Review: Brecon Jazz Festival 2014

Bob Weir attends Brecon's 30th jazz festival, opened by Burt Bacharach and featuring Warren Vaché, Marius Neset, and the revived Loose Tubes orchestra

After a few lean years, Brecon in its 30th year is well on the way to recovery. There was no longer the host of the biggest names and UK exclusives of the late artistic director Jed Williams's glory years, but the programme was impressive with something for everyone.

The festival started on Thursday evening with a rare UK appearance by Burt Bacharach (pictured below). I was not there but I heard very good reports of this imaginative opener. On the following three days there were always multiple choices, often with three or four very appealing overlapping attractions. It was not possible to see everything so the first task was to select from the 38 main ticketed concerts and several times as many free-entry and mostly non-jazz fringe events.

Friday kicked off with a satisfying set by Warren Vaché with Alan Barnes. Warren was at Brecon for the very first festival in 1984 so this compatible pairing with a good rhythm section was an astute choice. The festival coup was undoubtedly bagging the final appearance this summer of Loose Tubes (pictured below). They were at Brecon in 1985 and 1988 and many veteran attendees remembered the impact they made then. They performed old and new material with the same brash excitement and inventiveness and seemed reluctant to leave the stage after several rapturously received encores.

My three main Saturday choices were all in the visual and acoustical splendour of Brecon Cathedral. The duo of Don Weller and David Newton last played together 24 years ago but you would hardly know it from their mutual empathy. Their set of standards, including some unusual ones (Hey There from The Pyjama Game and Mal Waldron's lovely Soul Eyes), were utterly captivating. Festival artist-in-residence Huw Warren's quartet with Iain Ballamy, Steve Watts and Martin France presented his jazz suite based on Dylan Thomas poems. Comparisons with Stan Tracey's iconic Under Milk Wood were inevitable but the new work was sufficiently different to make them irrelevant. A striking feature was the use of the poet's recorded voice during a couple of numbers. The late concert was by rapidly rising star Marius Neset (pictured above right) with his new quartet featuring the brilliant Ivo Neame on piano. Marius was in majestic form although the big tone and strong attack of his former partner bassist Jasper Høiby was missed.

The cathedral was also my favoured venue for three superb concerts on Sunday. The quintet of the young Trish Clowes (pictured right) with Gwilym Simcock featured on piano impressed equally for the leader's adventurous originals and her fluent free-improv soloing.

It was a pleasure to hear piano legend John Taylor's trio with Palle Danielsson and Martin France in an intimate rendering of his old and recent compositions plus his very individual reworking of My Funny Valentine. An unexpected highlight of the weekend was the engaging Christine Tobin singing Leonard Cohen favourites. She was true to the spirit of Cohen with touches of Irish and Latin and a little scatting for flavour.

All photography by John Watson, except Burt Bacharach by Brian Payne

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