Brecon Festival. Round-up of Sunday

Brecon Jazz Festival 2011
Photo credit: Finn Beales
Jon Turney reviews Sunday August 14th, the last day of the 2011 Brecon Jazz Festival (Sebastian’s write-up of the Saturday is on the JazzFM website ).

Brecon’s long-standing jazz jamboree now seems happily re-established in the third year after its rescue from oblivion by the Welsh Arts Council and the Hay Festival organisers. The atmosphere, one gathers, has changed. The extensive fringe festival goes on, but the town’s streets were not exactly thronged on Sunday. The “official” festival now mainly uses venues in and around Christ’s College, along with the Market Hall and the Cathedral. The two now seem pretty separate – there’s almost a town and gown feel. But the College is pleasant enough, and benefits from the beautiful setting in the Welsh Hills, though it really needs a couple more decent catering stands for people who are basically spending the day there.

And the music? Goodies in abundance – enough to bring on that authentic festival sensation that you are missing as much as you have time to hear. Even more so if you only make one day of the Friday-through-Sunday programme. Hard to choose a day, too. The number of folk who were raving about Phronesis’ Saturday triumph in the dark, and Matthew Herbert’s Big Band when we arrived on Sunday made me wistful, but the feeling soon abated as we got on with the day. A reminder, though, that you can’t really review Brecon, merely report on a small selection of what’s on offer…

Noon on Sunday always feels early for jazz, but plenty of folk turned out to hear up-and-coming South West vocalist Emily Wright. Her band, Moonlight Saving Time, are one of those recently-left-music-school ensembles who can be merely proficient, if eager to please. Not so here. Wright’s voice is a lovely jazz instrument, accurate and flexible. She has a fairly light sound – you won’t hear her belting it out in front of a big band, I don’t think, and some of her best moments were in duo with guitarist Jon Hyde or, especially, bassist Will Harris. But she also has a fondness for Chick Corea’s trickier melodies – we heard three of them – and delivers them in convincing unison with Nick Malcolm’s fluent trumpet. Interesting repertoire, some nice wordless vocal soloing: a satisfying hour to start things off.

Then the traditional Brecon short, sharp shower on the way up to the Cathedral to hear the UK debut of Meadow, drummer Thomas Stronen’s trio with fellow Norwegian Tore Brunberg on saxes and John Taylor on piano. They began as if indeed intent on Sunday worship, of a rather austere deity. This was music of small sounds and subtle movements, rather reinforcing the Nordic jazz stereotype, and not so much evoking a mood as insisting you share it. If you didn’t, and I wasn’t feeling that way inclined, it seemed as if they have taken less is more too much to heart. There were striking moments, and one could savour their control and finesse, but this seemed like musical nouvelle cuisine, arranged to look striking on the plate rather than to satisfy the appetite.

Things livened up after the first three quarters of an hour. There were some lively stretches where Brunberg varied his tone from Andy Sheppard at his most ethereal to something a little more resonant and the three together sounded somewhat like Keith Jarrett’s old European quartet, sans bass. Then the set was over. Unusually, I suspect this trio work better on CD, to sample when already in the mood, though my companion, more contemplative than I on the day, felt more positive.

In contrast, the set from Nostalgia 77 back at the College was all hooks and grooves. Leader Ben Lamdin’s compositions appeal and singer Josa Peit enlivened some numbers – Simmer Down was one of several songs with a nice, crockpot groove, but slight lyrics. Jazz interest lay mostly in the instrumentals, though, particularly a new piece called Taxidermist (I think), which provoked a fine sax solo from James Allsopp. Otherwise the players seemed more constrained than inspired by Lamdin’s concept, though the rhythm team of Tim Giles on drums and Riaan Vosloo on bass kept things moving with real energy.

Rhythm was a dominant feature of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s ill-attended (barely 100 people) set in the wide-open space of the Market Hall. Earlier shows by this band (the electric one) have been well-received here (LINK), but they didn’t work for me. This is a bunch of highly skilled musicians but the result of their efforts seems a bit all over the place. A Love Supreme voiced through a vocoder is a terrible idea, really. Add rhapsodic piano over hefty beats, a rambling bass solo on Yesterday, and we were not beguiled. I guess not all experiments work. Jazz is the teacher, and funk is the preacher, but I think these guys got a bit confused about the message. Pity.

So we ducked out of this after an hour to grab a bite and return to the cathedral for something not experimental in the least. Art Themen and John Etheridge’s quartet played, as Art said, a jazz club set. Listening to them chewing over some tasty standards, much enlivened by Alec Dankworth on bass, while the evening light faded in this fine building was a good way to end the day. A few hundred others thought so, too.

Enough for one day. Much was missed, as glimpsed in a meander across the green spaces of the College mid-afternoon – Maceo Parker could be heard cruising along in front of the BBC Big Band from the big tent, while a step away Led Bib drew their set to a close in uncharacteristically mellow style on one of the smaller stages. But we left pleased with our selections. Four interesting, varied sets and one dud isn’t a bad day’s listening. And if there was no single performance as compelling as, say, Steve Coleman at Newport last week courtesy of NPR, it was certainly a real jazz festival. We could have made a completely different selection and been equally satisfied. Think we might have to do two days next year…

Brecon Jazz Festival Website

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