Brecon Jazz Festival 2009 – Round Up

Brecon Jazz Festival is now all about the music and it shows. We went off to Wales to see for ourselves

Friday kicked off with Stan Tracey, the band tight and doing most of the work but a great hard swinging band it is with some magical moments coming at the end with a stunning bit of sax interplay. Being my first ever gig at a Brecon Jazz Festival, I was a little concerned that the uniformly white and, ahem, senior audience would be typical for all the gigs but I shouldn’t have worried. Different gigs got different audiences as the weekend progressed but with the programming opening up so much this year, one can hope that an ever more diverse group of people will descend on this pretty Welsh market town, with its amazing views of the mountains lurking at many a street corner.
Then across town to catch the much less obvious programming of Seth Lakeman, a popular choice though easily filling the large Market Hall and a much more mixed crowd to boot. You have to love the way he gets the crowd dancing and appeals to younger folk (especially women for some reason). I quite like the punchy sound even if it is occasionally reminiscent of the Waterboys but I wish he wouldn’t mannerise his singing so you can’t hear the lyrics. I assume they are quite interesting.

Notes on style: men with tiny grey ponytails, crazy waistcoats and worst of all expressive dancing without regard to beat. Stop it please.

Amit Chaudurhy later that night in the cathedral explored an impressionistic meeting of Indian singing and western jazz rock but a spectacular audio malfunction marred a gig that perhaps sounded better on paper but was a bit slow going in practice.
Art Themen delivered a shot of pure jazz with his tribute to John Coltrane in the cathedral the following day, kicking off the day and setting the tone. What an amazing venue to play ‘A Love Supreme’ but Art avoided (perhaps even ducked) a few opportunities like this to bring things closer to his own more laid-back brand of jazz. All the same there were moments when he really blew and it was a pure pleasure to hear his pianist for this gig: Robin Aspen.

Loads of pics from the festival at Flykr

Dennis Rollins produced a startling tour de force with his one man trombone odyssey from pre-colonial Africa through slavery to the diaspora of the Caribbean and Brazil and the US before bringing it back to grimey London town. With nothing but some backing tracks and the story unfolding in video behind him, Dennis keeps the audience gripped throughout. In the muggy heat of the Market Hall, it is a hugely impressive musical and physical feat.
Sadly Abdullah Ibrahim’s solo concert is ponderous, pretentious and the exact opposite of what you need in a stuffy hall designed for a busy market and not for a hot Summer’s evening with a thousand people inside. Close your eyes and listen to the exquisite way Abdullah Ibrahim shapes his notes and you know that he has lost none of his extraordinary skill. I think he may have lost his interest in engaging an audience though. Many years ago I saw him lift a London audience in the air with his interplay between jazz and South African melodies. Are those days gone forever?
Anouar Brahem Trio, offered the unusual combination of oud, piano and accordion. The oud is a powerful instrument but Anouar handles it with restraint, you kind of want him to fire off a rapid staccato attack but this trio is all about understated elegance and musicianship. Not one to get you dancing but plenty for the ears to absorb especially late at night in the cathedral, a gem.
Coming on after midnight to a sparsely populated Theatr, Eric Truffaz and his human beat box Sy Johnson drew energy from somewhere to fill the venue with dub, jazz and even drum n bass to whoops from the young crowd. By the time I slipped off onto the night, the venue was filling out nicely.
Abdullah Ibrahim was incalculably improved by the addition of bass and a drummer who knew how to add texture and motion without drowning out the piano. On his own Abdullah will worry at a phrase until it falls to its knees and begs to be put out of its misery but these subtle band mates gently nudged him along and how refreshing that was.
Reluctantly, I upped sticks before Manu Dibango came on to end the festival with all the exuberance and passion for music that the Lion of Cameroon is famed for. There was just time to catch Quantic and his Combo B?°rbaro and enjoy the mix of South American musical forms that Quantic aka Will Holland has put together in his travels around Colombia and Panama in particular. The percusson section sometimes overwhelmed each other in their enthusiasm though and so it was no surprise to hear this was the first time the band had actually played together. Nevertheless, there were good tunes delivered by a band obviously enjoying itself and it can only get better.
On a more general note, the festival is now more tightly organised and the drunken revelry of the past has been dampened down (although the locals are still having it on a Saturday night in town). It actually feels like it is about the music, which is great. I hope the programming next year continues in the outernational vein and it would be great to get someone like Gilles Peterson to curate a day or a venue and bring his crowd into the mix. The audience needs refreshing a little it has to be said. And the town with its river, historic buildings and wonderful views is a treat, which could only be improved by someone making decent coffee.  
Photo by Damian Rafferty, more pics from the festival at Flykr

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