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Brecon Festival Round-Up

This is the second year in which the Brecon Jazz Festival has been run by the Hay Festival team. Last year, newly arrived, they put together a programme in just a few weeks. Before this year’s festival, the organizers were quoting a 25% increase in ticket sales. The final number is bound to be a lot higher.

The main festival programme this year had 47 gigs, plus educational events. There is also a lively fringe programme, often with very little to do with jazz.

SATURDAY (Fran Hardcastle)

Sarah Dennehy’s programming at this year’s Brecon Jazz Festival has been deliciously varied and progressive. Familiar sellout international and British stars such as Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, Gwilym Simcock, Kyle Eastwood and Jacqui Dankworth were programmed along with the now generation, names rapidly becoming just as familiar to jazz audiences.

Gig of the day had to be Portico Quartet.

The attentive, appreciative crowd was an eclectic mix of serious jazz heads, the young and stylish, families and other musicians from the festival, creating an open, European atmosphere. Their latest album, Isla, builds on their distinctive sound by adding loop pedals and real time electronics. We were soaked in soundscapes from the start, with most of the tunes creating texture with layers of sound. Line was a journey of light and shade. Simple melodic lines from Jack Wyllie on sax were introduced over gentle ostinatos on the hang. The use of subtle slow changes to keep the music moving forward was reminiscent of Nik Bartsch’s Ronin. Perhaps the most beautiful of the set was Life Mask. Milo Fitzpatrick’s haunting bowed bass was overdubbed by a tender melody on what appeared to be a child’s glockenspiel. I think it’s the ability to produce the sweetest of sounds that give the quartet such broad appeal. However, Clipper, takes the accessible and becomes a brutal tempest of sound, before returning to delicate motifs and gentle grooving bass. Yet even in the most agressive and challenging moments, such as Jack Wyllie’s boisterous interplay with Duncan Bellamy on drums, you are drawn to go where they take you.

Phronesis.

Jasper Høiby’s compositions combined with the individual excellence of his trio keep creativity to the fore. I had expected to see a few more youthful faces in the audience, but the Kit Downes Trio, overlapping in the programme may have pinched that crowd. A combination of his physicality and confident leadership give Jasper Høiby a hypnotic stage presence. Stand out moments were the moving and lyrical 8 hours. Ivo Neame’s sensitive touch is emotive and captivating. Abraham’s New Gift was thrilling, catching listeners in the first few seconds with a breakneck riff from Hoiby, chasing through moments of invigorating grooves and pulling back for an excellent bass solo. Throughout every piece Anton Eger stood out as the most exciting drummer of the day, playing with delicacy, humour and style. The band sold nearly a hundred CDs at the gig, unsurprisingly.

Jacqui Dankworth followed, the start of her set slightly hampered by technical glitches with the sound levels.

But Dankworth pulled through to deliver a frequently touching set which included several songs penned with her late father. Jacqui’s most prominent attribute as a singer is to play with the colours and tones of her voice to express a song with emotional honesty. Her capacity to convey the meaning of lyrics was highlighted by her bare version of Mood Indigo with brother Alec Dankworth on bass. Other peaks in the set included the fantastic, Lucky Charm, a duet with Charlie Wood, currently nominated in the Downbeat Poll for Best Blues Album. Jacqui’s own song, Sweet Devotion, composed with pianist Malcolm Edmonstone was a poignant gem even on first hearing.

I managed to catch the start of Daniel Yvinec’s Orchestre National de Jazz. Their programme, Around Robert Wyatt, takes the compositions of the Soft Machine musician and delivers them in a jazz setting. Daniel Yvinec invited artists such as Camille and Rokia Traoré to lay down vocal tracks of the English musician’s songs. Arrangements were then created around these vocals. The performance is enhanced by live VJ display behind the band. Rokia Traorés interpretation of Alifib was simply stunning.

Kyle Eastwood provided an invigorating end to the day.

Kyle is an assured but laid back front man, with a strong band. The confident horn section of Graeme Flowers (trumpet) and Graeme Blevins (sax) are a tight line up and killing soloists. With Martyn Kaine, understandably described as ‘mind-blowing’ by Nitin Sawnhey, on drums and Andrew McCormack, also seen on Friday night with Jason Yarde, attentive and imaginative on piano and Rhodes. Tracks from the album Metropolitain such as Samba de Paris, make it difficult to stay confined to your seat. The set also featured the wistful Song for You, a personal favourite of mine. Marrakech from the album Paris Blue had the fans in the audience cheering in anticipation.

Saturday’s programme could only have been improved by progressions in quantum physics, allowing audiences to be in two places at once to see every act.

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SUNDAY (Sebastian)

I asked Izmail how business had been over the jazz festival weekend. The proprietor of Brecon Chicken & Pizza Land, Ship Street just grinned back at me:

“I’m sad, very sad.”

Demand for chicken and pizzas had been so high that the store’s electrics had fused, for the first time ever, shortly after midnight on Saturday night. He’d had to shut up shop. Yes, Brecon was certainly busy last weekend.

Izmael’s Ship Street location, just above the bridge across the Usk (1563) had been well away from the action in previous years. But this year it is right on the festival’s main thoroughfare. Christ’s College (1861), just on the other side of the bridge with its characteristic dark red stone, has become one of the main festival venues, with two stages, a lawn to chill out (this year’s weather was mercifully good), plus the main headquarters and box office.

But what of the Sunday gigs….

Matthew Halsall: “I’ve been here before” was a particularly unpromising song title, but Gavin Barras on bass gave life to the tune’s slow pulse, and Rachael Gladwin on harp brought a fascinating range of colour, from music box and Japanese Koto to impressionistic wash and even the occasional bent note. I’d love to know how she did that, it was very effective.

Keith and Julie Tippett. With a voice in remarkable shape, Julie Tippett set off in a fifty minute set to explore all sorts of extended techniques. No matter what flight of fancy she was embarking on, it was always musical, always sane and balanced, everything worked. The performance would land briefly on a recogizable style or form – klezmer, gospel, a music box playing the theme from The Godfather – and would then withdraw into the half light of abstraction. The pair, and the twists and turns of their unpredictable story, completely held the audience’s attention throughout.

China Moses: At Ronnie’s last year, China Moses’ had responded with unforgettable immediacy to the power of Mark Hodgson on bass and the kicking energy of Rod Youngs on drums. With that memory in mind, her regular French band came across as completely professional, but with fewer volts.

Hypnotic Brass. (Top. Photo Credit William Ellis) “We specialize in positive energy.” “Our plan is to become your favourite band.” Hypnotic Brass’s mission statement was delivered with evangelical zeal, but they are a massively energetic band with huge presence. Four trumpeters in low-slung jeans, hips gyrating, a sousaphone player twisting his shoulders with every beat, it wasn’t long before they had the whole crowd in the Market Hall up on their feet.

Eric Legnini ‘s Brecon Theatre gig was a much quieter affair, but there were many moments to savour . Legnini is a wonderfully subtle and resourceful pianist.I particularly enjoyed his funk-shuffle number “Tripping,” reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal, and Monk’s colourful “Hackensack.” Top French bassist Thomas Bramerie never disappoints.

DJ Sexy Fluff. Having just read Carl Hiaasen’s hilarious and thoroughly recommendable Florida teenage popstar romp “Star Island,” with its climactic scene in Chapter 30 set in Pubes night club, I felt a duty to check out DJ Sexy Fluff. I will learn from such abject mistakes.

Andy Sheppard. Peter Bacon got the character of this band spot on in his CD review in April 2009 (nothing surprising there) “Friendly and welcoming,” he called it. All of these musicians are the real specialists of contributing to a texture. The lively presence of Kuljit Bhamra on tabla and percussion was a delight throughout. His smiling dialogue with stellar bassist Arild Andersen raised the spirits.

Hugh Masekela. If you want a Festival to go out on a high, right from the moment when the main protagonist walks onstage, you get a performer with warmth charisma guaranteed to reach every member of the audience. Hugh Masekela is unique.

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