Brecon Jazz Festival

Live | Brecon Jazz Festival 2015

Ray Davies and Band – The Grolsch Market Hall, Brecon, August 7 2015

‘Spirit of Satch’: Dr. John interprets Louis Armstrong, Featuring Sarah Morrow, musical Director, with special guests – The Grolsch Market Hall, August 8 2015

Masterclass: Gareth Williams: ‘Tricks of the Trade’: Find your Strengths and Deal with your Weaknesses – Christ College, Brecon, August 8 2015


Brecon Jazz Festival has a fine line to walk. In view of its past insolvency, reprieve by Hay Festival and now Orchard Entertainment, it has to provide bona fide fare for the jazz cognoscenti while ensuring it breaks even, at least. With so reputable an artiste as Norma Winstone not filling a venue, despite winning the Parliamentary Jazz Vocalist of the Year award, Brecon Jazz needed a sure-fire name to boost numbers at the start of the weekend.

Though with little reference to jazz, Ray Davies was that artiste, kicking off with a faux rendering of the Kinks’ breakthrough single ‘You Really Got Me’ before launching into rousing versions of ‘I Need You’, ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone’ and ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’, all b-sides of more famous hits, as if to say some of his favourites weren’t always the songs that got the 60’s airplay. A steward I was talking to thought the response during the early part of the show too muted, prompting him to lead the applause and participation. He needn’t have worried. The audience warmed to Ray Davies’ invitations to share his vocal effort, then, mid-set during ‘Come Dancing’, people flocked to the front and kept dancing even to acoustic ballads such as ‘Oklahoma USA’ right to the end. Davies took no interval break and only a token pause before the encore (‘Waterloo Sunset’).

Brecon Jazz Festival
Ray Davies and band. Photo credit, Peter Gaskell.

Trim and dapperly-dressed, Ray Davies was energetic in his vocal delivery and expressive with his arms when not playing his semi-acoustic guitar. Occasionally, a physical movement suggested the frailty of an aging body when it ended awkwardly to coincide with a note of musical theatricality. His voice held up well to the end although, on some slower numbers, like ‘Days’, he occasionally missed the right pitch when hitting the key changes. His band showed they could rock out, particularly on ’20th Century Man’, generally being tight rather than virtuoso. His lead guitarist from Cork played several styles including country and some slide – and was best when incorporating blues phrasing into his soloing, but I did miss the fierce bright guitar break that made ‘Till The End Of The Day’ such a powerful recording. The rhythm guitarist really came into his own when he played such expressive lead on ‘Celluloid Heroes’.

There were a couple of new Americana songs in the middle of the set (‘I Heard That Beat Before’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Cowboys’) before Davies recounted how the great repertoire of Kinks songs began. Playing a blues riff on the family piano, he egged on his 16 year-old brother Dave into working up a guitar riff, the one that would stun the world of pop in 1964 and undoubtedly heralded the arrival of punk rock more than a decade later. I could listen to Ray Davies as an engaging raconteur all night, charmingly wry particularly about his relationship with his brother and their reputation as unruly misfits, which made touring difficult and meant the USA didn’t really appreciate the Kinks until the following decade. They were told never to come back to Neath too, the reasons for which we were left to wonder about. “What d’yer reckon, Brecon?” might have been his response, his catchphrase of the evening.

Brecon Jazz Festival
Dr. John. Photo credit, Elsa Hahne.

By contrast Dr. John was no raconteur, nor did he move as easily as the elfin Davies. Late by fifteen or more minutes, his band came on stage following some slow handclapping. The delay was not acknowledged and Dr. John’s trombonist and arranger Sarah Morrow had to repeat her MC introduction because the crowd failed to respond with sufficient excitement the first time, doubtless unimpressed by the delay. Dr. John then slowly shuffled onstage with the aid of two canes, adorned with bangles in similar voodoo style to his hat with feathers, to take his seat at the piano bedecked with a human skull at centre stage.

The instrumental introduction then became recognisable as a funky, up-tempo version of Satchmo’s most familiar song, ‘What A Wonderful World’, embellished and driven by the Doctor’s inimitable piano style, and a trumpet solo by Percy Pursglove, the first of many fine performances of the evening. Before finishing with old favourite ‘Such A Night’, the set largely featured many of the songs on his recent album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch – ‘Mack the Knife’, ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’, ‘That’s My Home’, ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’, ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, and ‘When You’re Smiling (the Whole World Smiles with You)’. Several of them were vitalised by local resident Dionne Bennett on vocals, a tall, slim Cleo Laine lookalike with a flowing cape and a soulful voice like Joss Stone, who added a visual dash with red-dressed Sarah Morrow to complement the exotic tones and colours of the music.

Considering that Brecon Jazz was the only UK venue on Dr. John’s European tour, credit must be given to whoever selected the virtuoso musicians who formed his band. Several at least were British, including trumpeter Laura Jurd who won this year’s Parliamentary Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year award. Every song had a solo or two that enthralled the ear, most notably on trumpet, trombone and piano. Dr. John didn’t have much to say to the audience but it was satisfying enough to hear his distinctively gruff vocal delivery and unique piano playing in support of such a rich mix of styles – jazz, funk, gospel and ballad  – in Sarah Morrow’s arrangements.  The standard of performance did not drop as the finale approached. The line “Keep on smiling, ’cause when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you” seemed to capture the mood at the end of a most satisfying evening, despite its inauspicious start.

What the Brecon Jazz Festival offers is not just the opportunity to hear the best jazz but masterclasses for musicians in playing and performance. Although I could not attend the Gareth Williams Power Trio performance on Sunday, I joined about fifteen others to attend his masterclass the day before. Billed as ‘Tricks of the Trade: Find Your Strengths And Deal With Your Weaknesses’, its central message was to play to your strengths while acknowledging your weaknesses. Certainly work on them but not at the expense of overlooking your strengths.

Gareth Williams opened the class with advice about goals. First identify your overall goal, then a more realistic goal in the short term. Without delay, he got to challenge us to articulate our own, asking each participant what instrument they played, and what their issues were. Everyone was keen to air these and he responded by interrogating each individual before giving specific and appropriate advice.

Since most of us were senior, he emphasised the importance of planning. Youngsters are brilliant at absorbing things but adults need to plan their approach to practice. This he called ‘targeted practice’. If you are a performer, break your practice piece down into small sections, practise something related to what you are about to perform e.g. in the same key. Don’t practise what you already know inside out, including scales. Furthermore, when practising sight-reading, use a metronome and don’t attempt it if it’s too hard. Get to know a piece inside out before putting the score away in a drawer.

I hope other masterclasses performed the same service as this one, where general guidance was succinct and bespoke guidance relevant to the individual’s needs. They are clearly of value to the practising musician, and should remain an essential part of the Brecon Jazz programme.


Ray Davies header photo credit: