The hills are definitely alive with etc., etc…

Topography is not a subject that immediately leaps to the fore when Brecon and its annual jazz festival are being discussed, but it’s important. The otherwise quiet market town in Powys has always been the most unlikely venue for a three-day jazz bash and there’s a town-and-gown atmosphere related to the presence across the river bridge of Christ’s College, the small public school sitting on its greensward. During the recent three-year tenure of the Hay Festival as organisers, jazz events were virtually transferred to marquees on the college lawns and playing-fields, leaving most of the traditional townside venues to an ever-burgeoning Fringe. It worked, but the festival’s colourful backdrop had been abandoned.
    Now that the Cardiff-based Orchard Entertainment has taken over, the festival’s back on the block. Headlining with the Jools Holland Band, Courtney Pine and  – before she had to cancel – US gospel diva Mavis Staples said a smidgen about about the extent to which marginally unfocused sights have had to be lowered.   Where are the American jazz legends of yesteryear? I heard one punter ask on Saturday night. Well, they’re either dead or too expensive.
    As with everything else of this sort, money has become an object. Nevertheless, Orchard are spending it wisely and, on director Pablo Janczur’s  watch, with as much inspiration as the cheque-book will allow.  Unfortunate clashes, normal at weekend festivals with everything having to be crammed in, are still a slight problem, and not only for those covering the event for the public prints:  a few ticket-holders told me their choice of gigs had been a lottery. Zoe Rahman or Jason Rebello? Both, preferably, but impossible to engineer on Friday’s opening night, when first up was Nils Petter Molvaer and Biosphere in uplifting form at Theatr Brycheiniog. Rahman’s quintet followed them, meeting expectations still further
    The Rebello Group’s gig at the Castle Hotel included items from the new album, due in November, as well as music that makes you wonder if there’s another pianist-composer in the UK who raises your spirits with quite as much immediacy. Long-serving Rebello vocalist Joy Rose included his New Rose, a scribbled title for a song he sent her for lyrics to be added. The title stuck, as on this occasion did the imprint of the rest of his group, which also included lofty bassist Karl Rasheed-Abel. At another juncture Rebello intoned, ‘And this tune is from my fifth album’, evidently not expecting many in the audience to remember what that was. Such is the jazz musician’s fate: there are your fans and there are your fans.
    Pine opened proceedings at the Market Hall, the festival’s sloping main venue, with his House of Legends nod towards the Caribbean. playing soprano sax as well as the Ewi (electronic wind instrument) and presenting his ‘rum-inspired’ concept without the historical and other allusions which make the album interesting. In that all-dance mode, the band were a hoot if a tad relentlessly motor-rolling in space. The Ewi is pure Marmite – you either like it or it sucks. In Courtney’s hands, however, its possibilities were intriguing. He also paid his traditional homage to Brecon for supporting UK musicians. We all slurped to that.
     The al fresco festivities began on Saturday morning and were described as Streets Alive: Music, Madness and Mayhem. It was an unintended description of the days when beer-soaked neanderthals blighted the festival and and the local polizei grew hot under the epaulettes over kerbside duties beyond the call.  The popular and populated Fringe had to compete with a few drinking places firing salvoes of music other than jazz and pavement wobblers hermetically sealed to a pint pot. The oblivious Fringe just got on with it and if the Remi Harris Gypsy Project  and the belting Morriston Big Band were typical then perimeter activity, if it hadn’t been free, would have been worth paying for. Not all the street multitudes are fussed about jazz.
    But most of them are. They were out in force at many gigs which drew capacity audiences, not least North Walian guitarist Trefor Owen’s piano-less Shades of Shearing quartet, with the keyboard role shared between him and fellow guitarist Andy Hulme, Bill Coleman on bass and undersung vibesman Paul Sawtell providing chimes to the block chording, beyond which was free-wheeling solo work of quality. It actually left Shearing in the shade. If the festival had done nothing else, it brought back Owen after an unbelievable  gap of 23 years. With a hint of irony, he believed it. Good  on Orchard for launching into the stream a raft of other Welsh input, not least pianist and artist-in-residence Huw Warren working with Maria Pia de Vito and New York drummer Jim Black, the latter in  a dynamic trio including young Welsh bassist Huw V. Williams. Owen’s band was one of four with an international slant jointly presented by seven Welsh jazz organisations.
    The Warren trio and Django Bates’s Beloved trio with its Parker-themed gig at the theatre marked the further development of threesomes as sonic powerhouses bordering on the anarchic. Bates, too, praised the festival, saying it was what a jazz festival should be, whatever that meant. It’s obviously keen on trios, among them this year including Phronesis,  Blue Spirits, Quercus (Warren again, with Iain Ballamy and June Tabor), the Laurence Cottle Trio, and the John Surman Trio (with Chris Laurence and John Marshall), Tim Kliphuis (with David Newton added) and the Roller.
    Bates was the presiding genius, cloaking Parker tunes such as Confirmation, Now’s The Time and My Little Suede Shoes in dense, lively chromaticism and sailing with them to the farther shore but always making the listener feel wanted on voyage. What was remarkable about a lot of these smaller groups was their inclusion of free impro as an essential part of the mix, because for sure contemporary  jazz is mixing it, though ‘free impro’ could have been a dscription of Fringe acts: improvisation gratis. Geddit?
    Martin Taylor and Alan Barnes have been blending in a different way for a long time. Is this not one of the world’s jazz duos par excellence? Taylor was on holiday after a busy work schedule in America and Barnes visiting during a break from a Scandinavian tour. Their telepathy was peerless, their drollery on the mark. Have you heard Taylor’s story about Acker Bilk’s jacket? Listen out for it. You could have asked the octogenarian Acker himself, as he was at the festival stomping roundly with his Paramount  Jazzz Band. Orchard know that, like Jools Holland, Acker will always guarantee a moneyspinning interface between seat and bum. Taylor’s comprehensive storehouse and Barnes’s luscious fluidity on clarinet were irresistable
    That said, you didn’t have to be a household name to pack them in. Of the two multi-talented front men doing so, Surman and Julian Siegel, it was hard to say which was the better at marrying tune with instrument so appositely: Siegel with his fired-up quintet at Brecon Cathedral or Surman and Co. at the same place making much that was evocative out of the slightest materials from seemingly non-jazz sources, including a few moments of  shire-inspired reflection. Brecon-shire, that is.
    Any number of acts might have topped the bill if wide popularity hadn’t been the criterion, as it almost invariably is where you want the cash registers to make a noise. For sustained musicality and sheer compositional verve, Siegel’s quartet was hard to beat. Settling in with tunes from the album Urban Theme Park, it unveiled new material featuring at length pianist Liam Noble, bassist Oli Hayhurst and rapid-fire drummer Gene Calderazzo. So often at this festival, drummers drew due attention to themselves, pre-eminently Black with his fine, circumscribed intensity: there are more than the traditional ways of settling into a group routine, not drawing too much undue attention being a prime quality. Black and Calderazzo have it.
    Acts such as Siegel’s might have topped the bill in any presentation directed solely at jazz fans who know what they talk about. Siegel’s unerring feel for which of his winds could convey maximum impact was impressive, as was his choice of music for a perfect ninety-minute slot. Like so much else at this festival, each number was highly finished. It’s in the centre that matters diverge and expand but the bookends need to be neat and supportive. Siegel, Rebello, Black, Cottle, Warren and Pia de Vito also held masterclasses at the aforementioned Christ’s College, and in the absence of Staple’s big voice, there were ticketed vocalists to satisfy all tastes, including Ian Shaw, Anthony Strong, Celia Mur and (with Jools) Roland Gift, Ruby Turner and Louise Marshall.
    In a tribute to foundation-laying festival director Jed Williams there was a Jazz4Jed Bursary concert, featuring Occasional Brass Ensemble and Iron Eye,  recipients of the Williams award. Jed’s still much-missed.
    If this review is tailing off it’s only because there’s too much to report. Leaving out The Impossible Gentlemen (Gwilym Simcock’s band), Gilad Atzmon and mentioning that Art Themen was this year a Fringe act (with the John Gibbons Trio) is simply an indication of how much was going on and where. Next year is the 30th anniversary. Perhaps this year was a geared-up forerunner. Hope so.

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