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)