Tomos Williams’ Cwmwl Tystion project first toured in 2019, approaching improvised jazz from a Welsh angle sonically and conceptually. Williams, a trumpeter, has form here in his folk-influenced group Burum, as did other guests including harpist Rhodri Davies. For the second suite under this name, though, Cwmwl Tystion II/Riot!, Williams has assembled a near-totally new group (only drummer Mark O’Connor remains), comprising established heavy hitters and new blood.
Vibes player Orphy Robinson and saxophonist Soweto Kinch (pictured below) are both titans of contemporary UK jazz, and both feature here alongside Williams, O’Connor, bassist Aidan Thorne and Merthyr vocalist Eady Crawford, who records as Ëadyth. Kinch’s latest album The Black Peril, inspired by historical race riots, has a comparable purview to Cwmwl Tystion II/Riot!, whose movements are each inspired by a notable incident of unrest in Wales.
Ahead of his new tour, Buzz spoke to Tomos Williams about the Cwmwl Tystion project, and what audiences can expect.
I enjoyed that tour and music so much, I decided during lockdown that it might well be worth pursuing the same ‘core’ idea. Having time to reflect on that experience made me feel there was still a lot of potential to that idea – performing politically-motivated music, with a strong emphasis on Welsh identity and improvisation, and combining that with live visuals.
The theme of Riot! felt very current with some of the recent UK government legislation against protests, and the issue of racial identity in Wales seemed very pertinent considering the global BLM movement.
The musicians you’ve assembled for Riot! are, excepting Mark O’Connor, all changed from Witness. Is that intentional, necessary or both?
Certainly intentional, not so much necessary, since the first iteration was such a great experience. But I liked the idea of having a completely different band: different instrumentation, different players, yet keeping to some sort of core principles.
Soweto Kinch – probably the highest-profile performer in this group – released an album (The Black Peril) along a similar theme to Riot! quite recently. Was this a factor in approaching him?
Absolutely. I’ve admired Soweto’s work for years. I had emailed him out of the blue a few years previously about another project and received such a courteous response, I kept in the back of my mind that he was happy to respond to unsolicited emails! So when the idea for Riot! started formulating in my head, I knew that Soweto was the perfect fit.
The musicians on Witness were all drawn from the Welsh scene, unlike Kinch and Orphy Robinson. Are they both figures you already had a working relationship with, or did you have to cold-call them as it were?
I’d known of Soweto and Orphy for years, of course – I remember Orphy signing for Blue Note Records in the 90s when I was still in school – but yes, it was a case of cold-emailing them. There is a link in that Orphy has played quite a lot with Rhodri Davies, of the first Cwmwl Tystion – so when I approached him I could say I’d just finished this project with Rhodri.
Being able to tell Orphy that Soweto was involved, and vice-versa, helped. In contacting Soweto, I mentioned my wish to focus on the Cardiff Race Riots of 1919, and that I’d like him to rap as well as play the sax, and he seemed genuinely interested to be involved in a project that would raise awareness of the 1919 riots.
Have you rehearsed and/or composed in the room together, or is it done remotely?
This bit hasn’t happened yet! I was hoping we’d be able to at least meet for one day over the summer, but everybody’s schedule was just too busy, so we’ll be meeting for the first time in Aberystwyth on Monday! Rehearsing Tuesday, and then the tour starts on Wednesday! I’ve been writing the music over the past months, weeks, days… and I’m still tweaking!
How is this music written, in respect of your and others’ position in the band – do you see yourself as the ‘bandleader’?
I guess I am in that I’ve got everyone together, but once we’ll start playing there’s no leader at all. I’m very happy to take a back seat and listen to everyone else play! I do all the composing – thanks to Tŷ Cerdd for funding a new composition – but it’s as much a series of ideas that flow into each other as a composition. I compose on the piano and generally start everything from the bassline and work my way up.
This Cwmwl Tystion is exciting since I’ve never performed with a vibraphone before, and Eady Crawford is involved this time, which allows the Welsh language to be involved. It was very important to me to have a Welsh language element once I knew that Soweto would be rapping in English, and I’ve been really impressed with the music that Eady’s released over the last few years.
How much of a performance is likely to be improvised or is that an unanswerable question by its nature?
There’s a strong improvisatory element to the music, so each performance will be different. The same themes and folk tunes will be used in each performance – but there will be large improvised sections, and these can go whichever direction on the night.
Each movement of the suite is inspired by a specific Welsh historical riot – how will that be conveyed to audience members?
Simon Proffitt’s live visuals with this project allow the music to speak for itself, while also providing the movement titles, which can prod the listener in the right direction. They don’t spell things out, but they certainly augment the music and they do also give the titles at the beginning of each movement, which is then a clear reference point.
Do you see this tour as an educational vehicle?
Certainly in a raising awareness kind of way. One of the comments that stayed with me after the first Cwmwl Tystion tour was that schoolchildren should go and see it – that they’d learn about Welsh history if they came. So I’m hoping the audience might learn about Welsh riots, then go home and look into some of these events.
How do you best portray the complicated history of riots (especially in Wales, where the more notable ones strike me as ranging from heroic to appalling) without taking a definitive moral stance?
Riots and protest are complicated, and some are more well-known and revered than others in Wales. So I guess if we want to remember the Merthyr Rising, and Dic Penderyn, we also must remember the antisemitic riots in Tredegar in 1911 and the Cardiff Race Riots of 1919. I guess it’s more about raising awareness rather than taking a moral stance, and that age-old hip-hop saying of knowledge is power – you have to know where you’re from to know where you’re at.
There seems to be so little historical awareness of past events in the current climate. The relentless glorification of Winston Churchill for example – are we, in Wales, aware of his role during the Tonypandy Riots in 1910? My grandfather certainly was, but I’m not so sure that my kids will be.
Are you planning to release music from these performances as an album, as with Witness?
Yes, if we’re all happy with the results – I hope to record two performances and hopefully, we can give a good representation of a ‘live’ concert.
Is there going to be a third Cwmwl Tystion suite/tour?
Well, why not? I didn’t intend to start thinking like this, but I get the feeling that it’s a concept that could continue. But at the moment I have enough to think about with this current tour, and of course, I want to enjoy performing with these great musicians first, before I start thinking about anything else!
Cwmwl Tystion tours to Aberystwyth Arts Centre (Wed 24 Nov), Royal Welsh College Of Music & Drama, Cardiff (Thurs 25), Theatr Soar in Merthyr Tydfil (Fri 26), Pontio in Bangor (Tue 30), The Lost Arc in Rhayader (Wed 1 Dec) and Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea (Thurs 2 Dec), plus London’s Café Oto right in the middle.
Wed 24 Nov-Thurs 2 Dec. Tickets: £10-£17.50. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER
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