REVIEW: ‘Cwmwl Tystion / Witness’ – Cwmwl Tystion / Witness

THE IDENTITY and landscape of Wales is steeped in historical, political and cultural significance, something which composer and trumpeter Tomos Williams seeks to explore and interpret through his experimental project Cwmwl Tystion (‘Witness’ or, literally, ‘Cloud of Witnesses’, quoted from 20th century poet Waldo Williams’ ‘What is Man?’).

Cardiff-based Tomos Williams also leads folk/jazz outfit Burum and ‘Indo-Welsh’ band Khamira; but this more exploratory, frequently free-jazz suite stems from his desire to “create a piece that both celebrated and questioned the idea of Welshness and referenced notable events in Welsh history.” The democratically-spirited sextet – with Francesca Simmons (violin, saw), Rhodri Davies (harp, electronics), Huw V Williams (bass) and Mark O’Connor (drums) – also features acclaimed pianist Huw Warren; and for this live recording, captured both in Swansea and London, the performances were accompanied by the animated visuals of Simon Proffitt.

Seven movements indeed identify specific inspirations from Williams’ homeland, opening with a suitably expansive depiction of Mynyddoedd Cymru (Mountains of Wales). From rugged Snowdonia in the north to the vast, southerly sprawl of the Brecon Beacons, the majesty of Wales’ geographical wonders is illustrated through austere, ascending motifs and fierce, whirling, climatic expressions. Across more than twenty minutes, its episodic breadth and saturation is initially whelming – yet the relentless progression can also be breathtaking, its many textures including Rhodri Davies’ Jimmy Page-like electronically-manipulated harp. Welsh folk tune Glyn Tawe is beautifully interpreted by violin and piano – a plaintive melody, heard on the wind, that brings to mind Sir Edward Elgar’s useful, distant-song encounter in Llangranog – but it also seems to have a troubled soul (Elgar again!), Francesca Simmons’ ‘flattened’ string improvisations so gorgeously bittersweet.

The fascinating and well-documented connection of popular African-American baritone Paul Robeson with Welsh mining communities is remembered in Paul Robeson ac Eisteddfod y Glowyr 1957 (Paul Robeson and the Miners’ Eisteddfod 1957). This brashly jazz-swinging commemoration vigorously flashes with harp and piano, and the effect of a classic horn section from the duality of trumpet and violin is quite something. The anger of Llyfrau Gleision 1847 (the disparaging 19th century enquiry into the state of education in Wales) is communicated through urgent rhythms, crashing ‘guitar’, impassioned trumpet improv and the curious waver of a saw, while Huw Warren‘s unbridled mastery (both inside and outside the piano frame) is just glorious.

Quoting a triad of Welsh folk songs, the restless angst of Pa Beth yw Cenedl? (What is a Nation?) develops apace, Warren’s intense soloing white-hot against the throng of thrashing percussion and tumultuous bass. Tryweryn 1965 recalls the controversial flooding of valley village Capel Celyn to create a reservoir for Liverpool’s water supply, sparking huge local and political unrest, now belied by its quiet beauty. Williams illustrates these contrasts with sparky, disoriented figures and an elegant though wistful violin tune. Closing Pa Beth yw Dyn? (What is Man?) – the source of the project’s title – transforms discordancy into a verdant, straightahead-jazz celebration of Cymru, dominated by Huw Warren’s elegant pianism.

Peeling back the layers of this performance – excellently recorded, live – and either learning of or reacquainting oneself with the extraordinary history and breathtaking landscape of this nation, the creativity of Tomos Williams and his sextet becomes increasingly meaningful. A truly effective and important melding of message and music.

Released on 5 March 2021, Cwmwl Tystion / Witness is available from tycerddshop.com, iTunes and Amazon.

Tomos Williams trumpet, compositions
Francesca Simmons violin, saw
Rhodri Davies harp, electronics
Huw Warren piano
Huw V Williams bass
Mark O’Connor drums
with
Simon Proffitt live visuals

Videos: Mynyddoedd Cymru and Tryweryn 1965

Introductory YouTube video
Tomos Williams at khamira.net
tycerdd.org

Tŷ Cerdd Records – TCR029 (2021)

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‘Cwmwl Tystion / Witness’ – Cwmwl Tystion / Witness
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‘Khamira’ – Khamira

Khamira

EXHILARATING and mesmeric, the eponymous debut release from seven-piece Khamira fuses Welsh folk, jazz and rock with Indian classical music.

It was a masterclass at the Berklee-affiliated Global Music Institute in New Delhi by the four Welsh members of this band (who are united in separate jazz/folk outfit, Burum) which led to the concept of combining a standard jazz quartet of trumpet, piano, bass and drums with the Indian colours of sarangi and tabla, plus vocals/Konnakol and guitar. Blurring the edges of genres and cultures here feels entirely organic, summoning the seminal ’70s fusion experiments of John McLaughlin and Miles Davis, as well as finding a modern-day crossover connection with artists such as Dwiki Dharmawhan and Dewa Budjana.

New arrangements of traditional Welsh songs and Indian classical melodies are combined with two original compositions to deliver fifty-five minutes of extensive, instrumental splendour. Particularly impressive is the versatility of Suhail Yusuf Khan’s stringed sarangi in partnering so melodically with Tomos Williams’ trumpet and Aditya Balani’s electric guitar; and the incisive, often rapid top-note resonances of Vishal Nagar’s tabla accentuate the rhythmic grooves of Dave Jones (piano), Aidan Thorne (electric bass) and Mark O’Connor (drums).

It’s a sound world which increasingly engages, as Khamira’s palette is so varied and the blends so intriguing. Slow-release Pan O’wn y Gwanwyn (The Song of Spring) awakens to spacial trumpet and sarangi conversations before launching a lurching, saturated jazz/rock pulse underpinned by tremulant organ and thrashing percussion; and Basant‘s heady, vocalised Indian flavours – including the ‘jugalbandi’ of sarangi and tabla – are complemented by gravelly electric bass and urgent trumpet improv.

Jazz-grooving, eleven-minute Answers reinforces that this is an immersive, progressive experience, rather than a collection of snappy, individual ‘tunes’ – but this band’s open and ever-changing landscape, here with exquisite Paulo Fresu-style muted trumpet, becomes so appealing. Ffarwel i Gymru / Morey Nain shimmers to plaintive trumpet and a sustained sarangi thread, supporting its beautifully inflected Indian vocal; and the vibrant, contemporary jazz piano of Dance of Nothingness prompts bluesy guitar and frenzied sarangi. The initial, Eastern serenity of Y Gwydd (The Weaver’s Song) belies the enthralling explosion of drums, tabla, Konnakol and electric piano to be revealed later, very much in the spirit of jazz/world fusion; and wistful hymn Hiraeth am Feirion (Longing for Meirionnydd), pairing trumpet and sarangi over the gentle ebb of tabla, creates a restrained yet anthemic sundown.

Released on 2 May 2017, Khamira is available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp. Catch a ten-minute video impression here.

 

Tomos Williams trumpet
Suhail Yusuf Khan sarangi, vocal
Aditya Balani guitar
Dave Jones piano, keys
Aidan Thorne electric bass
Vishal Nagar tabla, vocal
Mark O’Connor drums

khamira.net

Recordiau Bona – BOPA 003 (2017)