Review: Brecon Jazz Festival 2015

The Brecon Jazz Festival's high quality programme gave Bob Weir a packed weekend of enjoyable music, from Dr John's blues to Scott Hamilton's set of standards and Phronesis's free expression

It is a pleasure to report that Orchard promoters have this important festival back on track after a few difficult years. The emphasis again is on attractions with strong appeal to jazz fans. This year (7-9 August) the only pop event was by former Kinks singer Ray Davies on Friday evening and if this helps to subsidise the jazz so much the better. With 40 concerts and master-classes in eight venues over the weekend, most styles of jazz and jazz-related music were covered.

So much was happening and with inevitable programme clashes choices were difficult. I managed to attend nine concerts and I enjoyed them all.

On Friday, I missed the Kenny Barron-Dave Holland Duo due to its early 5.30 pm start. Some people thought it was possibly the best concert of the festival. There was adequate compensation in a brilliant performance by Norma Winstone (pictured right) with her 10-year partners Glauco Venier on piano and Klaus Gesing on reeds. She sang quality numbers by Nick Drake, Peter Gabriel and Tom Waits and several originals by her accompanists with her own expressive and passionate lyrics.

The music on Saturday was outstanding. Neil Cowley (pictured below left) paid tribute to his early jazz piano hero Dudley Moore. Dud’s better known as an actor and comedian, and Neil included lots of humour in his concert. There were several tunes from the Decca LP The Other Side Of Dudley Moore and numbers written for films and TV shows. They were played in Neil's distinctive style but with nods both to Dudley and the latter's own inspiration Erroll Garner. Cheeky snatches from the Derek And Clive albums were also included.

Scott Hamilton (pictured below right) is a Brecon mainstay, having appeared fairly regularly since 1988. He had the support of his long term trio, John Pearce (p), Dave Green (b) and Steve Brown (d). He played tuneful standards in his signature style which evoked memories of all the great middle period tenor saxists. Perhaps his ravishing, ultra-slow interpretation of The Shadow Of Your Smile was the highlight.

Partisans (Phil Robson (g), Julian Siegel (reeds), Thad Kelly (b) and Gene Calderazzo (d)) have been together for nearly 20 years. This experience showed in their tightly integrated brand of jazz funk with exciting soloists in Robson and Siegel. Kelly quietly held things together by providing the foundation on which the others built. Calderazzo is a phenomenal, hard-driving drummer - a bit like an agitated child who persists in kicking up a ruckus while the adults are trying to hold a civilized musical conversation. They played original material from their new album.

Dr John came to Brecon to party with his Spirit Of Satch tribute to Louis Armstrong show. He was aided by the organisers' inspired decision to add a UK horn section and Slowly Rolling Camera's dynamic singer Dionne Bennett to his regular US group to create a big band sound. He played Louis' hits, What A Wonderful World and Mack The Knife, some oldies from Armstrong's early days, Gut Bucket Blues, Ske-Dat-De-Dat and Didn't He Ramble, Satch-associated ballads and gospel numbers. Dionne was powerfully passionate on the latter and a visual treat as she danced energetically side-stage between songs. Her antics created a virtual one-girl Second Line. The leader's rolling blues piano solos, richly imbued with the musical spirit of New Orleans, impressed me most but the packed audience loved it all.

Sunday started engagingly with a Barcelona-based swing to bop quintet co-led by Andrea Motis and Joan Chamorro. Andrea played accomplished trumpet and sang standards and bossa novas in English, Catalan and Italian. Joan was equally good on tenor-sax and bass. They were personable but rather derivative in style and repertoire.

Songs For Quintet was an emotional affair. It featured the musicians and original songs from Kenny Wheeler's final album for ECM with Gwilym Simcock standing-in for Kenny. Stan Sulzmann, John Parricelli, Chris Laurence, Martin France and Gwilym paid fulsome tribute to a true legend of our music. They also took the opportunity to honour the memory of another recently deceased master, the pianist John Taylor, with a lovely interpretation of his Ambleside.

My final concert and definitely one of the best was by the remarkably gifted Phronesis trio. Jasper Høiby, Ivo Neame and Anton Eger have developed a high degree of interacting improvisation and mutually supporting freedom of expression. They performed new music by the band members which will be recorded in October at Abbey Road Studios. With material of this quality, their new album is sure to be another big success.

I was sorry not to see Julian Arguelles, Courtney Pine-Zoe Rahman, Martin Taylor, Digby Fairweather, Gareth Williams as well as Barron-Holland. But this is the great thing about the rejuvenated Brecon - there is tempting music everywhere throughout the weekend. The frustration of missed favourites is made up for by the overall high quality of the programme. Long may it continue.

Photos by Brian Payne

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