‘If you agree that jazz music can bring people together, jump on four’.
Well, who would argue with that traditional audience appeal from Courtney Pine; multi-instrumentalist, composer, band-leader, champion of jazz diversity and UK/Caribbean music extraordinaire? And who could resist jumping with him in celebration of his ongoing mission to promote social unity through jazz? Just one of several stars gracing this years Brecon Jazz Festival, Pine has been a key figure on the UK jazz scene for nearly all of the twenty-nine years that the Festival has existed. During that time, he has suffered more professional tribulations than some might realise at the hands of a jazz establishment wary of music which dares to step outside narrowly defined stylistic boundaries. So Pine’s appreciation was heart-felt for an ‘amazing, amazing Festival’ which has all but risen from the ashes over the last few years to present a strongly eclectic line-up of newcomers, emerging talent and established greats for 2013 in venues across the town.
Special praise was offered for Brecon’s promotion of UK artists in an increasingly global and commercial jazz world; a feature of the resurgent Festival which the current organisers, Cardiff-based Orchard Media, sought to bolster in this, their second year at the helm, with a third more gigs scheduled than in 2012 overall. From Pine himself, showcasing his latest, critically acclaimed album House of Legends, to popular figures like Acker Bilk and Jools Holland and younger generations of individualist, ground-breaking artists like Django Bates and Roller Trio (not to mention artist-in-residence Huw Warren, through to a multitude of young and local talent), Brecon Jazz can be said to have assembled its own potential ‘house of legends’ this year – even without the iconic American Mavis Staples, who cancelled at late notice on medical grounds (hopefully she’s recovering well).
Before Pine took to the Market Hall stage on Friday night, his sometime collaborator and band-member Zoe Rahman presented her piano Quintet at Brecon Cathedral (she played on Pine’s previous album Europa whilst he has guested for her as alto flautist). Rahman herself is an excellent band-leader, known for her easy rapport with both ensemble and audience. Tonight she also lived up to her reputation for award-winning exuberant virtuosity, playing with her trademark natural feel and melodic vitality. Her engaging set ranged from the tight, chordal jazz of ‘Down to Earth’ (from the album Kindred Spirits) to alternately dreamy and dancing, swirling tunes from the 2008 album Where Rivers Meet, inspired by her Bengali-English-Irish heritage and co-driven by her talented brother Idris on clarinet/tenor sax. For me, Rahman’s ‘purer’ jazz material tends to be more strikingly emphatic yet also more satisfyingly lyrical, but here, the cathedral acoustic especially suited her eastern-inflected compositions, bringing out the spatial generosity of both lines and textures. Rahman was beautifully supported by long-term Trio regulars Alec Dankworth on pulsating acoustic bass and the molten talent of Gene Calderazzo on drums (both picking out accents and subtle, off-beat nuances with impressive sensitivity), whilst flautist Roland Sutherland proved a tremendous asset to the line-up; not only in terms of enriching the ensemble sound but through the sheer liquid creativity of his solos. Altogether, this was fine music-making of heart and integrity and the sell-out audience showed appreciation in kind.
Later that evening, Courtney Pine and band offered a display of thumping, infectious dynamism. The man is a force of nature and notes cascaded from his soprano sax and EWI alike with Olympian speed and dexterity (EWI stands for the unsexy-sounding ‘electronic wind instrument’. Basically, it’s a wind synthesizer and, in the hands of a musician of Pine’s calibre, a truly potent one – if high-octane, eight-octave pyrotechnics are your thing). House of Legends is an homage to Caribbean music that takes in influences from London to South Africa and Latin America; Pine being keen to point out that Cuba is part of the Caribbean. It is an album unashamedly leaning towards the popular and is laden with ska, merengue and calypso joy – but it is also serious in addressing colonial history for example, with tracks honouring the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaica, as well as dedications to Stephen Lawrence, Nelson Mandela and Claudia Jones among others.
Tonight’s gig was all about celebration and working the crowd, with a line-up essentially comprising an extended, gleefully virtuosic rhythm section of drums, percussion, steel pan, upright stick bass and guitar. On the album, the production values are, as you would expect, slick and attentive to complex rhythmic detail. But much of that was lost in Brecon’s Market Hall, where the resonance reduced the overall sound to a pounding boom at times – if a gloriously happy boom, which seemed not to bother the audience one jot, who revelled in Pine’s showmanship and his witty call-and-response approach. For me, without audible rhythmic intricacy or the swooping harmonic richness of the album’s brass section, the highlights tonight were the individual solos – from Pine himself, but also particularly from Oscar Martinez on percussion and Samuel Dubois on steel pan. Solos across the ensemble ranged stylistically far and wide without abandoning a jazz sensibility – and were most effective when the rest of the band backed off to clear the otherwise thick texture. But it was the overall unquenchable spirit of the gig that really made things fly – so it was almost a relief to be able to stand up and actually dance at Pine’s instigation later in the evening, as sitting in rows to listen to such vibrant, energetic grooves ultimately made no sense.
As well as tunes from House of Legends – perhaps most irresistibly summed up by ‘Liamiuga (Cook Up)’ which both opened and closed the set in dazzling style – Pine made homage to greats of yore in a loving rendition of Johnny Greens’ much-covered classic ‘Body and Soul’. The following evening, in an entirely different kind of gig, super-bass guitarist Laurence Cottle devoted most of his Trios’ set to jazz standards in homage of past-masters like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, as well as evoking – in me at least – nostalgia for the jazz-fusion of figures like Herbie Hancock, Bill Bruford and the lamented genius, Jaco Pastorius. Who knows how many years of stage, session and other studio experience are represented by Cottle’s Trio? But what he, Mornington Lockett (tenor sax) and Ian Thomas (drums) don’t know about chops, licks and standards is probably not worth knowing. Indeed, their set at Brecon’s Castle Hotel (Saturday 10th – a popular venue on the Brecon Fringe Festival and new for Brecon Jazz this year) had me reflecting that the word ‘standard’ seems somehow too prosaic to describe the repertoire gold that has been bequeathed to us from, say, the thirties on down through the bebop years via figures like Parker, Coltrane and so many others. The sheer creativity that this inheritance continues to inspire speaks for itself – as it did with eloquence throughout this set.
Cottle’s Trio is, of course, led from the bass – on this occasion a five-string fretted – and the approach is ‘old-school’, but none the worse for that. Where he, Lockett and Thomas excel is in their breathtaking instrumental skill and musical inventiveness, both as a unit and individually; for example, playing Miles Davies’ ‘Donna Lee’ over the chords to Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ – and encompassing so many passing references to further tunes that I, for one, could not keep up. From rusty mellow sax sounds to hard-edged, bubbling grooves and funky walking bass lines, this was a set about the music and nothing but the music. A particular stand-out for me was Pat Metheny’s ‘Question and Answer’, which was delivered with soul and no small passion; Cottle’s playing here and throughout full of lovely chordal touches and ringing harmonics. All in all, it was the kind of sub-textual homage to Pastorius that only the most brilliant of bassists in their own right could pull off. An excellent gig and in need of no extra fanfare for the contented crowd.
This year, the Brecon Jazz Festival showcased a wealth of exciting, diverse takes on the classic jazz trio, both traditional and more modern in approach; not least – in some ways, straddling both camps – the exceptional trio Phronesis, who played a packed Theatr Brecheiniog at the other end of town, ahead of Cottle’s gig that same Saturday evening, August 10th. This earlier gig turned out to be the highlight of my visit to the Festival. A mixed British/Scandinavian line-up, comparisons between Phronesis and Sweden’s erstwhile E.S.T. have, to my mind, been overstated – however genuine the excitement in doing so; for, as well as being international in membership, Phronesis’ style is entirely different from that of E.S.T., tending more towards alternate tightly-wrought Latin and a loose-limbed, off-camber swing than the electronics-exploring, clean, Scandi jazz-rock fusion so formerly beloved of Esbjörn Svensson and his cohorts (E.S.T. also having been an excellent band, and so cruelly curtailed by the tragic early death of their founder/leader in 2008).
Phronesis, too, is not so much a piano trio as a double-bass trio, formed by brilliant composer-bassist Jasper Høiby in 2005, with Ivo Neame providing spare but expressive pianism and Anton Eger an exemplar of subtle, textural drumming. As with all chamber ensembles, though, it’s the telepathic co-creativity that lifts a good band into greatness, and this was amply demonstrated by Phronesis in Brecon tonight. If I was being über-picky, I’d say that not all the compositions came off entirely – or, at least, not yet; the point of the set being audience feedback, as the band were boldly presenting brand new material in preparation for recording later this year. But even the works-in-progress were top-level stuff and November’s live recording at the London Jazz Festival is sure to be fantastic. At any rate, the band warmed up, from the opening, splashy (mainly in a good way) ‘Out of Control’, through increasing delicacy and nervy-but-cool edginess in tracks like ‘Herne Hill’ to complete lift-off in the superb ‘Behind Bars’. From Eger’s hollow skitters and metallic rim-shots to the deceptively loping, tight unisons and octaves of Høiby and Neame, this is not a band afraid of the silence between the notes, regardless of their continual, tumbling energy (skipping on gravel comes to mind). Nor is it afraid of going off on tangents, with a constant kind of ‘slippage’ that produces the most thrilling, propulsive jazz, as phrases are hung in space before being swept up into new, cycling grooves and back again. In short, Phronesis are a marvel. As an encore, ‘Suede Trees’ was offered from last year’s beautifully thoughtful album Walking Dark. It’s not often that a drums solo makes me weep for joy, but on this occasion, Eger completed what for me was a profoundly musical experience by weaving a web of such intense, almost melodic intricacy that I was simply stunned. Judging from the audience’s enraptured response, I was not the only one.
Coming back to Courtney Pine’s optimism for jazz as a unifying social force, the carnival atmosphere on Brecon’s streets was palpable as I walked back and forth across the town at various points during the Festival. Certainly, the festive mood was helped by the road closures on Saturday, which allowed venues to spill music and people outside – but, more importantly, by Orchard’s ongoing determination to return to the Festival’s more street-based roots, focusing on venues in Brecon itself rather than with gigs taking place in marquees on the outskirts of town. A vital factor, though, for me, is that the Jazz Festival runs alongside an increasingly exciting Brecon Fringe Festival. This sister event offers its own profusion of live – mostly free – music and entertainment at further venues in town throughout the three-day period. Hence, the Jazz Festival’s scheduling of a late-night Saturday DJ set from Snowboy at the Jazz Club (Market Hall), for example, helped to cut across the supposed boundaries between Jazz Festival-goers, Fringe Festival-goers and local revellers. As in so many areas and on so many levels, partnership seems the way forward in the successful promotion of ties between local and global, street festival and international showcase, to mutual benefit. This year, Brecon Jazz Festival proved that it is possible to do all these things, both in terms of its remit to serve a wide swathe of international jazz fans coming from near and far, and for the local community, together with the Brecon Fringe. If the success of 2013 can be built upon for next year, the 30th anniversary will be one hell of a party.