Now firmly established on the jazz festival calendar the Amser Jazz Weekend mixes top flight acts with the music student’s end of year assessments. In the beautiful Dora Stoutzker Hall there were main evening concerts by Get the Blessing, John Taylor and the Darius Brubeck Quartet with the students performing in the smaller, but much more intimate, Richard Burton Theatre – the latter with feeling much more like a jazz club.
Get the Blessing (pictured top) never fail to entertain, their bassist/bandleader Jim Barr a modern day equivalent to Ronnie Scott, a brilliant musician and composer with the most delicious dead pan wit – the music however couldn’t be further removed from that of Scott’s. Playing a couple of numbers from the upcoming fourth Album – the titles of which, if Barr is to be believed, all emanate from Cornish restaurant menus (as the album was conceived on a week’s holiday to the region) ‘Stargazy Pie’ a typical GTB tune built around a deceptively simple riff that explodes into colour with twists and turns unleashed by saxophonist Jake McMurchie and trumpeter Pete Judge – with the use of electronics in their soundscape so vital, but never pushed too far.
By contrast John Taylor played a wonderfully sensitive solo set – drawing on many periods of his career – most poignantly his long collaboration with friend Kenny Wheeler on ‘Mabel’ (a song for Wheeler’s mother) and the classic ‘Everybody’s Song But My Own’, prompting Taylor to say, “I really miss him,” with much sadness in his voice. He also played three tunes from the sublime Ambleside Days: ‘Vaguely Asian’ (by Steve Swallow), ‘How Deep is the Ocean’ (Berlin), ‘Reflections in D’ (Duke Ellington) and ‘Tramonto’ (Ralph Towner) completed an excellent, beautifully played set.
Before Taylor took the stage, the hall was given over to the assessment performance of pianist James Clark (above) – a final year student with a huge career beckoning. Studying part time in Bern under Django Bates, Clark has an energetic, but not flamboyant style of playing, where it seems at times the piano is merely an extension of his arms and hands. His compositional style is in the ballpark of Keith Tippett/Matthew Shipp and as you would suspect there are flashes of Bates in there too. It was an excellent piece of programming, the two pianists worlds apart in terms of age and experience, but both totally committed to what they are doing.
Another student who impressed very much in his assessment showcase was drummer Rod Oughton – his pieces ‘Sparrow’, ‘The Good the Bad & The Ugly’ and ‘Nothing Gets Done Around Here Anymore’, were highly complex yet totally enjoyable and show maturity of writing rare in one so young. The band comprising the rest of the ‘leaving’ year at the college were magnificent and I am sure that if this set were to be played exactly the same but at Ronnie Scott’s it would have gone down a storm.
The last event saw the Darius Brubeck Quartet (above) featuring saxophonist Dave O’Higgins backed by bassist Matt Ridley and drummer Wesley Gibbens. Mostly playing music from his latest album Cathy’s Summer (on which Darius composed all but three of the tracks) he showed without doubt that he is a highly accomplished pianist and composer – but Dave O’Higgins must take huge credit for his contribution (as should Ridley & Gibbens) – as the combination of Brubeck & O’Higgins is certainly among the best piano/sax partnerships in the UK.
Brubeck started with a nod to his time in South Africa, playing a lovely version of Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Tsakwe’ before moving on to a boisterous ‘Flamingo’. The up tempo ‘15’, featured a blazing exploration from sax and piano, while ‘Cathy’s Summer,’ ‘Ravely Street’ and ‘Flippin’ the Bird’, interspersed with the more peaceful ‘Riviera Winter’ and the classic, ‘I Remember you’ – provided a set list that exemplified Brubeck’s huge variety of skills.
Of course there had to be a senior moment – and ‘Take Five’ was a blast – I think no one can tire of hearing such a classic and who better to enjoy it with? An encore of ‘Before It’s Too Late’ was the perfect ending and he and the band fully deserved the standing ovation at the end.
The RWCMD Festival is a great weekend event – with the ‘Weekender’ ticket costing only £30 for 13 concerts, plus free 15 foyer concerts – all set in the heart of Cardiff in a fantastic new building.
– Tim Dickeson (review and photos)