JAZZ / Swinging in the valley: Phil Johnson reports on a small Welsh town bracing itself for a musical and on the voice of Julian Joseph

FROM the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans, the mighty Mississippi weaves its way upriver, through Vicksburg and Clarkesdale to Memphis, Tennessee and St Louis, Missouri, carrying its riverboat load of gamblers and musicians from the sporting houses of Storyville en route to the speakeasies of Chicago and New York and thence, eventually, to, er, Brecon . . . Or so 'The Jazz Route to Brecon' at the town's Brecknock Museum would have it. Created to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Brecon Jazz Festival, which takes place next weekend, this excellent little exhibition covers the unlikely progress of jazz from its origins in West Africa to its end in a small market town in mid-Wales.

The origins of the festival are nearly as obscure as the origins of jazz. Launched in 1984 with a budget of pounds 100, it has grown to the extent that this year's bill can offer Lionel Hampton, Stephane Grappelli, Wynton Marsalis and McCoy Tyner as part of a three-day event that stands comparison with almost any jazz festival in the world.

The exhibition at the museum does contain a coded clue to the festival's inception, however. In the British Jazz section, in an old photograph of the Mick Mulligan band from the 1950s, the epicene features of the young George Melly can be glimpsed in the background as he sits out a solo. Liz Elston, the chair of Brecon Jazz and a Brecon housewife and mother of six children, used to go and see Melly at the 100 Club when she was an Ealing art student. As a member of the newly-formed Brycheiniog Association for the Arts in 1983, she felt 'we badly needed something to do'. A local antique dealer's enthusiasm for the Breda Jazz Festival in Holland provided the necessary link to jazz and the decision was made to hold a festival in Brecon with George Melly invited to perform. Melly has a house nearby - and, according to Elston, initially felt 'a little resentful that his work was following him here', but happily this year he is on the bill once again.

As a town, Brecon - population 7,000; interests, sheep - does not have any obvious jazz credentials and much of the pleasure of the festival comes from the incongruity of its setting. The late Slim Gaillard - who had predicted to Liz Elston that the event would become an international success in one of the festival's early years - used to cut a magnificently out-of-key figure as he strode around the town. Immensely tall, his height exaggerated further by a flamboyant hat, Gaillard would be accosted by sensibly dressed hill-farmers and greeted like an old friend.

The shock of turning up at such a strange venue has sometimes been too much for visiting musicians. In 1990, the New York guitarist James 'Blood' Ulmer, arriving in a minibus direct from Heathrow and finding himself about to play what looked like a car-park in pouring rain, seemed quite disoriented. 'Hello London]' he ventured bravely. The temperamental cornet player Ruby Braff was said to have become increasingly incredulous as his car got further and further from London. 'There's hills, you didn't tell me there were hills]' he said to the driver as they climbed higher and higher and Braff began to worry about altitude sickness.

Sometimes the shock-value has worked the other way, as in 1990 when a packed Market Hall watched Sun Ra and his Arkestra mix fiendish free jazz with loony-tunes or in 1991 when Cecil Taylor began his performance by hiding in the wings and declaiming Dadaist poetry. 'He's taking the piss,' a voice behind me whispered.

Brecon is also unique in that the town is so small, and the festival so big, that the event quite overwhelms it. Visiting Brecon out of festival-time, therefore, is an odd experience. On Wednesday, there was still no sign of the coming conflagration. A line of dowdy bunting flicked the face of the Duke of Wellington on his statue in the town square, regular scene of late-night revels at festival-time. A banner across the street heralded not jazz but tomorrow's County Show, and the Brecon and Radnor Express (headline: 'Last Quango in Powys') didn't appear to contain a word about jazz. The Market Hall was closed and there weren't even any sheep in the pens. Preparations will start in earnest next Wednesday, with canvas canopies going up on the stages; as usual the Krukke band from Breda will arrive to stay with the Ursuline nuns in the local convent and by Friday all the local hotels will be full, for probably the only time all year.

As the much-awaited anniversary festival gets nearer, there's a growing sensitivity about its reputation. 'Don't mention the drink,' seems to be the message from the organisers, since previous reviews have dwelt as much on the heroic scale of local drunkenness as on the music. 'I find the public urination probably the most upsetting,' says Liz Elston brightly, 'but I've never felt intimidated. It's part of the culture of the youth here, their initiation rites, drinking 14 pints and so on, but you have to keep it in proportion. A number of rugby clubs use the festival as an annual outing but even the lads lying on the floor become converts to jazz eventually.'

The Brecon Jazz Festival runs from 13-15 August (information: 0874 25557)

THAT Julian Joseph is the most exciting British pianist to have emerged in an age has been evident for a while; that his band is the most swinging regular group in the country is also well known. The fact that he could sing too, though, remained a family secret until the release last week of his second album, on which he croons two of the 12 numbers.

''I always sing in my house,' Joseph says, 'and until I was about 11 that was my main direction. I sang in a choir and took the lead in local productions of Oliver and a musical of Treasure Island. Sharon Musgrave, who sang on my first album, encouraged me to sing on the new record. The record company didn't know much about it and when I played them the tapes they asked who the vocalist was.'

Claiming his influences as Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and his friend Harry Connick Jnr, Joseph has a pleasing tenor voice with an appropriately jazzy inflection. It's still his spiky, percussive piano playing that commands the attention, however, and the album is an excellent showcase for his steadily evolving style as both performer and composer.

'Reality' by Julian Joseph is available on East West Records. Julian Joseph and his quartet play the Jazz Cafe, London NWI (071-916 6000) on 10 August and two shows at the Brecon Jazz Festival on 13 August

(Photographs omitted)

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