Taking place in the intimate, rural atmosphere of Mid-Wales near Hay-on-Wye, the Brecon festival crams an amazing amount of world-class artists into such a small area. And this year the variety didn’t just apply to the music on offer (or, unfortunately, the weather) – it was also a treat to see such a wide range of ages attending. Indeed some gigs such as Pee Wee Ellis and Get The Blessing featured audiences that looked like they’d wandered out of a nearby Muse show – which is great news for jazz.
Pianist Dave Stapleton’s quintet had the honour of opening up the festival at the impressive Christ College venue, and their engaging mixture of ECM-like chamber jazz and challenging, odd-time grooves had the capacity crowd enraptured. On ‘Images’, Stapleton’s Mehldau-ish rippling piano figure gave way to a lyrical solo before James Allsopp cut loose on tenor with a furious outburst of harmonics reminiscent of Michael Brecker. Jonny Bruce’s flighty flugelhorn at the beginning of the ‘Zonk’ suite brought to mind the ingenious, devil-may-care approach of Kenny Wheeler while bassist Paula Gardner took a refreshingly minimalist approach to her solo with lots of lovely string growl. A slow-burning ‘rock’ section led to a furious 7/8 salsa with some tricky sax/flugelhorn unison lines that challenged the two front-liners – this was very complex music with a lot of potential mineshafts for the musicians to fall into, though the lovely ballad ‘Between the Lines’, with its childlike melody and simple, overlapping themes, brought some respite.
Over at Brecon’s flagship venue The Market Hall, the Trio of Oz featuring NYC fusion legends and newlyweds Rachel Z on piano and drummer Omar Hakim were blowing up a storm with their intriguing jazz takes on rock and grunge – the first two pieces were slinky reimaginings of Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots tunes, with Hakim’s ride-bell grooves always adding fluidity to occasionally stolid themes. Rachel Z was clearly thrilled to be at Brecon and revealed that she had a Welsh uncle who had been a 2nd World War pilot. ‘King of Pain’ began with a rippling, romantic piano prologue before Hakim delivered his trademark knockout jazz/hip-hop swingbeat under bassist Maeve Royce’s elegant deconstruction of the melody. ‘ESP’ was delivered at breakneck speed with some seat-of-the-pants, McCoy Tyneresque modal piano from Rachel.
There can’t be many more joyous sounds in music than James Brown/Van Morrison sax legend Pee Wee Ellis laying down some serious tenor over a decent rhythm section, and at Brecon he didn’t disappoint. His absurdly-youthful band delivered slinky Crusaders-style grooves with drummer Andy Tween laying right back behind the beat and guitarist Jerry Crozier-Cole delivering consistently engaging solos that channelled Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. ‘Make It Funky’ had the local teenagers throwing frantic Northern Soul shapes in the wings, Crozier-Cole cleaned up on the altered blues of ‘Watermelon Man’ and Ellis blew up a storm on his test tune ‘The Chicken’ with bassist Jeff Spencer wittily quoting Jaco Pastorius in his solo. But the nicest surprise was Ellis’s willingness to push the envelope in his solos whilst always staying close to the blues.
Get The Blessing offered up an intriguing musical mash-up of 1995 and 1981 with their ‘Big Beat’ grooves a la Fatboy Slim fusing with jazz/punk horn lines channelling Rip, Rig and Panic or Pigbag. Ex-Portishead drummer Clive Deamer occasionally overcooked the grooves but Jim Barr’s basslines were always agreeably sleazy. You could easily imagine them as the house band in a David Lynch movie, and they also get reps for being the best-dressed band at the festival with their ‘Reservoir Dogs’ getup.
The King of Cool Scott Hamilton impressed on Saturday morning at 11am – a deeply unjazzy time to be performing. In many ways the perfect mainstream tenor player, his incisive excursions were matched every step of the way by fine Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello and a top UK rhythm section of Dave Green on bass and the ever-crisp Steve Brown on drums.The Kit Downes Trio thrilled the Brecon Cathedral crowd with some studious, artful music later that afternoon and Jasper Hoiby’s hypnotic bass grooves lit up the Christ College stage during Phronesis’ hotly-anticipated set. Later that evening, Manchester’s finest Matthew Halsall lent his plaintive trumpet tones to a meditative collection drawing on the modal aspects of John and Alice Coltrane’s music. The Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club were the big draw on Saturday night, with their timeless repertoire of bolero, son, danzon and guajiro. The exquisite vocals of Omara Portuondo added a neat twist to the always elegant musicmaking. And UK sax legend Andy Sheppard’s new band featuring ECM-approved bassist Arild Andersen and ambient guitar pioneer Eivind Aarset set a new standard for world music-inspired jazz.
But it was South African legend Hugh Masekela who provided a fitting finale to the festival with his first Brecon appearance. Forget the vuvuzelas – this was the real sound of the Rainbow Nation, with Masekela’s trumpet and flugelhorn ringing out majestically over the township and funk-inspired grooves. Looking forward to next year already.