Review: Brecon Jazz Festival

A revamped Brecon Jazz Festival included Zoe Rahman and Gilad Atzmon, but, says Bob Weir, Quercus was the surprise standout, even if it wasn't jazz

The festival in its second year under Orchard management has stabilised after a previous sticky patch when its future seemed at risk; not as a return to the glory days under the late Jed Williams' artistic direction, but as a smaller and less star-studded showcase for mostly UK talent. On this basis 2013 should be considered a success. The programme was suitably varied with a core of creative contemporary bands. Many concerts were full and most were close to capacity.

I attended seven events over the three days and enjoyed them all. On Friday Zoe Rahman was dynamic and distinctive on a set of mostly originals. She described them as "a bit Bengali and a bit Irish" and they were all solid swinging jazz. Gilad Atzmon was also in good form playing city-associated compositions from his new Music Of The Metropolis album.

Saturday started with a very impressive show by students and recent graduates from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, presented by their Head of Jazz Paula Gardiner and directed by tutors Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy. The ensemble playing in big band, tentet and octet formats was consistently excellent and there were several very promising soloists. Phronesis (bassist Jasper Høiby pictured) on their third Brecon appearance thrilled the packed Guildhall with all new material. The imminent CD promises to be something special.

The last day was spent at the cathedral with its inspiring architecture and superb acoustics. Laura Jurd with her trio may look like fresh-faced students but her trumpet playing and composing have matured considerably since I first saw her at the Spice Of Life pub two years ago. John Surman with supergroup support from Chris Laurence and John Marshall filled the vast space with everything from delicate birdsong to big-toned swingers.

Rather to my surprise, the last concert by Quercus (June Tabor - v, Iain Ballamy - ts, and Huw Warren - p) was the most riveting and it was not even jazz (my wife made me go). The singer's stark voice and compelling intensity with matchless accompaniment turned traditional folk songs and highly personal interpretations of Jobim, Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, A E Houseman and Robert Burns into sheer magic.

I still miss the stroller programme of cheaper tickets and the outdoor stages. My seven concerts (sometimes not much longer than an hour) came to over £100 – imagine that for a couple with kids. Consequently, audiences were on the elderly side and there was not much of a festive atmosphere around the town aside from a few mediocre buskers. So I repeat my plea in last year's report for the organisers to consider ways of encouraging younger people to attend, especially as several of the bands seemed geared to their taste. I recognise that times (and the economy) have changed and the present format may be the price for keeping this important festival afloat.

Photos by Tim Dickeson

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