by Ian Mann
August 18, 2012
Ian Mann enjoys performances by musicians from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Indigo Kid and Trio Libero but is left disappointed by Roy Ayers.
Saturday at Brecon Jazz Festival, 11/08/2012.
The festival Saturday began in the same style as the Friday with an open air performance in glorious sunshine at the canal basin outside Theatr Brycheiniog. This time the event was part of the official festival programme and a large and appreciative crowd gathered to watch a performance of Billy Jenkins’ composition “The Drum Machine Plays The Battlemarch of Consumerism”.
The piece is an extended composition scored for six drum kits and in this instance “The Drum Machine” comprised of six percussion students from Cardiff’s Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama under the direction of that doyen of British jazz drumming Martin France. As France struggled manfully to keep his sheet music (and his hair, I’m only jealous) under control in a stiff breeze the six drummers, among them Lloyd Haines, beat out a variety of interlocking rhythms, some martial, some positively tribal. All the players were reading manuscripts and were set up in a semi circular formation enabling them to see both each other and director France. It’s a tribute to Jenkins, France and the six musicians that this percussion discussion constantly held the listener’s interest and at the end France and his young protégés were given a great reception by an appreciative festival crowd. Like the Krukke performance the day before this free, audience inclusive performance was a good reminder of the Brecon of old. This was a very tasty appetiser for another full day of largely excellent music.
ROYAL WELSH COLLEGE OF MUSIC AND DRAMA SHOWCASE
The first ticketed event of the day was this showcase for the work of the RWCMD at Theatr Brycheiniog.. Although not quite the big band performance suggested by the programme this was still a valuable showcase for the work of the College with music provided by current students, recent graduates, tutors and invited guests. The second half of the performance was given over to “Junior Jazz” featuring young musicians between the ages of eight and sixteen who had attended a recent RWCMD Summer School hosted by tutors Paula Gardiner, Paul Jones, Lee Goodall and Mark O’Connor.
Today’s performances were presented with eloquent charm by Paula Gardiner, Head of Jazz at the RWCMD. After briefly explaining the role and aims of the College she introduced the first performer of the afternoon pianist and vocalist Jonas Seetoh, sometime singer with the RWCMD Big Band and an artist I’d seen previously at the Big Band’s concert at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny earlier in the year. Seetoh performed with great verve as part of a group that included saxophonists Lee Goodall and Glen Manby, bassist Huw Vaughan Williams and drummer Lloyd Haines. I’m not sure if the song was self penned but it appeared to be a hymn of praise to the great Dizzy Gillespie. A rousing start.
Young trumpeter Teddy Smith, director of the RWCMD Big Band then performed an enjoyable take on Ornette Coleman’s blues “Turnaround” in the company of fellow students Jack Roebuck (tenor sax), James Clark (piano) and Alex Haines, brother of Lloyd, on guitar. The group was rounded out by recent graduate Vaughan Williams on bass and guest drummer Martin France, the latter a visiting tutor at the College. The principle soloists were the young horn men Smith and Roebuck.
Alto saxophonist Glen Manby has been a mainstay of the Cardiff jazz scene for many years and has been a regular visitor to Brecon both with his own groups and as a member of the popular Mike Harries’ Root Doctors. Now a post graduate student at the College he appeared as part of a quartet featuring Paul Jones on piano plus Vaughan Williams and France. After a ballad style intro the group moved up through the gears to swing ferociously with sparkling solos from Manby, Jones and Vaughan Williams plus an impressive solo sax cadenza from Manby. The tune was unannounced and I don’t intend to even hazard a guess as to what it might have been.
The same applies to the piece played by a sextet featuring guest trumpeter Neil Yates alongside Jones, Vaughan Williams and France plus the twin altos of Goodall and Manby. Following a solo trumpet introduction the rhythm section generated a tremendous swing with solos coming from Yates on trumpet and the ebullient Jones at the piano.
The set closed on a more sombre note with Gardiner’s settings of two Emily Dickinson poems, “Dying, parts 1 & 2” featuring an extended group, if not quite a big band, that included James Clark on piano, Lee Goodall on alto, Vaughan Williams on bass and a quartet of vocalists including Seetoh plus three females, among them Margo Morgan and Cara Tobin. Gardiner’s arrangement mixed gospel elements (finger snapping plus the audience singing along with the melody line) with high Gothic, eerie bowed bass and Clark’s interior piano scrapings. Goodall’s alto provided the strongest jazz component in an emotive piece that closed the first half on a moving and thought provoking note.
After the break Gardiner introduced her Junior Jazzers to the stage to perform an infectious arrangement of the Herbie Hancock hit “Chameleon”. The young musicians quickly charmed the audience with even the youngest members of the ensemble being encouraged to take their turn in the spotlight with a solo.
Next Gardiner split the ensemble up into three smaller groups with each of these presenting a piece they had worked on with their tutor. Paul Jones’ group went first with the young performers also handling the tune announcements, all part of their preparation for the “jazz life”. Billing themselves as Parker’s Groovers featuring the Glamorgan Horns Paul’s group performed a version of Bird’s “My Little Suede Shoes” with Jones conducting and Goodall on alto adding moral and musical support. The youngsters acquitted themselves very well and the work that both they and the teaching staff had put into the arrangement and performance was obvious for all to see.
Mark O’Connor’s “What’s Happening” group then performed their arrangement of Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing In The Grass”, encouraging the audience to clap along which they did willingly.
Finally came Lee Goodall’s group with their version of Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar”. Young singer Ellie had found a vocalese version of the tune on the internet and sang it here in the company of her fellow students with Jones on piano and O’Connor at the drums providing a helping hand.
Gardiner had been linking the performances throughout and her easy manner with the youngsters demonstrated just why she is so highly regarded as a teacher and educator. The Junior Jazz performance concluded with the entire ensemble clattering their way exuberantly through a samba band version of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” coupled with “Don’t Stop The Carnival”. A generous and supportive audience gave the youngsters a tremendous reception. Some were proud parents and grandparents but many others were regular jazz fans who could appreciate just how much the students and staff had put into these performances. It was heart-warming stuff and who knows, we may just have witnessed some of the jazz stars of tomorrow.
Released earlier in 2012 on the Babel label the album “Indigo Kid” is a remarkably mature début album from a band led by guitarist and composer Dan Messore, a graduate of the RWCMD who is now based in London where he is fast earning himself a considerable reputation on the capital’s jazz scene. However Messore has not forgotten his roots and returns regularly to play in South Wales, this plus the critical acclaim generated by his début ensured that he was an obvious choice for the new look Brecon Jazz Festival.
The success of the “Indigo Kid” album owed much to the presence of the influential saxophonist Iain Ballamy who not only mentored Messore but also made a substantial contribution to an album that blends youth (Messore and drummer Gethin Jones) with experience (Ballamy and bassist Tim Harries). With Ballamy also appearing at the Festival as one half of the electro improvising duo Food (with drummer Thomas Stronen) it nevertheless felt rather curious that Food and Indigo Kid were scheduled opposite each other thereby denying Messore the chance to play his music with the man who had done so much to make it happen.
As it turned out this hardly seemed to matter as Messore and a new look Indigo Kid group featuring tenor saxophonist Trish Clowes (now a group regular), bassist Calum Gourlay and guest drummer Martin France gave a brilliant performance in a packed but very hot Guildhall. Unfortunately the RWCMD at the Theatr had overrun and we missed the start, this plus the fact that the hall was almost pitch black made making notes very difficult so I won’t attempt to give a blow by blow account of the concert.
The programme included material from the album alongside newer compositions. Even with fresh personnel the virtues of the album, mature, intelligent writing allied to superlative musicianship were here in abundance. Clowes (a bandleader in her own right with two albums under her own name on the Basho label) was a more than able deputy for Ballamy and played with accuracy and conviction. It was the first time I’d seen her perform and I was highly impressed. Gourlay is one of the most adaptable and musical bassists around and is a regular member of Clowe’s Tangent group alongside his regular commitment to pianist Kit Downes’ groups. As for France he is simply one of the best drummers the UK has produced, intelligent and flexible and with nearly a quarter of a century’s experience at the top level following his emergence with Loose Tubes in the 1980’s. His drumming here was crisp, precise and subtly propulsive with his exquisite cymbal work, part of a beautifully structured drum feature on the new tune “Quiet Waters”, a particular highlight.
Turning now to Messore he has managed to combine the influences of guitar greats such as Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and Kurt Rosenwinkel into a personal style that is very much his own. He utilises his effects and devices, including the use of a bow on his strings, judiciously, displaying grace and acumen throughout. As a composer his tunes are stunningly mature, highly melodic and with a vaguely pastoral air but underscored by an inescapable sense of melancholia. They are also open enough to allow plenty of scope for improvisation. It’s an impressive combination of qualities that was heard to good effect on tunes such as “First Light”, the opening tune from the album which Messore dedicated here to Iain Ballamy, “Pages To A Friend”, featuring Messore’s bowed guitar, “Quiet Waters” and the joint composed (with Clowes) “The Healing Process”. The pieces also demonstrated the underlying lyricism that is present in all of Messore’s writing.
An almost capacity audience gave Indigo Kid a tremendous reception and rightly so, this was a hugely assured and impressive performance with each member of the quartet making a superb contribution. The jazz photographer Bob Meyrick who also runs the Jazzsteps concert programme in Nottingham was so impressed that he made the point of tracking Messore down with a view to booking Indigo Kid to perform in the city next spring.
Messore also leads the Lacuna Quintet featuring Steve Waterman (trumpet), Lee Goodall (reeds), Aidan Thorne (bass) and Ollie Howell (drums). Again there is a similar blend of youth and experience but the music itself sounds very different. I’ll be taking a look at their album “Talk On The Step”, due out on Babel in September 2012, in due course.
One of the undoubted highlights of the 2011 Cheltenham Jazz Festival by Trio Libero, a then new group led by saxophonist Andy Sheppard and also featuring the talents of French double bassist Michel Benita and Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford. At that time the group were yet to record but their eponymous début album has since emerged on the prestigious ECM label and is reviewed elsewhere on this site by Tim Owen.
The trio’s understated music suited the acoustics of Brecon Cathedral perfectly and their undemonstrative approach to their music making held the attention of the audience throughout. Like his label mate Jan Garbarek Sheppard’s aim seems to be to distil his music to its purest essence and in Benita and Rochford he has the perfect partners, both are intelligent and highly skilled but even more importantly totally sympathetic partners. Nominally the band may be Sheppard’s, he contributes most of the material, but the trio adopt a wholly ego-less approach to their playing. There’s a clarity and an almost Zen like calm about their music that extracts the maximum beauty from Sheppard’s simple, often child like melodies. That said the skill of the musicians involved also ensures that there’s always something interesting going on. Sheppard may have his detractors but for me he’s one of the most significant British jazz musicians of the last quartet century, a player with an international reputation that helped to virtually fill the Cathedral. I’ve also got tremendous respect for the supremely versatile Rochford, a superb technician and a highly individual composer who is arguably the key British musician to emerge in the 21st century.
The shades wearing Sheppard led the trio through a selection of short pieces, most of them unannounced but almost certainly culled from the album (recorded July 2011, released early 2012).
Sheppard’s tenor often sounded feathery and floaty and he was complemented by Rochford’s delightfully understated drumming, the younger man producing a fascinating variety of sounds and small details from an array of sticks, brushes and mallets and on occasions his bare hands. Although he can hammer the hell out of a kit in other contexts when it comes to these refined situations Rochford is a painter in sound, his contribution here was nothing less than a work of art. Bassist Michel Benita is often the glue that hold the trio together but he is also a wonderfully empathic accompanist and an inventive and lyrical soloist. The exposed setting of this most minimalist of trios afforded him ample scope to demonstrate his considerable abilities. On occasions the bassist would play a phrase with the bow and loop it before playing pizzicato above it. These arco generated loops added greatly to the atmosphere of tunes such as Sheppard’s “Space Walk Part 1”, segued here with Rochford’s equally lovely “Lots Of Stairs”.
Although majoring on tenor Sheppard also varied his approach by making strategic use of the soprano saxophone with Benita and Rochford responding with typical sensitivity. Rochford’s occasional drum features were full of artistry, combining that sensitivity with supreme technical accomplishment. The audience loved it and he acknowledged them by smiling bashfully.
There were moments when the trio temporarily broke out of their meditative state to produce more obviously “jazzy” music that owed something to the style of Ornette Coleman but in the main this was a beautifully controlled performance with the emphasis very much on beauty. Watching this process take place in front of your eyes was totally absorbing, I’ve enjoyed the two live performances I’ve seen from Trio Libero even more than the album which is sometimes a bit too chilled out and rarefied for its own good.
The trio closed with the unlikely segue of Elvis Costello’s “I Want To Vanish” with Sheppard’s new tune “The Origin Of Species”. Benita set up one of his bass loops as Sheppard’s soprano lightly sketched Costello’s theme. Later Benita’s plucked bass provided the bridge into Sheppard’s tune with the saxophonist switching to tenor. This was an unexpected but thoroughly beautiful end to an exceptional concert. Chamber jazz for sure but quite magnificent in its own quiet way. Gig of the weekend in my book although Peter Collins writing for the South Wales Echo was less impressed.
Scheduling logistics prevented me from attending the performance by Lighthouse (saxophonist Tim Garland, pianist Gwilym Simcock and percussionist Asaf Sirkis) which many, including Mr. Collins, felt was one of the highlights of the weekend. As far as Lighthouse are concerned I’m keeping my powder dry until I see them at The edge in Much Wenlock on September 8th. Having had a sneak preview of them at Cheltenham I’m expecting great things.
In the end I decided that the prospect of seeing the legendary Roy Ayers and his group in the Market Hall couldn’t be ignored. Ayers began as a jazz vibraphonist in the 1960’s before turning towards the worlds of soul, funk and r’n'b. I’ll confess that I didn’t really know that much about him but this is a jazz festival right? Mr Ayers plays the vibes so there must be jazz content in there among all the other elements. Well maybe there was but certainly not enough for me, and I suspect several others.
The event didn’t start well. After the Trio Libero gig I had a bite to eat and then treated myself to my first pint of the day, a glass of locally brewed ale from my favourite Brecon pub The Boar’s Head. This was the Saturday night party slot after all. I queued up to enter the venue only to be told that I had to finish my pint before I went in. There certainly didn’t used to be an alcohol ban at the Market Hall but further questioning revealed that drinks were not allowed in “from outside”. I later discovered that there was a bar within the venue selling beer at a price far above that charged in the pub. It all rather smacked of the corporate draconianism that threatened to sour the Olympics. I didn’t like it and refused to buy a pint inside on principle. In any case does urging customers to “neck” their beers in double quick time at a festival where alcohol has often been perceived to be a problem constitute responsible stewarding? To be fair to the guys on the door they were only doing what they’d been told and they acted firmly but courteously. On the whole the stewarding was as friendly and efficient as it has always been at Brecon, in this case it’s the policy itself that I have an issue with. I appreciate that corporate sponsorship is an essential part of music and just about everything else these days but sometimes it can be taken too far, a bit of common sense wouldn’t have gone amiss and if I’d been allowed to keep hold of my first pint I’d have probably topped it up later on. Nobody gained by this. Let’s hope there can be a more relaxed attitude next year.
Sadly things didn’t improve with the music. The Market Hall is not the best of venues with poor sight lines and acoustics but it is the biggest indoor space in the town and has been used as a Brecon Jazz venue for years. Some people may like it but it’s not one of my favourites.
Some fans hadn’t read the small print and were disappointed to find that there was a support act and that they were getting less Roy for their money. Jake Mattison proved to be singer/songwriter, a man with an acoustic guitar and a set of songs that seemed hopelessly out of place at a jazz festival.
The poor sound rendered the lyrics largely incomprehensible and he was politely applauded at best and ignored at worst. It reminded me of the rock gigs of my youth when hapless folkies were roundly abused or even bottled by impatient rock audiences. At least Mattison was spared that fate but he did little for me or for most of the rest of the audience I suspect. There were probably lots of guys as good as this playing around the town’s pubs as part of the Fringe. The pick of his songs was probably the travelogue that constituted “Michigan”, everything else failed to register.
When Ayers and his band hit the stage I was hopeful of a good night ahead. His well drilled band slotted straight into an infectious funk groove on an opening segue of “Can’t You See Me” and “Evolution”. It was immediately obvious that Ayers is something of a showman but as a vibes soloist I wouldn’t put him in the same class as Gary Burton or even the UK’s own Jim Hart. Essentially Roy’s still a two mallet man who these days focusses more on singing and showmanship. The best instrumental moments came from the searing tenor and soprano sax solos of Ray Gaskins, another flamboyant character who also doubles on keyboards (I couldn’t see Roy’s main keyboard player who was hidden behind one of the Market Hall’s numerous pillars). Bassist Donald Nicks and British drummer Troy Miller gave the music a mighty rhythmic punch but I found second vocalist John Prestley superfluous at best and irritating at worst with his “lover man” persona soon starting to grate.
The deep grooves and blistering solos made the first part of the set an enjoyable proposition with Miller’s drum feature another highlight but as the evening progressed the vocals took over as Ayers aired his old soul and r’n'b hits among them “We Live In Brooklyn”, “Solitude” and the audience participatory “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”. Prestley demonstrated his impressively wide vocal range with his soul falsetto on “Baby You Got It”. For me it was all too poppy and formulaic although many others seemed to enjoy it particularly the small knot of dancers congregated in front of the stage. Others were less impressed and several people left , presumably jazz purists who were beginning to tire as the jazz content steadily diminished. Interestingly I was to see Miller in what for me was a far more satisfying context the following evening when he appeared as a member of British saxophonist Soweto Kinch’s Trio.
On reflection I wish I’d chosen something different but as I said in Friday’s coverage festivals are all about choices and just for once I made the wrong one. If I had my time again I’d have prompted for bassist Paula Gardiner leading her trio of Lee Goodall (reeds) and Mark O’Connor (drums) at the Guildhall. I saw the trio at the same venue back in 2008, an impressive performance that launched the equally impressive album “Hot Lament”. Still I guess there’s always the chance of seeing Paula’s trio again sometime, less so Mr. Ayers so I guess I’ll just put this one down to experience.
I’ll admit that Ayers has a highly skilled and well honed band and that the man is a consummate showman who has hit on a winning formula, it just that it’s not the formula for me. Ayers plays a style of music that I’ve largely grown out of but for some people his show was an enjoyable nostalgia trip. Following his Brecon performance Ayers was due to headline a sell out week long residency at Ronnie Scott’s in London, also nominally a jazz venue, so he must be doing something right. Perhaps it’s my fault for being a “jazz snob” but my wife ,who is anything but, was also noticeably underwhelmed by Mr. Ayers.
Tellingly I discovered that on consulting my copy of Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s “Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD” (admittedly the 2002 version) that there was no entry for Mr Ayers, maybe these two erudite gentlemen don’t consider what he does to be jazz any more. The only mention of him was a couple of sideman credits with flautist Herbie Mann. Interestingly there was a substantial entry for Ginger Baker, the legendary rock drummer, who had performed so enjoyably with his Jazz Confusion group at the Theatr the previous evening.
The day may have ended on a disappointing note but the earlier performances by Indigo Kid and Trio Libero were straight out of the top drawer with the RWCMD showcase and the Drum Machine performance also proving to be highly enjoyable events.
Sunday next, onwards and upwards!
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