|Brecon Jazz Festival|
(Christ College, Brecon & other venues, Fri 12- Sun 14 Aug)
Things are already buzzing around the town but the jazz festival action is even more concentrated in the Christ College grounds. My first jazz appetiser is The Outlaw Collective, a brisk quintet of youngsters led by Berklee graduate Cameron Outlaw on drums and including the ever entertaining Karl Rashid on bass. They go for it with energy, group meltdown punctuated by impressively structured passages. There’s an immensity of structure in the Matthew Herbert Big Band (pictured below) set, too, with his theatrical pieces full of originality in instrumentation and Alice Grant’s impeccable delivery of the elliptical politics of the songs. Herbert presides from the front, sampling and remixing the sounds which include crushed newspapers and the collective gasping of his ensemble. The set really is a performance piece to watch as well as hear and Grant’s composed elegance is a key ingredient. After that grandeur, Fringe Magnetic might have seemed downsized but, happily, they are more than able to catch their audience with Rory Simmons’s distinctly English compositions exploiting the acoustic mix of classic jazz rhythm section and a semi-classical blend of strings and reeds. The tunes are tight but endlessly embellished by the nine-piece band (which marks my first glimpse of bassist-in-residence Jasper Hoiby), and while the addition of Elizabeth Nygaard’s vocals on ‘Awake Like This’ is electrifying, it is when she is later joined by the Waitsian gruffness of Andrew Plummer that the whole thing comes together perfectly.
Heavy-eyed from the campsite, it’s a bit of a struggle for me to get to the Cathedral for Milestones, pianist Terry Seabrook’s tribute to the great Mr Davies. They begin with tunes from ‘Kind Of Blue’, and trumpeter Graham Flowers has that tone down just right, while Seabrook’s sketchy playing has the Bill Evans lightness. The near acoustic sound fills the big space of the Cathedral impressively and all is going swimmingly, if predictably, when Flowers is suddenly taken ill, mid-set. This leaves the twin saxes of Alan Barnes and Ian Price to take the melodic strain for ‘All Blue’, with Barnes in particular bringing his bebop alto and baritone to the fore. French outfit Rocking Chair bring things up to date with a bang, a mix of ambient electronics and psychedelic rock that never takes itself too seriously but that is a mere prelude to the first ‘discovery’ of the weekend; vocalist Sara Mitra (pictured below) appearing over in the Market Hall with pretty much the whole of Nostalgia 77 behind her. Presenting with all the charming stagecraft of a classic jazz singer, her chirpily delivered ‘love’ songs are actually barbed and cynically realistic cautionary tales bursting with musical ebullience. It’s a bitter-sweet cocktail made compelling by her superb voice and the band’s shimmering presence, and a complete contrast to Jasper Hoiby’s trio Phronesis who perform their set in as near pitch darkness as blackout curtains and Health & Safety permit. Inspired, sadly, by Hoiby’s sister losing her sight, this lightless experience hopes to make us more aware of the music but the general intensity of their group improvisations lacks the dynamics to make the most of it. It’s still great music, though. Finally it’s back to the Market Hall for another experiment, familiar festival faces Polar Bear joining MC Jyager for a ‘cut-up’ of their music. It’s an impressive sound, but the overwhelming presence of the lyrics has a reductive effect on the music, Seb Rochford’s drumming untypically formulaic and the saxes of Pete Wareham and Shabaka Hutchins mostly offering punctuation. After that wall of sound, the more spacious and ambient music of Matthew Halsall feels anticlimactic and too reflective for a ‘closer’, though the rhythm combination of Clive Hunt (bass) and Luke Flowers (drums) is a solid enough foundation for late-night grooving.
After my second night in the campsite (deathcore vs Ibiza rave), I am in dire need of coffee to appreciate Emily Wright’s Moonlight Saving Time. It’s great to see her first big festival gig rewarded with a full house and she clearly lives up to their expectations. Nick Malcolm’s Chet-styled trumpet and Jon Hyde’s absorbing guitar both do their part in colouring the sound, but it’s Emily’s rich vocalisation and her flawless alto range that make songs like ‘Orange Blossom In Summertime’ and ‘You Must believe in Spring’ so riveting. After that it’s time for today’s Jasper Hoiby moment, this time as part of the Sam Crowe Group (pictured top). The young pianist’s compositions are a generous gift to his quintet, allowing all to shine while Crowe hovers over the keyboard attentively. Adam Waldmann’s penetrating soprano sax and Will Davies’s intense guitar are starry enough, but the persuasive assertion of the Jarretty piano playing on tunes like ‘Circles’ never lets the parts overtake the whole. Excellent. The ever-popular Nostalgia 77 (pictured below) reappear with Ben Lamdin at the helm and guest vocalist Josa Peit. Starting in familiar Afro-funk territory, the set ranges through blues, folk and, in ‘The Taxidermist’, veers towards dub. It’s all good but feels more suited to a late evening than a bright afternoon, with the excellent players restrained by song structures until the final number breaks into a funk free-for-all and there’s energy at last. Or maybe that’s just sleeplessness kicking in? I decide I can do just one more gig and go for the Robert Glasper Experiment, which more than lives up to that name. With Glasper stockaded between keyboards and grand piano and the stage lit to hide rather than reveal his quartet, the performance is intriguingly disjointed. It’s hard to know if this was planned, or a response to the situation but there seems to be a conscious effort to not gel the ingredients, with Derrick Hodge’s full-strength bass guitar, Chris Hodges’s fractured drums and Glasper’s wash of piano almost in their own time frames. The weirdest ingredient is sax-player Casey Benjamin’s vocoder vocals. With his angular frame and Little Richard Afro-quiff hair, he looks like a cartoon character, and when they unify, finally, around a version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, they suddenly become a futuristic covers band from an old sci-fi B-movie. It’s an intriguing set to end on, leaving questions to ponder all the way home.
This was the third year of the Hay Festival’s management of Brecon Jazz and it’s become a really great festival again. If there was formerly a legacy of the mainstream about the event, then Sarah Dennehy’s programming has moved it towards a really impressive coming together of the new and the challenging. Centring the festival at Christ College makes excellent sense and gives the weekend a much-needed focus away from the hubbub of the town itself. And that’s the rub, really. Standing on the college lawn you could not fail to be aware of a conflict: a Tale of Two Cultures featuring the best of tunes and the worst of tunes – Led Bib versus a not-too-great U2 tribute band playing across the river. It’s clear that what was once the fringe aspect of the jazz festival has now become its own Brecon Binge festival, with a programme of mainly rock covers and electric blues, and that is what’s wanted by the hundreds of people who converge on the town and carouse through the night. The separation is complete and each now gets in the way of the other, inevitably raising the question of why have the jazz festival there any longer? Contemplating a move would be hard, I’m sure, for the longstanding trustees and friends but I can’t believe they are comfortable in those lairy streets thronging with 24 hour party people. And how I’d love just once to camp, sleep soundly and wake with an unbroken tent! (Tony Benjamin)
Copyright Tony Benajmin 2011