by Ian Mann
August 20, 2012
The final day of a hugely successful festival including performances from YolanDa Brown, Soweto Kinch, and Sarah Gillespie featuring Kit Downes.
Sunday at Brecon Jazz Festival, 12/08/2012.
As I mentioned in my Friday coverage new festival curators the Orchard media group from Cardiff are making strides towards forging fresh links with the Welsh jazz community. In this spirit of renewed communication they invited two local jazz societies to curate performances as part of the official festival programme. Both gigs took place on the Sunday of the festival and were held at the Guildhall. The local Brecon Jazz Club invited the Cardiff University Big Band under the direction of Jeremy Meddows-Taylor.
Black Mountain Jazz from Abergavenny opted for singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Gillespie who had proved to be most popular performer at the club with two very well attended gigs in the last couple of years. The prospect of showcasing Gillespie’s talents on a bigger stage appealed to BMJ’s Mike Skilton but at first it seemed as if he may have to think again as Gillespie’s right hand man, multi instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon was unavailable, away teaching at a summer school in Germany. In the end Mike and Sarah agreed to a one off collaboration with pianist Kit Downes, who had already played with his own group at the festival on Friday evening, coming in for Atzmon. The new pairing worked brilliantly but more on that performance later.
A third local jazz society was also involved at Brecon albeit as part of the Fringe. Torfaen Jazz Society had taken over the upstairs function room at the Northcote Conservative Club for two full days of music featuring mainly South Wales based jazz artists but with a headlining set on Saturday night by that wonderfully effervescent saxophonist Derek Nash. I’m told that this show, which saw Nash backed by pianist Paul Jones’ quartet was a bit of a belter, maybe I should have gone for that instead of the rather disappointing Roy Ayers.
I’ve attended a and reported on a number of gigs at TJS over the years and was keen to support them at Brecon even though my main commitment was to the official festival. I dropped into the club on Sunday lunchtime to enjoy a pleasantly chilled out set from a quintet of local heroes (and heroine) led by pianist Dave Price and featuring Lee Goodall (reeds), Ben Thomas (trumpet & flugel), Erika Lyons (double bass) and Greg Evans drums. The quintet cantered through an enjoyable set of jazz and bebop standards that comprised of;
Straight No Chaser (Thelonious Monk)
a Latin tinged arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes”
Beatrice (Sam Rivers)
Nostalgia In Times Square (Charles Mingus)
Summer In Central Park (Horace Silver)
Janine (Duke Pearson)
I also caught a couple of numbers by the next group, a quintet led by drummer Ian Poole and featuring the twin saxophones of Andrew Fawcett (tenor) and Glen Manby (alto) alongside Jim Barber (piano) and Bill Fletcher ( double bass). Fawcett and Manby (the latter had also contributed to Saturday’s RWCMD showcase) traded fiery solos on Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig Of You” and I was reluctant to drag myself away. This had been a pleasantly relaxed way to spend a Sunday lunchtime with plenty of good music to enjoy. Ceri Williams and his colleagues do a fine job in keeping TJS going in difficult economic times, supporting local musicians, young emerging acts and sometimes bringing big names to their corner of South Wales. It would be good if they too were invited to co-ordinate a performance on the official programme in 2013 (Derek Nash in front of a larger audience at the Guildhall perhaps), it would be a just reward for their dedication, hard work and enthusiasm. Maybe other clubs and societies such as Dempsey’s in Cardiff, Jazzland in Swansea and Pontypool Jazz could be brought under the Brecon “umbrella” too.
YOLANDA BROWN QUINTET
My first ticketed gig of the day was by saxophonist YolanDa Brown and her quintet at Theatr Brycheiniog. I’d not heard Brown before and feared that her music might be a bit too “poppy” for my tastes but I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed this show.
Born in Barking to Jamaican parents Brown is a self taught saxophonist who obtained various management degrees before deciding to concentrate on music. A double MOBO award winner (she won the jazz category in both 2008 and 2009) she has collaborated with numerous jazz, soul and r’n'b artists as well as releasing the EP “A Step Closer” and the album “April Showers May Flowers”. Also an acclaimed educator Brown presents her shows with considerable charm, she’s one of the most talkative jazz artists I’ve seen and although this kind of showbiz glossiness would normally put me off it’s hard not to warm to Brown’s obvious enthusiasm and joie de vivre. She began her show by extolling the virtues of the Olympics which immediately got everybody on her side before a note had been played. Shrewd cookie this Ms. Brown, all that management training could be seen paying off in her slick presentation.
As a saxophonist Brown has a remarkably full tone clearly steeped in soul and r’n'b. Immaculately dressed she played a hooked up tenor sax which enabled her to prowl the stage, teetering on vertiginous high heels. After the gig many female audience members were asking each other incredulously “did you see those shoes?!”
But there’s more to Brown than just glamour and musically she’s more than a just a smooth jazz covers artiste. Opener “Story” was a suitably episodic piece with Brown’s sax sound varying from the wispy and floaty to full on anthemic, dovetailing effectively with Ed Riches’ soaring electric guitar.
Brown took time to explain the hidden meaning behind the title of “Con Fusion” (from the Spanish “with fusion”, and denoting a mingling of cultures rather than bewilderment). Brown deployed echo effects on her tenor and keyboardist Manley O’ Connor excelled on electric piano. There was also an extended feature for the quartet’s excellent drummer Talbert Wilson. This may be very much Brown’s band but it isn’t entirely undemocratic with each of her musicians making a substantial contribution to the success of a very well structured show.
The breezy “Good Morning” revisited 70’s and 80’s fusion before Brown acknowledged her Jamaican roots with a medley of jazz arrangements of classic Bob Marley tunes under the umbrella title “To Jamaica”. The ubiquitous Mr. Usain Bolt inevitably got a mention in the introduction. “Redemption Song” found Brown delicately sketching the melody on tenor sax accompanied solely by Riches’ guitar before the group hit an infectious reggae groove for joyous versions of “Waiting In Vain” and “Is This Love”. The crowd loved hearing these familiar melodies and gave the quartet a great ovation.
“Dear John” (the title adapted here to honour Robin, a particularly devoted Brown fan who was in the audience) introduced a bluesiness to the sounds of both Brown and Riches with O’ Connor also impressing on electric piano.
Next came the show’s big set piece with Brown switching to soprano for a funked up version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” which saw the saxophonist going walkabout, wandering around the audience Buddy Guy style and pausing to sit, still playing, in the front rows of the stalls with the Friends of Brecon Jazz (I bet that little bonus wasn’t advertised in the subscription package!). Meanwhile back on stage Riches on wah wah guitar, Wilson on drums and Jerome Samuel on electric bass laid down the groove. O’ Connor had moved to acoustic piano and delivered an exuberant, highly percussive solo that wasn’t entirely overshadowed by Brown’s crowd pleasing excursions.
Never backward at coming forward Brown understands the need for self promotion and gleefully advised us that “April Showers” had reached number one in the I Tunes jazz chart. After that it seemed a little perverse that the next item proved to be the impressive “Festac Town” from the earlier EP with Brown switching back to tenor. The show closed with Brown’s tribute to Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, a celebratory rhythm feast that left the crowd shouting for more, something that wasn’t possible as Brown was due to be part of the Sax Machine “pop up” gig at the other end of town, but not before she’d paused to sign numerous copies of the “April Showers” album-business at the CD stall had been understandably brisk.
YolanDa Brown had made a lot of new friends with this well presented set in the company of an excellent, well rehearsed band. Listening to other fans Brown seemed to be one of the biggest hits of the weekend. Yes, her presentation is slick and glossy and I’m sure I saw other saxophone players this weekend with greater technical ability but there’s also a surprising degree of musical sophistication about her playing. All in all I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this show. Brown is also a big personality and it wouldn’t take much for her music to cross over into the mainstream. I predict Candy Dulfer style crossover success to follow for the savvy Ms. Brown, a musician who more than most understands the power of marketing and self promotion.
This well advertised “pop up gig” attracted a large crowd to the green in front of the attractive range of buildings at Christ’s College. Billed as being part of the cultural events surrounding the London Olympic Games this was a fun event based around the talents of Wonderbrass, the community band based in the South Wales Valleys who have been frequent and popular visitors to Brecon and other jazz festivals, notably Lichfield, over the years.
Under the direction of saxophonist Rob Smith, also a member of cult Cardiff band Heavy Quartet, Wonderbrass achieve remarkably high musical standards for a community band and have cut several very enjoyable albums. Smith’s imaginative compositions and arrangements draw on diverse musical sources from jazz through pop and rock to reggae, Afrobeat and other types of world music. As a player and educator he’s a particularly key figure on the South Wales jazz scene.
For this special event the massed ranks of Wonderbrass and friends were swelled by an illustrious range of saxophonists who were performing at either the official festival or on the Fringe. The guest soloists included YolanDa Brown, Iain Ballamy, Trish Clowes, Soweto Kinch, Andrew Fawcett and Jason Yarde, the latter an honorary member of Wonderbrass who has worked regularly with the group. It was great to see such famous faces appearing in such an informal situation and for me this seemed to sum up the inclusive spirit of British jazz and Brecon in particular. The crowd waved flags and clapped along, young children danced and mimed along on inflatable saxophones and the sun shone brightly. Great fun for all and as Wonderbrass once cheekily branded themselves “an uplifting experience”!
The only downside was that this enjoyable event took place away from the centre of town. Once Sax Machine would have played on the main stage in the centre of town as the Krukke band used to do. However events on this scale have not been staged in the middle of town for many years and I would imagine that the police and possibly the town council would be reluctant for them to recommence. Admittedly it could get very crowded and sometimes a bit lairy back in the “good old days” but I still feel that something has been lost. If Orchard are ultimately able to bring back some of the old street spirit, making the festival the focus of the town and vice versa that would be wonderful. In the meantime this lovely, fun event was a step in the right direction.
SOWETO KINCH TRIO
Birmingham born alto saxophonist Soweto Kinch has been one of the most thought provoking musicians to have emerged in recent years with his blend of jazz and rap. His début recording “Conversations With The Unseen” (2003) was essentially a jazz record with hip hop interludes but the ambitious “concept album” “Tales From The Tower Block” (2006) saw him melding the two forms together in a convincingly authentic fashion. I’ve not yet heard his most recent work “The New Emancipation” but today’s performance suggested that both this and an impending new recording based around the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins should be well worth investigating.
As his album titles suggest Kinch is a fiercely intelligent young man with a highly developed social conscience. Political matters form an integral part of his art but he leavens the heavy stuff with a very British sense of humour, his rapping is proudly independent and home grown and far removed from the “gangsta rap” of the US model. More importantly for jazz listeners Kinch is also a highly talented saxophonist with a bright, incisive tone. He solos with a fearsome passion and an awesome technical ability. In an exposed trio setting with only bassist Karl Rashid Abel and drummer Troy Miller for company he constantly impressed with his powerful and fiery alto playing.
I’d seen Kinch once before and been somewhat underwhelmed. That performance was at a sparsely attended Ludlow Assembly Rooms and the combination of poor acoustics and the lack of atmosphere left me feeling disappointed. Today’s show at a pleasingly full Theatr Brycheiniog was just so much better with Kinch himself in tremendous form on the alto. This being a jazz audience Kinch seemed to have decided to put the emphasis on his saxophone playing. There were some vocal items which I’d describe as songs in a hip hop style, I’m no fan of rap but I found that I rather enjoyed these, Kinch’s English enunciation led to easy an understanding for British listeners and his words were full of wit and sharply observed political and social comment.
Kinch’s unaccompanied alto ushered in the first number, an instrumental from “The New Emancipation” (which I believe may have been the piece “Never Ending”) with Kinch treating the sound of his instrument via the use of a small effects unit to produce an echoing, keyboard like sound which he incorporated into his subsequent solo. We also heard from Rashid- Abel who impressed throughout both on stand up bass and bass guitar. It was also pleasing to see Miller (who had appeared the previous evening with Roy Ayers) in a different context, one that arguably did more justice to his talents. The powerful drummer negotiated the twists and turns of Kinch’s often challenging music with considerable aplomb.
“The New Emancipation” deals with the restrictive practices of the music industry as well as those of society as a whole. “Trying To Be A Star” was Kinch’s incisive and often humorous take on modern celebrity culture with the leader doubling on sax and vocals and with Rashid-Abel switching to electric bass.
Next came a sequence of tunes from the impending new album centred around the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. “Sweeping Change” featured Kinch’s declamatory alto and Miller’s powerful and relentless drumming with extended solos from both Kinch and Rashid-Abel. By contrast the slow and brooding “Vacuum” constituted a welcome change of pace before the trio upped the energy levels again with the boppish “The Bounce” with its “stream of consciousness” sax playing as the ideas just tumbled out of the leader.
“The Love Of Money” saw Kinch taking up the microphone again for a song comparing the love of money with the path of a sexual relationship, the early thrill, the later bitterness of betrayal and the resultant psychosis, the parallels all pointing towards the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath (from which we’re all still suffering). Kinch’s punning lyrics were both witty and pertinent and musically he used his lap top to develop a layered sound over which to deliver his words. A mention too for Rahid-Abel on electric bass.
A second vocal item allied a naggingly familiar jazz theme to a boppish alto solo plus a further solo from Rashid-Abel to a sinister lyric about the machinations of power in various walks of life. In turn this segued into a blistering final instrumental featuring Kinch in barnstorming mood in a dazzling marathon alto solo lashed on by Miller’s volcanic drumming. Such was the speed, power and sheer inventiveness of Kinch’s playing that many audience members were left slack jawed in disbelief.
After the Ludlow experience this was definitely a gig that exceeded expectation with Kinch at least in part tailoring his performance to a grateful and appreciative jazz audience. This represented a good choice on my behalf, I had been tempted to support the local scene and plump for the Cardiff University Big Band at the Guildhall. In the end Mr. Kinch won out. Now I’m glad that he did.
SARAH GILLESPIE with KIT DOWNES
I outlined the scenario behind this unique collaboration above. The Guildhall was packed for this intriguing pairing of singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Gillespie and the award winning pianist Kit Downes. Despite the rival attraction of the Neil Cowley Trio at the Cathedral a sense of loyalty to my friends at Black Mountain Jazz plus an overwhelming curiosity to see just how well this collaboration would work won the day.
Again this proved to be a wise choice. The gig was a triumph for Gillespie and BMJ and the quality of the performance was outstanding given that the makeshift quartet had enjoyed just a few hours of rehearsal. Of course the presence of Gillespie’s regular rhythm team of Ben Bastin (double bass) and Enzo Zirilli (drums) helped a lot. These two know Gillespie’s songs inside out and both performed immaculately. Downes, despite suffering with a bout of tonsillitis, fitted right in and played some brilliant solos as well as proving to be an inspired and sympathetic accompanist.
The big question before the show was how would Gillespie fare without the presence of multi instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon who as both arranger and musician had been a hugely influential presence on both of Gillespie’s albums (“Stalking Juliet”-2008 and “In The Current Climate”-2011).
He’s also been a huge and inescapable figure at the Gillespie quartet’s excellent live shows. There’s always been a suspicion that Gillespie is merely Atzmon’s protégée but recent live performances have seen the singer visibly growing in confidence and assurance with Atzmon taking a deliberate step back.. Her most recent performance at BMJ’s regular club night in Abergavenny in May of this year was ample evidence of this. That show was the best I’ve yet seen from her and tonight’s performance was of the same high standard. Gillespie is becoming an increasingly charismatic performer and the absence of Atzmon allowed her to shine even more. It also emphasised the sheer quality of her songwriting, shorn of some of the more exotic elements of Atzmon’s arrangements there was a greater sense of the songs having to stand on their own merits and in the hands of this highly capable new quartet they did so magnificently.
With Downes performing on an upright piano the quartet commenced with the title track from “In The Current Climate” with Downes taking the first solo of the night in confident fashion. If anything I could hear him better on this instrument than on the concert grand he’d played with his own quintet on Friday. He seemed to fit quite naturally and organically into Gillespie’s sound world, never sounding out of place, a tribute not only to Downes’ musicality and sense of empathy but also to the strength of Gillespie’s songs which clearly have the quality of sounding good in any given context. It’s a good quality to have.
With Atzmon missing there was a greater emphasis on the contributions of Bastin and Zirilli and both responded magnificently. Bastin’s bowed introduction and Zirilli’s colourful hand drumming enhanced “Big Mistake”, Gillespie’s ironic dedication to her ex husband and featuring the singer’s best Dylanesque drawl.
Gillespie’s poetic lyrics combine bohemian imagery, risqué sensuality and sexuality and sharp political and social comment. The rousing “How The Mighty Fall” was introduced by a jibe at former Barclay’s Bank boss Bob Diamond. From here there was a natural link into Gillespie’s treatment of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”, the “original credit crunch anthem” made famous by Bessie Smith. With Atzmon absent the way was clear for Downes to further explore the blues leanings inherent in his own composition “Skip James” (played by the quintet on Friday night) with a rollicking blues/boogie piano solo. He seemed to enjoy every minute of it.
From Gillespie’s second album “Lucifer’s High Chair” embraced varying dynamics from the gentle opening featuring Zirilli’s delightful use of the much maligned triangle to full on rousing and rollicking with Bastin adding lusty backing vocals.
Earlier in 2012 Gillespie released the conceptual EP “The War on Trevor” which is reviewed elsewhere on this site. At the time I remarked that the twisted love song “Signal Failure” worked fine as a stand alone item as indeed it did here. The audience immediately identified with Gillespie’s sharply observed tale of paranoia and relationship breakup, and the etiquette thereof, in the digital age.
Gillespie revealed her political fangs on “How The West Was Won”, an account of “extraordinary rendition” in Guantanamo Bay. Zirilli’s dramatic and atmospheric solo drum intro set the tone with Bastin’s bowed bass adding to the sombre mood.
From “Stalking Juliet” the hooky, rousing chorus of “Million Moons” lightened the mood before “Spinning Lines” (“a song about lying”) built up from the acoustic duo of Gillespie and Bastin with Zirilli subsequently joining to propel the song into full on rock and boogie territory.
The standard “All Of Me” has been a live set piece for Gillespie and Atzmon, the duo subverting this most venerable of standards by unmercifully accelerating the pace of the tune and irreverently running off with it. Here Downes took on Atzmon’s role with a dazzling piano solo and with Zirilli also adding an exuberant drum feature.
The blues “Malicious Simone” kept the energy levels bubbling with Downes getting to do his blues and boogie thing again, he clearly relished playing in a style he rarely gets the opportunity to deploy in his own groups. A storming “Stalking Juliet” took the programme roaring out and such was the ecstatic audience reaction that Mike Skilton was able to call the quartet back for an encore, the concise but effective “Sleep Talking” from Gillespie’s début album.
With her distinctive voice and Dylan/Waits/Mitchell inspired lyrics Gillespie isn’t your average jazz singer. No tired renditions of standards here, instead Gillespie’s original songs are poetic, intelligent and innovative and above all exciting. An increasingly assured live performer she is singing better than ever and as word gets around her star can only continue to rise. This show also proved that if necessary she can be effective without Atzmon. In Bastin and Zirilli she has two superb accompanists, technically brilliant and totally attuned to Gillespie’s vision. Downes too fitted in beautifully and such was the success of this collaboration that it is to be repeated for a London audience when the Gillespie trio plus Downes appear at The Vortex in Dalston on September 30th 2012. This and Gillespie’s other forthcoming dates are listed below;
21st September - Sarah Gillespie Trio feat Gilad Atzmon - Bury Met Theatre Bury, Manchester.
28th September - Sarah Gillespie Trio feat Gilad Atzmon - The Square & Compass,Worth Matravers, Swanage.
29th September - Sarah Gillespie Trio feat Gilad Atzmon - Calstock Arts Centre, Cornwall.
30th September - Sarah Gillespie Quartet feat Kit Downes - The Vortex, London.
Oct 2nd - solo gig @ Manchester Peace Festival, Night & Day Cafe
Finally a word for Bastin who recently completed a 70 mile bike ride from London to Brighton to raise funds for Pancreatic Cancer Research. To date Bastin and his friends have raised around £4,000. Very well done guys.
I’m delighted that Orchard have been able to rescue the Brecon Jazz Festival and that the first year under their stewardship has been such a resounding success with some terrific music played and some excellent attendances. The concert programme featured music from a variety of jazz genres with a good mix of British and international names plus a strong Welsh presence. It’s good to see Brecon Jazz using iconic venues like Theatr Brycheiniog and the Guildhall again and bringing an element of street music back to the festival whist fostering links with the South Wales jazz scene. Brecon was always a focus for local musicians and it would be good if this could be revived more fully, perhaps by the re-introduction of the much loved and much missed Stroller programme. Perhaps something can be done next year. I’m already looking forward to a bigger, better and even more successful 2013.
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