Review: Brecon Jazz Festival 2012

Bob Weir sees how new boys Orchard Entertainment are getting on in their first year organising Brecon jazz festival against a background of international historical triumph and recent difficulties

Photo: Stan Tracey by Brian Payne

Stan TraceyBrecon has had a difficult record lately. Orchard Entertainment rescued it this year at relatively short notice when Hay Festival (who had themselves rescued it three years ago) decided not to continue.

In the circumstances, Pablo Janczur and his team did a creditable job in putting together a scaled-down event whilst maintaining the festival's high musical standards. They presented 21 major concerts in five venues plus masterclasses, workshops, free street music and an extensive fringe programme in local pubs and clubs. Eschewing big-name US stars, apart from Dionne Warwick and Roy Ayers, they concentrated on "the best of British" and a few classy continentals.

Crowds were inevitably smaller than in the past but most venues were at least three-quarters full and a few were sell-outs. There was a promising attempt to return to the earlier festive atmosphere by involving the whole community, in contrast to Hay Festival's policy of isolating most music in the grounds of Christ College on the edge of town.

Despite the festival's more modest scope, there were still difficult choices to be made. On the Friday I missed Dionne Warwick and World Wide Wales (Huw Warren, Thomas Stronen, Peter Herbert) - both reportedly excellent shows - and Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion (mixed views). I did see the Kit Downes Quintet (rather cerebral until the last two numbers when they displayed their jazz credentials to exciting effect) and the Neil Yates trio's consummate performance of his beguiling compositions from the recent Five Countries album on the Edition label.   

Saturday was special for two brilliant trios. Lighthouse (Tim Garland, Gwilym Simcock, Asaf Sirkis) have the skill and experience to be musically satisfying and entertaining in equal measure. They achieve this, not by showboating, but by superb musicianship, by programming their originals in an intelligent manner and by taking the trouble to explain the background and purpose of each number to the audience.

Trio Libero (Andy Sheppard, Michel Benita, Seb Rochford) are masters of the subtle, insinuating groove and, as usual, rewarded concentrated listening. Claire Martin, Paula Gardiner (with her trio and the Welsh Music College big band), Indigo Kid and Food also appeared with good reports but I heard criticism of the sound and musical qualities of the Roy Ayers concert.

The final day started with a pleasing performance by the Alan Barnes/David Newton duo in the cathedral.
The Stan Tracey Quartet with Bobby Wellins playing Thelonious Monk were in scintillating form - relaxed and inventive with swinging support by Andy Cleyndert and Clark Tracey.

The creative energy of Soweto Kinch's fiery alto and poetic rapping was a suitably uplifting way to end my festival. There was no time, sadly, to take in shows by Yolanda Brown, Joe Webb, the Cardiff University Big Band, Sarah Gillespie and Neil Cowley. 

The organisers can take pride in making the first steps towards restoring Brecon to its former status as one of the UK's best festivals and an important international jazz showcase. There are lessons to be learnt. Younger people were noticeably absent from the concerts I attended, which was not previously the case. Ticket prices at an average of £15 for seventy-five minutes shows (effectively half of a normal concert) must be a factor.

The answer could be to offer substantial discounts to students and the unemployed and to bring back the good-value stroller programme. The overlapping of concert times could easily be remedied by more careful programming. And the awful sound problems in the Market Hall must be rectified - it was never as bad when the BBC recorded there.

Not wishing to end on a critical note, I should emphasise that Orchard Entertainment got most things right and offer the promise of an exciting and sustainable future for the festival.

Your Comments:

Posted by Christian Him, 2 November 2012, 10:31 (1 of 1)

To attend the Brecon Jazz festival can be quite pricey with travelling costs, accomodation, food and the price of tickets. Unless the festival attracts the crowds with American names, it is of no interest to most fans to travel all the way to Wales to hear British bands which we can hear anytime, throughout the year, at a fraction of the cost around where we live.

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