Tomos Williams – Cwmwl Tystion/Witness
Review by Stephen Nottingham
The jazz scene is often overlooked when reference is made to Welsh music. A new album ‘Cwmwl Tystion / Witness’ aims to set the record straight. The music emerged from ideas developed by composer and trumpeter Tomos Williams, as a timely exploration of Welsh history, culture and national identity. The other outstanding Welsh musicians involved are Huw Warren (piano), Rhodri Evans (harp & electronics), Huw V Williams (double bass), Francesca Simmons (violin & saw) and Mark O’Connor (drums).
The album was recorded live during performances at the Taliesin Arts Centre (Swansea) and Café OTO (London) in June 2019, capturing the improvisatory nature of this experimental jazz music. It was released in early March 2021 by Tŷ Cerdd Records, based at the Wales Millennium Centre (Cardiff); the first release on the label since the pandemic began.
The first of seven tracks, ‘Mynyddoedd Cymru’ (Mountains of Wales), establishes the ambition of this project: an uncompromising 20-minute-plus musical exploration of the Welsh landscape, which gives the band space to roam and reach collective and individual musical peaks. Listening to Tomos Williams’ muscular yet subtle trumpet pick up the pace here, it will come as no surprise to learn that the set lists of some of his other bands (7Steps, Khamira) prominently feature the music of Miles Davis.
A feature of the Welsh modern jazz scene is an openness to other musical styles, as exemplified by the second track. ‘Glyn Tawe’ is a new arrangement of a traditional Welsh tune by Francesca Simmons and Huw Warren, whose violin and piano combine to beautiful effect. Clwyd-born Simmons also leads the folk-improv trio Rock of Eye. Meanwhile, the discography of Tomos Williams freely ranges between styles, for example, as a member of the pioneering Welsh folk band Fernhill over the past 20 years. Along with in-demand drummer Mark O’Connor, he has also recorded an album with harpist Llio Rhydderch, three albums with the sextet Burum, who specialise in modern jazz interpretations of Welsh folk songs, and another with Khamira (i.e. Burum plus three classical musicians from India specialising in Indo-Welsh fusion music).
‘Paul Robeson ac Eisteddfod y Glowyr 1957’ takes its title from the occasion Paul Robeson addressed the miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl. Robeson had his passport confiscated by the US government for refusing to denounce communism, so he sang via telephone – accompanied in Wales by the Treorchy Male Voice Choir. Following an introduction of swelling traditional Welsh harp, this track then makes innovative use of harp in an experimental jazz setting, as played by free jazz improviser Rhodri Davies. The trumpet later invokes a proud brass band, while the drums and Huw V Williams’ resilient bass lines provide the launch pad for Huw Warren’s piano flights. This music is not toeing any received party line.
The fourth track, ‘Llfrau Gleison’ takes its title from a 3-volume British government report of 1847 (published as official ‘Blue Books’) critical of the state of education (and the nonconformist tradition) in Wales; all written by non-Welsh speakers. The track starts with driving staccato piano, joined by trumpet, like the rising anger in Wales at the report. Edgy soloing follows, with a sorrowful undercurrent provided by Francesca Simmons’ musical saw. The track concludes with a brief return to the run-away piano figure played by the versatile pianist and composer Huw Warren, who has been an important figure on the European jazz scene since the 1980s.
‘Pa Beth yw Cenedl?’ (What is a Nation?) opens with solo trumpet, playing one of three Welsh folk songs enfolded into this composition (listen out for Castell Rhos y Llan, Lloer Dirion and Marwnad yr Ehedydd). Drums, double bass, and then piano, join the trumpet, until the violin takes up the refrain. The varied 15-minute track ranges from an invigorating piano trio improvisation, to a quietly reflective resolution with plucked strings, percussion and muted trumpet. The answer to the question posed clearly includes music!
The penultimate track ‘Tryweryn 1965’ refers to the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley and the village of Capel Celyn to create a reservoir to supply Liverpool with drinking water. It kicks off with rippling piano, over which a keening Celtic violin circles. Plucked harp and bass add agitation, with the trumpet supplying the final word.
The final track ‘Pa Beth yw Dyn?’ (What is Man?) opens with unresolved questions from each instrument, but these are answered by the rhythm section and the lyrical piano improvisation from Huw Warren that concludes the record. The title of the album, and its final track, are taken from the poem ‘Pa Beth yw Dyn?’ by Waldo Williams, published in 1956 (‘Beth yw gwladgarwch? Cadw ty / Mewn cwmwl Tystion’; as translated by Dr Rowan Williams: ‘What is love of country? Keeping house / among a cloud of witnesses’).
This album is a bold statement of intent from Welsh jazz pioneer Tomos Williams and his fearless band, who forge an original contemporary jazz soundscape with a Welsh identity. Proof, if it were needed, that there is a vibrant and distinctive jazz scene in Wales.