Brecon Jazz Festival devotees can only summon nostalgia to relive its glory days as one of the world’s most important events of its kind. But, as Nigel Jarrett discovers, the continuity established a few years ago had enough momentum this year to defy the limitations of a pandemic: it goes ‘virtual’.
Continuing to present and promote an international arts event that almost overnight became local in the best sense of the term is an act of devotion and savage compromise. Quite how the Brecon Jazz Festival in its former guise for years flew in famous musicians to appear for ninety minutes in a Welsh market town is still a source of wonder if not mystery, although nearly all of the big names were festival-chasing in Europe at the time. When the bubble burst – finances were often under strain – not even replacement custodians such as the Hay Festival and Cardiff-based Orchard Entertainment could blow another or even wish to maintain bubble-blowing as part of the exercise. But the festival’s cachet could not be broken. A town team centred on the Brecon Jazz Club and, including those who’d been involved with the former festival, salvaged the event without changing its name. That the team has not been deterred by a mere pandemic this year says much for its determination and resourcefulness.
The festival of yore wedged a lot into a four-day summer weekend. As well as headliners, often from America and including on one occasion the full Lionel Hampton Orchestra in its late gladiatorial phase, UK musicians were given space indoors and out. One attempt to keep the event alive meant moving everything to marquees in the grounds of Christ’s College school across the River Usk, sacrificing some of the literal street cred associated with the centre of town for more genteel surroundings. It didn’t work. For the record, drink-bolstered street revellers not the slightest bit interested in jazz sometimes confronted the police, whose patience came close to shutdown, like the festival itself. But that was the past; BJF2020 is the future, or an alternative one.
This year, home-nurtured British acts could again dominate at a challenging event transformed if not overshadowed by coronavirus. Appearances at ‘virtual’ venues (the familiar ones in town and elsewhere), each lasting about thirty minutes, were pre-videoed and set up for streaming. Thus, no audiences, no ‘live’ performances and inevitably no festival gaiety, but also no need for Personal Protective Equipment. It wasn’t the real thing, but it was another kind of reality which will probably catch on. Festival organisers are allowing free access to everything until August 30. At about 18 hours of music it’s a bonanza, especially as there was no income from ticketing (streaming has often to be paid for) and no funding from the Arts Council of Wales. Brecon Town Council and club Friends chipped in and there’s a call for voluntary donations. As an experiment aimed at attracting armchair jazz fans worldwide – and there are plenty of those – it worked. The programme roll-call, slightly expanded, was what it would have been pre-pandemic. Arranged with help from Ratio Productions in Wales and the Franco-British arts hosting company, Vialma, the festival has set promoters wondering whether or not streaming of this sort is here to stay, perhaps in combination with ‘live’ performances.
Midlands trumpeter Bryan Corbett was appropriately first-up at the festival on the Friday with his quartet (reduced to a trio on the opening number, Donald Byrd’s ‘Here I Am’.) The gig showed how the ‘virtual’ format could work: a short introduction from the leader and split-screen views of the band with names and chart information displayed professionally. Excellent sound too. But other gigs were presented in different ways. Wales goes French in the Hot Club Gallois quartet, specifically manouche French with Richard Jones handling vocals but chasing Django Reinhardt techniques with guitarist colleague Luke Archard. HCG crammed six charts into its gig compared with Corbett’s more exploratory three. The festival had already begun ‘travelling’ across borders before Spain-based Japanese pianist Atsuko Shimada and her trio linked from a studio in Granada with the UK’s own international saxophone star Alan Barnes. Their set included the lovely Kenny Wheeler composition ‘Everybody’s Song But My Own’, with Barnes on clarinet taking it for a virtuosic walk. Barnes had also featured in a conversation with Tony Kofi (they’ve known each other for thirty years) on the first day and Shimada’s bassist and drummer had earlier backed Deelee Dubé as part of the Juan Galiardo Trio. So plenty of travelling transpositions and interactions.
Back home in Wales, Cardiff student big band The Siglo Section (roughly meaning ‘swinging’ in Welsh) got its brassy teeth into a few standards, with vocalist Siobhan Waters making the most of ‘For Once In My Life’. Welsh altoist Glen Manby guested in Cardiff with pianist Lenore Raphael while she was locked down in North Carolina and bassist Hilliard Greene was in New York. Such remote link-ups were typical of what these virtual sessions can accomplish, and effectively. As well as Kofi-Barnes, the talk extended from Ian Shaw’s introduction to a refugees fundraiser with vocalist Barb Jungr and pianists Simon Wallace and Jamie Safir, to stupendous bassist Ashley John Long chatting to long-time associate Dave Jones, the versatile Welsh pianist and writer, and Huw Warren reflecting on Brecon Jazz with another bassist, Paula Gardiner. The shadow of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama jazz course stretches a long way. Yet another Welsh bassist, Erika Lyons, talked about music therapy. The whole weekend was therapeutic, blending Brecon’s still potent international reach with so much in jazz that’s going on in Wales and the rest of Britain. That RWCMD shadow encompassed no group more comprehensively than the Rachel Starritt Trio. Rachel, from Bridgend, and drummer Alex Goodyear are ex-alumni and bassist Clem Saynor is a student there of Dudley Phillips and the great Yuri Gobulov. If you need a bassist, come to Wales. Come to Wales anyway, especially Brecon on festival weekend.
BJF2020 offered much more than this broad survey. Considering the obstacles associated with the pandemic, it was the triumph of organisation and technical expertise over limitation – so much so that while one might have wanted the real thing, its substitute may well develop a life of its own. Check it out here until the end of the month.
Nigel Jarrett is a former UK newspaperman and an award-winning writer of fiction.
(header image is of Deelee Dubé)