All About Jazz review by Ian Patterson
Billowing clouds of black smoke dominate a blood-red backdrop. From the cover alone, it is clear that trumpeter/composer Tomos Williams has something extra-musical to say. The Welsh language project name—Cwmwl Tystion means 'witness'—and the English title— Riot!—writ large, expel any doubt. Inspired by events both famous and infamous in Welsh history—workers revolts, pogroms and race riots—this sprawling one-hour suite is a musical manifesto for a more balanced perspective on Welsh identity/nationalism.
It is a subject close to Williams' heart. Witness (Tŷ Cerdd, 2019)—the first installment of a trilogy—was a celebration of the Welsh landscape, language, people and culture, but also raised questions of what modern Welsh identity means. Riot! may draw on similar raw material, that is to say Welsh poetry, folk music and hymns, but it differs fundamentally in the more blood-drenched episodes the music addresses.
Alongside still-celebrated workers' revolts against low wages and poor social conditions acknowledged in "Merthyr Rising 1831" and "Tonypandy Riots 1910," Williams juxtaposes "Tredegar Riots 1911," in which the town's Jewish businesses were targeted by rampaging mobs. No less unsettling, "Cardiff Race Riots 1919" recalls white vigilante attacks on African and Asian immigrants. "Mahmood Mattan," remembers a Somali man, hanged in Cardiff in 1952, for a murder he did not commit.
The recording and commemoration of such events still ignites debate in Wales. To these episodes and their cultural legacy Williams holds a mirror, inviting reflection. He understands that Wales, like every other nation, has reasons to be proud, and equally, cause for regret. Nationalism is almost always a complex business.
So, that is the back story, what then of the music? The sprawling jazz suite was recorded over three nights on a 2021 tour of Wales, with a band featuring drummer Mark O'Connor and bassist Aidan Thorne—regular collaborators in Williams' jazz-folk sextet Burum and Welsh-Indo-jazz group Khamira:—plus a handful of special recruits. Veteran vibraphonist/electronic musician Orphy Robinson is a shimmering, almost subversive presence throughout. Saxophonist Soweto Kinch brings intensity and fire. Bajan-Welsh vocalist Eädyth Crawford toggles between folksy lyricism and hymnal veins.
Williams acknowledges the influence of Wadada Leo Smith, Ambrose Akinmusire, Matana Roberts, Don Cherry and John Zorn's Masada, and to varying degrees their respective shadows fall on Riot!. The long-form suites and political edge of Smith provide William's framework. Cherry and Zorn, celebrants of traditional folk music, act as guiding stars. The socio-cultural fodder that feeds Akinmusire's muse and Robert's spoken-word fire inspire the spirit of engagement and confrontation that go hand in hand throughout Williams' epic suite.
From tender, Welsh-sung hymn to intricately orchestrated ensemble segments, and from pared-back lyricism and bluesy balladry to collective maelstrom, the music covers extensive territory. A multi-media project, visual projections by Simon Proffitt were a key element of the live shows but are obviously lost in this audio-only format.
Still, knowing the themes, one's imagination can run wild during Crawford's soul-searching laments, grasp a sense of the drama from O'Connor and Thorne's urgent rhythms, feel the passions aroused during the group's no-reins soloing, and, over Kinch's thought-provoking rap on "Cardiff Race Riots 1919," recognize the injustices.
Politically provocative and musically engaging, Riot! may be rooted in Welsh soil, but its overarching theme of human rights, and human rights abuses, speaks to the world at large.