by Ian Mann
May 16, 2016
The band's approach sounds as fresh and inventive as ever. “Llef” is a worthy addition to the Burum catalogue.
(Recordiau Bopa BOPA 002)
Burum is a sextet co-led by the Williams brothers Tomos (trumpet) and Daniel (tenor sax). Originally from Aberystwyth the brothers are now based in Cardiff and the Burum line up includes some of the finest jazz musicians on the South Wales scene in the shapes of pianist Dave Jones, bassist Aidan Thorne and drummer Mark O’Connor. The band is completed by Ceri Rhys Matthews, a folk musician who specialises on the wooden flute. Matthews is very much the ‘wild card’ of the group and his contributions do much to give Burum their unique group sound.
The Burum project has its genesis in the Welsh folk group Fernhill which includes Tomos Williams and Matthews alongside singer Julie Murphy and others. Since 2007 Burum have been carving out their own distinctive musical niche with their jazz arrangements of traditional Welsh folk tunes and hymns. “Llef”, meaning “The Cry” is their third album of such material following in the wake of the acclaimed “Alawon” (meaning “Tunes”) from 2007 and the excellent “Caniadau” (“Songs”) from 2012. The group name Burum means “yeast”, which I’ve always felt to an appropriate moniker given the way that they transform their chosen source material into something new, seemingly by a process of musical alchemy.
Burum are currently touring the “Llef” material around Wales and I was lucky enough to witness the first performance of the tour on 11th May 2016 at the Queens Head in Monmouth. Despite a little initial roughness around the edges at the beginning of this inaugural show there was much to enjoy with some terrific individual soloing and some increasingly confident and well integrated ensemble playing. All of the material was sourced from the album and I’ll be taking a closer look at this as I review the album in depth. The only real disappointment at the gig was the rather poor audience turnout, surprisingly low for the Queens in recent times. The stayaways didn’t know what they were missing but the enthusiasm of the small but supportive crowd was still sufficient to bring the band back for a well deserved encore.
The majority of the arrangements on the new album are by Tomos Williams beginning with a forty five second snippet of the title track, a brief chorale featuring the unique front line of trumpet, tenor sax and wooden flute. Burum took their inspiration for this from Thelonious Monk, who opened his 1957 album “Monk’s Music” with a fifty five second version of “Abide With Me”. Meanwhile “Llef” bookends this new Burum album with a full six and a half minute performance of the piece at the end of the record, which I’ll address more fully later.
The succinct but charming intro leads into the playful “Titrwm Tatrwm”, which translates as “Pitter Patter” and references the seemingly universal folk custom of tapping upon a sweetheart’s window to gain access. The music is introduced by a roll of O’Connor’s drums before settling on an arrangement that owes something to the modal jazz of the 1960s. If John Coltrane had been born in Wales maybe he would have sounded something like this. The piece is notable for a rumbustious piano solo from Dave Jones which reflects his love of the playing of Coltrane’s one time pianist McCoy Tyner. Daniel Williams also impresses on tenor as he adopts the John Coltrane role while the overall ensemble sound is powerful and convincing with O’Connor’s colourful and flexible drumming helping to drive the arrangement.
“Pryd O’wn ar Ddiwrnod” (“When On A Day Returning”) reveals another side of the band with its more obviously folk influenced arrangement featuring the wispy Celtic melancholy of Mathews’ wooden flute in the introductory stages. Things then take a jazzier turn with a plangent trumpet solo from Tomos Williams and a thoughtful piano feature from Jones.
The rounded sounds of Thorne’s double bass combine with O’Connor’s mallet rumbles to introduce the atmospheric “Clyw D’ir Claf” (“Hear the Lovesick One”) which features the haunting sounds of muted trumpet, tenor sax and wooden flute in a beautifully sensitive arrangement centred around O’Connor’s role as a colourist.
The reflective mood continues on “Gwel yr Adeilad” (“See The Building”) which features an absorbing dialogue between Tomos Williams on trumpet, his plaintive sound complemented by the rich array of sounds, colours and textures that O’Connor once again conjures from his drum kit.
Tomos Williams takes over the arranging duties on the hymn like “Y Gwydr Gla”, which variously translates as “Blue Glass” or “The Window Pane”, another song from the same folk tradition as the earlier “Titrwm Tatrwm”. It’s an absolutely gorgeous melody that is enhanced by the sensitive arrangement and performance with delightful cameos from Thorne, Daniel Williams and Tomos Williams followed by a surprisingly stirring group outro.
The arrangement for “Heol Ddu” (“Black Road”) is credited to Matthews/Thorne/O’Connor and the piece features just these three musicians in an absorbing three way discussion featuring the beautiful, almost ethereal, sound of Matthews’ wooden flute intelligently complemented by the supremely flexible bass and drum team. At one point the music adopts a jig like melody that sounds almost Irish but I suspect that much of the piece may have been freely improvised.
Tomos Williams arranged the playful snippet that is “Migldi Magldi”, a series of impish horn and drum exchanges that offers a brief but tantalising blend of folk melody and free jazz.
“Moel Emoel”, named after a hill near Bala, is the first of two pieces that draw their inspiration from the Welsh landscape. Tomos Williams’ arrangement of yet another beautiful Welsh folk melody features his own breathy tenor to the fore in yet another delightful ensemble performance.
Tomos Williams takes over the arranging duties again on “Ffarwel I Aberystwyth”, literally “Farewell to Aberystwyth”, a hymn of praise to his native town. A lively arrangement sees him dipping again into the Coltrane/Blue Note tradition but with Matthews’ flute adding a distinctive Welsh folk flavour. Jones’ Tyner-esque piano is again prominent with another torrential solo and there are also strong contributions from the horn and rhythm sections with the piece concluding with an extended drum feature from the consistently excellent O’Connor.
“Mynwent Eglwys” (“The Church’s Cemetery”) is another example of the group at their most impressionistic with the wooden flute combining effectively with sax and trumpet, the three horns uniting in lament above the rumble of mallets and the swish of cymbals.
Finally comes the extended version of “Llef” itself which begins with that opening chorale before opening out into a spacious arrangement with the lonely ring of Tomos Williams’ emotive, Miles Davis styled trumpet leading off the solos. Jones follows with a flowingly lyrical piano solo before the now familiar initial theme returns.
Burum describe their creative process as “making new music with old melodies”. “Llef” continues the good work that began with “Alawon” and continued through “Caniadua” and the band’s approach sounds as fresh and inventive as ever. The Welsh folk tradition seems to offer an unending supply of memorable melodies for the group to explore and “Llef” is a worthy addition to the Burum catalogue, there are some great tunes here. The only disappointment is that this album doesn’t feature Matthews playing the Welsh bagpipes, something that he did to great effect of “Caniadau”.
In the live environment the members of Burum stretch out on these tunes at greater length, their performances are emphatically jazz events with an emphasis on collective improvisation and strong soloing. The remaining dates on their current tour of Wales are listed below. In the meantime “Llef” and its predecessors are highly recommended.
Thursday 19th May - The Coopers Arms, Aberystwyth, 8pm
Friday 20th May - Tafarn y Fic, Llithfaen, North Wales 8pm, http://www.tafarnyfic.com
Saturday 21st May - Blue Sky Cafe, Bangor, North Wales, 8pm http://blueskybangor.co.uk
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