Brecon Jazz: a resounding success

Brecon Jazz Festival is back on track with strong programming, efficient organisation and impressive audience numbers


Report by Bob Weir
Pix by Tim Dickeson



Clare TealThis year's festival, the 28th, took over the historic Welsh market town for a mid-August long weekend and was a resounding success by any measure. The Hay Festival people had responsibility for the third time and the organisational improvements were evident everywhere. Everything ran smoothly with gigs generally starting and finishing on time and the ticketing and marshalling arrangements being efficient and friendly.

Main events were concentrated at the edge-of-town Christ College (three large marquees and a couple of halls in the college) plus the vast Market Hall and the ancient cathedral. Administrative services and the social gathering area for refreshments and sales were again all together in the spacious college fields. The Edition Records tent was always busy selling their own albums and those of many other headliners.

With 50 major concerts, punters were always faced with multiple choices across a wide range of jazz styles. There were big-name attractions  - Courtney Pine, Monty Alexander, Allen Toussaint, Maceo Parker with the BBC Big Band & Femi Kuti - but the strong emphasis was on highly gifted, youngish British groups.

Running in parallel with the jazz festival were over 200 fringe events in 30 pubs and clubs around town offering an even greater diversity of music (not all jazz) and mostly with free admission. There were lots of Welsh bands, workshops, exhibitions and children's activities. 

My festival started with a super show by singer (and radio presenter) Clare Teal (pictured above) with brilliant accompaniment from pianist Jason Rebello and featuring songs by British composers from her new CD, Hey Ho. The Matthew Herbert Big Band was a sort of funky blend of Weimar cabaret orchestra and Loose Tubes (of fond memory) with a canny eye to zany presentation.

The brass playing was spectacular. John Surman's free improvising over a string quartet on ECM material was mesmerising. The late show by trumpeter Rory Simmons' Fringe Magnetic (a nine-piece of mostly young classical players  and two singers - but with Ivo Neame (p) and Jasper Hoiby (b) providing the jazz content) attracted and satisfied a young crowd.

Things got off to a rocky start on Saturday for Terry Seabrook's Milestones with their trumpet player missing through illness - particularly unfortunate for a Miles Davis tribute - but Alan Barnes and Clark Tracey ensured that the rejigged jam on Miles favourites was enjoyable.

Zoe RahmanThe day's big event was a three-hour double-header by effervescent pianist Zoe Rahman and Courtney Pine's Europa all-stars. Zoe, and her clarinettist brother Idris Rahman (pictured right), were hugely entertaining with a mix of good originals and standards. Courtney's versatile septet (including Zoe again after a quick change of frock) were inspirational on pieces from his recent Europa CD and deserved their standing ovation.

Monty Alexander's Trio brought a touch of Caribbean sunshine with some nicely reworked standards and Bob Marley classics. The bright mood continued for singer/pianist Allen Toussaint's seemingly endless succession of R&B and soul hits.

The most unusual festival session occurred when coming superstars Phronesis (bassist Jasper Høiby, pictured below right) opted to play their set in pitch blackness as a way of exploring the nature of our sensory relationship with music. It was certainly effective in concentrating attention on the sounds with no visual distractions so that every note became significant. More important was the sheer creative quality of this enormously talented trio.

Saturday ended with the fruitful collaboration of saxist Gilad Atzmon and the Sigamos String Quartet playing rearranged Charlie Parker numbers from the Bird With Strings LP in fresh and free interpretations.

The short straw for Sunday's midday opening fell to Bristolian Sam Crowe's Group, suffering a bit from the previous night's hangover but staying purposeful and creative on a set of Sam's tunefully meandering themes.

PhronesisItalian saxist Tommaso Starace's quartet were relaxed and inventive playing his originals and tributes to his heroes Cannonball Adderley and Michel Petrucciani. Matthew Halsall's unusually constituted Gondwana Orchestra, with strings, harp, bamboo flute and sitar, looked and sounded like recent college graduates. Matthew's mid-period Miles trumpet, stripped of Davis's blues and soul, was suitably moody and hypnotic but it all sounded rather academic for my taste.

There was greater depth of feeling from Robert Glasper's Experiment quartet in the sadly half-empty Market Hall. The pianist used Coltrane/Hancock/Ayers/Kirkland numbers as the starting points for exciting free improvisation, grooves and creative interaction with his bassist and drummer and busy multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin.

After that it was all unpretentious entertainment to bring the festival to its climax. Mina Agossi - petite, pert and pretty - sang expertly in several languages with guest trumpeter Sue Richardson to leave the capacity crowd shouting for more.

Femi Kuti's large African ensemble, replete with hip-shaking dancers, continued the party mood to a rousing near-midnight finish.

The festival has changed quite radically over the past three years - mostly for the good. The concentration of jazz and social gathering at Christ College means that the event is semi-detached from the town. This may have implications for local support but it has the benefit of reducing the impact of late night yobbery which marred enjoyment of some earlier festivals.

Overall, it is back on track as one of the most celebrated (musicians seem to love playing there) and satisfying UK jazz festivals with an ever-increasing international reputation. The impressive numbers and wide age range of visitors, with young people predominant for several of the more interesting cutting-edge groups, all bodes well for the future.

Hardcore jazz fans put off in recent years by organisational failings - irregular starts, short-change sets, queues etc - can be assured that things are much better now and it's time to try Brecon again. Keep in touch with news of next year at www.breconjazz.org.


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