaps with a cello, and of making judicious use of electronic/loop technology. Their next move will be watched with interest. In the meantime this gig was a triumph, even if Wyllie wasn’t always happy with the sound.

Good luck with the Mercury lads. If there was any justice you’d win it.

One look out of the front door of the Guildhall at the teeming rain convinced us to stay inside and watch whatever or whoever was on next. Common-sense stewarding meant that customers could stay in the hall even when bands were sound checking. Congratulations to the organisers for taking such an understanding approach and to the musicians for their tolerance. For the fans it was something of an education to see this process in action.

Fortunately the next act was well worth seeing. Bassist and composer Paula Gardiner is a leading figure on the Welsh jazz scene and a staple presence at Brecon. Indeed she is now a director of the Festival as well as being a respected tutor on the jazz course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Gardiner is regular performer at Brecon and has released two acclaimed CDs in “Tales Of Inclination” (1995) and “Six”(1999). Lately she has come to national attention for her work with pianist Dave Stapleton’s quintet.

Today’s performance saw Gardiner launching her new trio album “Hot Lament”. Working with two of her long standing musical associates drummer Mark O’Connor and multi instrumentalist Lee Goodall (appearing here on saxes and flutes) she has produced a beautiful, if sometimes sombre album of original compositions and group improvisations.

Gardiner’s solo double bass intro led into a segue of tunes from the new album with “Interblue” leading into “Passage Unspoken” and finally the West African inspired “Riding On The Back Of the Salmon” featuring Goodall’s frothy flute.

Goodall switched to alto for “Beneath Rioja Skies”, one of Gardiner’s most beautiful compositions and a focal point of the new album.
“Hot Lament”  also features Gardiner’s talents as an acoustic guitarist and occasional flautist. “Compassion” featured her on classical style guitar alongside Goodall’s lyrical soprano.

After a sombre interlude for bass flute and arco bass Goodall switched to alto for the Colemanesque “No Coincidence”, a thirteen bar tune scheduled as track thirteen on the accompanying album and featuring a full blooded solo from Gardiner.

“Comment”,inspired by the witticisms of Dorothy Parker, opened with Gardiner and Goodall playing flutes in tandem before the leader took up the bass. The light and airy melody again had a subtle West African feel and featured outstanding playing from all three musicians as Goodall’s flute continued to dance over Gardiner’s bass groove and O’Connor’s subtly accented drumming. Although rarely in the spotlight O’Connor was excellent throughout always listening and adding appropriate percussive punctuation throughout the performance.

The brief and delicate “In The Garden” reintroduced Gardiner’s folk leanings in an acoustic guitar/ soprano sax duet.

Finally came “Hot Lament” itself with Goodall on alto and Gardiner’s “flamenco” style bass.

This was subtle, occasionally demanding trio music that required careful listening. Nonetheless a knowledgeable Brecon audience gave this new music a highly favourable reception.

“Hot Lament” is a slow burner of an album that slowly absorbs the listener. It is wholly different in feel to Gardiner’s two previous releases and is undoubtedly her most ambitious recording thus far. It will be fully reviewed on this site in due course.

We remained at the Guildhall where Bristol based quartet The Blessing offered a total contrast to Gardiner’s reflective music. Taking their name from an Ornette Coleman tune The Blessing have attracted considerable attention for their début album “All Is Yes” culminating in the recording winning “Album Of The Year” at the 2008 BBC Jazz Awards.

Their list of personnel has also attracted attention, even outside the jazz world. Bassist and de facto leader Jim Barr and drummer Clive Deamer are former members and still active collaborators of the rock group Portishead. They are joined in The Blessing by trumpeter Pete Judge and saxophonist Jake McMurchie, both ex NYJO members. I saw the band at Cardiff’s Jazz Cafe earlier in the year and they were effectively a rock rhythm section and a jazz front line.

Deamer is still in great demand as a session player and was absent from the Brecon show on a “money tour” as his band mates put it. The Blessing’s recent gigs have found them playing with a number of “deps” including Dylan Howe. At Brecon the drum stool was occupied by Paul Wigens who gave a fine account of himself. Ironically I found that Deamer’s absence actually made for a better performance. Deamer had so dominated the Cardiff gig that Judge and McMurchie were given precious little space in which to improvise. Here they were given much more room to stretch out and blow and as a result they exerted a far greater influence on the band sound.

The Blessing write tight, taut instrumental pieces, clearly song based in constuction and very much in the spirit of Acoustic Ladyland. They have a strong grasp of rock dynamics and catchy tunes and killer riffs abound. “All Is Yes” appears on Candid’s new Cake imprint, a label shared by pianist Neil Cowley’s trio. Apart from being label mates the two bands have a shared philosophy of making their music accessible and taking it to a younger audience but without any inherent compromise in the musical quality. Cowley was at Brecon too, appearing on the concert programme and by all accounts played a blinding set as The Blessing were to do here.
  Opening with the rumble of Barr’s electric bass “Cake Hole” quickly set the band’s stall out with Judge and McMurchie’s electronically hooked horns squalling in counterpoint. McMurchie took the first of several dynamic solos as the rest of the band clattered around him. Exhilarating stuff.

Suki’s Suzuki continued the mood with Judge also featuring on a child’s multicoloured glockenspiel.
For all their sonic bluster the Blessing also possess an oddball sense of humour, perhaps best encapsulated by Barr’s surreal between song announcements.

“Equal And Opposite” featured muted Milesian trumpet from Judge and a remarkable solo from Barr. The bassist has established a distinctive voice on bass guitar that combines the power of rock and funk with the dexterity of jazz. Like the horn players he sometimes treats the sound of his instruments via the use of a pedalboard and other electronica.

The band powered their way through a baker’s dozen of tunes, all much in the same vein but none the worse for that. Included amongst these was the single “Bleach Cake”. Judge was featured on flugelhorn on occasion and elsewhere there were excursions into almost free playing amongst this already heady sonic brew.

The Blessing may not be band for the jazz purists but they are a dynamic live experience and have already acquired something of a cult following. Like Cowley and Acoustic Ladyland they also appeal to younger listeners, which is essential if jazz is to thrive in the 21st Century.

The band’s album has moments of considerable subtlety alongside the sonic blasting, particularly the Middle Eastern flavoured “Loubia”.

Brecon are to be congratulated for introducing such exciting new names as the Portico Quartet and The Blessing to an already impressive Stroller programme.

Now one of the senior figures on the UK jazz scene pianist Julian Joseph was a late addition to the Stroller programme. A large crowd gathered in the cavernous Market Hall to witness this trio performance with guest Cleveland Watkiss.

Joseph began proceedings with “My Brother” which he rededicated to his ailing mother. This was an excellent start, exhibiting Joseph’s wonderful pianistic skills alongside strong support from dependable bassist Mark Hodgson and exciting drummer Mark Mondesir.

Vocalist Cleveland Watkiss then joined the trio for a take on the Wayne Shorter tune “Dance Cadaverous” from the composer’s classic album “Speak No Evil”. Watkiss’ wordless vocals recalled another classic Shorter album the Brazilian influenced “Native Dancer”. This approach was later updated by Pat Metheny on his latter day group albums.

However Watkiss’ attempts to cast himself as a British Bobby McFerrin plus a mawkish tribute to Jaco Pastorious soon had me heading for the exit. I’d seen Watkiss at Brecon with Steve Williamson many years ago (circa 1990/91) and enjoyed his contribution but here I found him merely irritating and superfluous. There was a classic piano trio session trying to get out from beneath Watkiss’ ineffective noodling.

We found our way to the Studio at Theatr Brycheiniog to catch another pianist, the mercurial Gareth Williams. Last year Williams was on stage in the main house accompanying the great saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Tonight he found himself playing to only a handful of people, but no matter the music was marvellous. Williams and his one time mentor guitarist Jim Mullen played a series of delightful duets, improvising on jazz standards and other popular songs.

The two men have always had a special affinity for each others playing, perhaps best evidenced by Williams’ wonderful contribution to Mullen’s album “Burns”.This sees the guitarist setting the songs of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns in a jazz framework and is probably Mullen’s most satisfying work to date.

Tonight the old magic was still there with Mullen’s effortless swing and singular technique (that “mutant thumb” again) and Williams’ classically inspired piano flourishes. As the set unfolded the room filled up which was heartening for the two musicians.

The material ranged from jazz standards such as “Young And Foolish”, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily” to an inspired jazz rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”.

A beautiful “All The Things You Are” closed the show. A quiet delight to end a wonderful day’s music.

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