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Cwmwl Tystion / Witness

Tomos Williams, Cwmwl Tystion III / Empathy, The Lost ARC, Rhayader, Powys, 05/06/2024.

by Ian Mann

June 06, 2024


Tomos Williams’ third suite of seven movements in the Cwmwl Tystion series was another tour de force. The standard of the writing and playing throughout the series has been exceptional.

Tomos Williams, Cwmwl Tystion III / Empathy, The Lost ARC, Rhayader, Powys, 05/06/2024.

Tomos Williams – trumpet. Mared Williams – vocals, Eadyth Crawford – vocals, electronics, Nguyen Le – electric guitar, Melvin Gibbs – electric bass, Mark O’Connor – drums, Simon Proffitt – live visuals

Currently touring Wales and with a London date scheduled at Cafe Oto “Empathy” is the third and final part of trumpeter and composer Tomos Williams’ “Cwmwl Tystion” trilogy.

The title “Cwmwl Tystion” (literally ‘a cloud of witnesses’) is originally Biblical in source and was derived from a poem by the Welsh poet, pacifist and nationalist Waldo Williams (1904-71) called “Beth yw Dyn?” (or “What is Man?”). Cwmwl Tystion has now effectively become a band name.

The Cwmwl Tystion project explores issues of Welsh history and identity and each stage of the project has been supported by the Arts Council of Wales and by the Cardiff based record label Ty Cerdd, an organisation devoted to supporting all forms of contemporary Welsh music.

“Witness”, the first jazz suite to be written by Williams under the Cwmwl Tystion banner toured Wales in 2019 and the subsequent live recording was released by Ty Cerdd in 2021. The music of the seven part suite celebrated the history, culture and landscape of Wales and asked questions regarding Welsh identity, both past and present. The first line up was comprised entirely of Welsh musicians and featured Williams on trumpet alongside Francesca Simmons (violin, saw),  Rhodri Davies (harp, electronics) Huw Warren (piano), Huw V Williams (bass) and Mark O’Connor (drums). My review of the first Cwmwl Tystion album can be found here;

The second Cwmwl Tystion suite, “Riot!”, was a further  examination of Welsh history and politics and again asked pertinent questions with regard to Welsh identity, drawing inspiration from moments of rebellion and civil unrest in Wales in both the 19th and 20th centuries. Like its predecessor it was a seven part suite but featured a very different line up with only Williams and O’Connor remaining from the first band. The new sextet featured two real heavyweights of the British jazz scene, saxophonist and spoken word artist Soweto Kinch and vibraphonist Orphy Robinson, with two Cardiff based musicians, vocalist Eadyth Crawford and bassist Aidan Thorne completing the line up. The “Riot!” suite toured in late 2021 and the subsequent live recording was released by Ty Cerdd in 2023. Review here;

The Cwmwl Tystion project was initially intended as a response to Brexit and was influenced by the politically inspired music of leading American jazz musicians such as trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith, Ambrose Akinmusire and Don Cherry and saxophonists Matana Roberts, and John Zorn as Williams explains;
“I had been listening to – and was moved by – a lot of overtly political music by musicians such as Leo Wadada Smith, Ambrose Akinmusire and Matana Roberts. I felt that the time was right for a Welsh contribution to this landscape. I wanted to create a piece that both celebrated and questioned the idea of Welshness and referenced notable events in Welsh history”.
Smith’s long form works and Roberts’ celebrated “Coin Coin” series of recordings represent particularly pertinent reference points.

In addition to his work with Cwmwl Tystion Williams has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages,   primarily as the co-leader, with his saxophonist brother Daniel, of the jazz/folk sextet Burum.  This band’s albums “Caniadau” (2012), “Llef” (2016) and “Eneidiau” (2022) have all been reviewed elsewhere on this site, as has a live appearance at the 2014 Brecon Jazz Festival.

Williams is also a member of Khamira, which sees a quartet of Welsh jazz musicians, all of them associated with Burum, collaborating with a trio of Indian born musicians to create a unique musical and cultural hybrid of jazz, Indian classical music and Welsh folk. Khamira’s eponymous debut album (2017) and the follow up “Undod / Unity” (2022) are both favourably reviewed elsewhere on this site. As a paying customer I have also enjoyed live performances by the band on different tours at the Borough Theatre in Abergavenny and at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.

Williams also leads Seven Steps, a jazz quartet dedicated to exploring the music of Miles Davis. His other musical activities include his long term membership of the Welsh folk group Fernhill, and a duo with Welsh triple harpist Llio Rhydderch, with whom he recorded the album “Carn Ingli”.

“Empathy”, the third suite to be written under the Cwmwl Tystion banner features a new, truly international line up with Williams, Crawford and the faithful O’Connor joined by a second Welsh vocalist, Mared Williams, plus two real jazz heavyweights in the shapes of French / Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le and American electric bass specialist Melvin Gibbs.

Tomos Williams says of this new line up;
“I first saw Melvin Gibbs perform at the legendary Tonic in New York’s Lower East Side in 2001, and came across his band Harriet Tubman on MySpace (yes! MySpace!) a few years later. Harriet Tubman and their avant- rock political music have been a direct influence on the creation of “Cwmwl Tystion” so to have Melvin agree to come to Wales and participate in this final instalment is incredible and a real privilege. No one else plays the electric bass quite like him.
While I’ve also followed Nguyên Lê‘s career for decades, having seen him perform numerous times with Trilok Gurtu at the Brecon Jazz Festival and Tommy Smith and Kenny Wheeler to name a few. He’ll bring his fusion chops and world-jazz aesthetic to the music. Interestingly, Melvin and Nguyên have never performed together, so this will be a world first on Welsh soil.
Mared and Eadyth are also two of the leading lights in a new generation of Welsh vocalists, who are fearless creators. Eadyth was a member of the “Cwmwl Tystion II / Riot!” band while Mark O’Connor on drums and Simon Proffitt on live visuals have been involved in all three Cwmwl Tystion bands.”

Although I have reviewed both Cwmwl Tystion recordings tonight represented my first opportunity of seeing the project in live performance. Simon Proffitt has been there from the beginning and is regarded as being a full member of the band. His live visuals represent a very important part of the Cwmwl Tystion concert experience but obviously the impact of his contribution is greatly reduced when listening to the music on disc.

The previous Cwmwl Tystion tours either haven’t come close enough to me or have clashed with other events so I was very pleased to see that the current tour was to visit the Mid Wales town of Rhayader, around forty miles from my home. Tonight represented my first visit to the Lost ARC venue, a pleasantly Bohemian establishment that doubles as a cafe / restaurant and a performance space. I enjoyed my time there and will continue to ensure that the Lost ARC remains on my radar with regard to forthcoming events, which include both jazz and folk gigs.

The “Empathy” suite commenced with “Welsh Not”, a piece that harked back to the first Cwmwl Tystion suite and the movement titled  “Lyfrau Gleision” or “Blue Books”. This referenced the three volume Parliamentary Report of 1847 that actively discouraged the use of the Welsh language and of the teaching of it in schools. Signs instructing pupils to “Welsh Not” became a familiar sight in Welsh classrooms and I recall seeing such an object on display in Brecon Museum. Tomos’ latest musical discourse against this suppression of Welsh culture began with a collective crescendo featuring the soaring vocals of Mared and Crawford, voices that refuse to be silenced. Tomos views this latest edition of Cwmwl Tystion as “an augmented power trio” and with electric guitar and electric bass in the band the current line up is going for a heavier sound. This was subsequently expressed via Gibbs’ propulsive five string electric bass grooves and Le’s powerful guitar soloing, with Tomos also weighing in with a fiery trumpet solo. Meanwhile Proffitt’s visuals depicted a variety of people of various ethnicities making “shushing” gestures, the diversity perhaps representing the multi-cultural identity of present day Wales. Meanwhile the music mutated into a more loosely structured ‘free jazz’ section featuring the sounds of muted trumpet and a range of guitar effects generated by Le via a floor mounted effects unit. Gibbs then re-established a powerful bass groove, this augmented by O’Connor’s explosive drumming and Le’s quasi-metallic guitar riffing, a power trio indeed, later augmented by soaring wordless vocals from the two singers.

O’Connor’s press roll heralded the transition into the next movement, “Miners Strike 1984”, with the clarion call of Tomos’ trumpet allied to Mared’s soaring ‘voice as instrument’ representing a real call to arms. Proffitt’s archive footage depicted the battles between the miners and the police as Le unleashed another powerful and incisive guitar solo.

A virtuoso unaccompanied electric bass episode from Gibbs marked the transition into the next movement “Beth Yw Maddau?” or “What is Forgiving?”. This was a less forceful offering and began with a folk like melody, with Mared’s singing of the Welsh language lyrics, augmented by Crawford’s vocal harmonies as the instrumentalists sat out entirely. This passage was genuinely beautiful and the voices of the singers were later augmented by Le’s guitar soundscaping. Tomos was featured with a muted trumpet solo that may have reminded some listeners of Miles Davis. Meanwhile Proffitt’s visuals depicted various couples embracing each other, some of them cross-generational, presumably family members, others representing friends and lovers of various ages, ethnicities and sexualities.

Gibbs again provided the bridge into the next section, this time in conjunction with Crawford’s wordless vocals. It was also Crawford who triggered the sampled sounds of church organ and choir that introduced “Aberfan 1966”. Gibbs continued to feature strongly, his rumbling fuzz bass sounding almost guitar like at times. Tomos’ muted trumpet then floated mournfully above a dystopian soundscape that featured the sampled sound of a tolling church bell. The anger that developed in the wake of the disaster found expression in the combined wail of Crawford’s voice and Le’s guitar, the rumble of Gibbs’ bass and the dramatic drumming of O’Connor. Proffitt’s visuals featured abstract patterns formed from pieces of coal, these coalescing to form a heart as depicted on the posters for the tour.

A passage of unaccompanied guitar from Le that included the inventive use of his range of effects pedals provided the segue into “Paul Robeson Sings in Mountain Ash 1938”. This movement represents another link to the first Cwmwl Tystion suite which featured the piece “Paul Robeson ac Eisteddfod y Glowyr 1957” . As a political activist Robeson established strong ties with the Welsh mining community and was sympathetic to their struggle.  He visited Wales on numerous occasions, where he is still widely revered to this day. In 2001 the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers paid tribute to him with their song “Let Robeson Sing”. Proffitt’s visuals included archive footage of Robeson in Wales while the music ranged from Mared’s singing of folk like melodies to heavy bass grooves, Tomos’ strident trumpet soloing, O’Connor’s explosive drumming and Le’s near metallic riffing. Le’s feverish solo served to give contemporary expression to the clamour and political unrest of the 1930s.

O’Connor’s unaccompanied drum passage led us to “Mynydd Epynt 1940”, named for a mountainous region of Powys that was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence for training purposes during the Second World War. The people that were displaced have never been able to return, although it should be noted that this wasn’t solely a Welsh issue. The Dorset village of Tyneham suffered a similar fate just prior to D-Day and has never been resettled. Crawford’s singing of Welsh language lyrics was accompanied by Gibbs’ bass while Tomos. emotive trumpet soloing was propelled by O’Connor’s powerful drumming. Proffitt’s visuals included archive black and white footage of the people of Mynydd Epynt interspersed with colour footage of the contemporary, unoccupied landscape.

The overall theme of the suite was then expressed in the final movement. “Wales, A Nation of Sanctuary”, with Mared and Crawford singing in unison and with Le’s soaring guitar solo helping to give the music an anthemic quality. Mared’s singing of another folk inspired melody with a Welsh lyric was accompanied by Gibbs’ bass. It was then left to the American to conclude the performance with a stunning solo bass feature that made imaginative use of live looping techniques.

Tomos Williams’ third suite of seven movements in the Cwmwl Tystion series was another tour de force and it is to be hoped that the music has again been recorded and will subsequently appear as the third Cwmwl Tystion album.

Although part of a unified vision each suite is subtly different with the individual players in the three different line ups putting their own stamp on the music. Tonight’s two international guests were hugely impressive and it was the first time that I had seen either of them play live, although I had heard Le on disc before.

It was also the first time that I had seen Mared Williams, another impressive performer and a solo artist in her own right. I had heard Crawford on the “Riot!” album and also seen her perform with Khamira and she continued to impress, as did O’Connor, a musician I have seen and heard on multiple occasions.

As for Tomos Williams himself I have never seen him play better, and of course it was his vision and compositional skill that brought everybody else together. If this is to be the final work in the Cwmwl Tystion series then it’s going out on a high. The standard of the writing and playing throughout the series has been exceptional. Cwmwl Tystion really has been a major triumph and the comparisons with the works of Wadada Leo Smith and Matana Roberts are more than justified.

After enjoying hearing the previous Cwmwl Tystion works on disc it was particularly gratifying to see a version of the band performing live at last, and to appreciate the importance of Proffitt’s visuals to the project. His images genuinely enhanced the understanding and impact of the music, rather than representing a distraction, which can sometimes occur with audio-visual projects such as this. That said the music works perfectly well as a stand alone entity, as evidenced by the two album releases.

My thanks to Tomos, Mared, Nguyen and Melvin for speaking with me after the show,  thus rounding off a very enjoyable first visit to the Lost ARC.

The Cwmwl Tystion III / Empathy tour continues with the following dates;

6/6/24 – Theatr Soar, Merthyr Tydfil, with a Q and A after the performance

7/6/24 - Dora Stoutzker Hall, Cardiff, RWCMD, with a Q and A after the performance

8/6/24 – Cafe OTO, London


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