Bray Jazz Festival Bray, County Wicklow Ireland May 3-5, 2013
For many years, the picturesque town of Bray's main claim to fame has been that it's the oldest inhabited seaside town in Ireland. That is, it was the main claim to fame until Bray local lass Katie Taylor won boxing gold at the 2012 Olympic Games in the lightweight division, emptying the pubs of Guinness on that heady August day and forever putting Bray well and truly on the map. The Bray Jazz Festival, which was celebrating its 14th edition over the Bank Holiday weekend Festival, is also doing its bit to spread the name of Bray far and wide. It may not be the biggest jazz festival in the world, but like Katie Taylor, Bray Jazz packs a hell of a punch.
Festival organizers George and Dorothy Jacob have overseen the growth of the Bray Jazz festival from a small, relatively local concern to an international festival that attracts some of the most renowned figures in contemporary jazz. Since All About Jazz last covered the Bray Jazz Festival in 2009 the Irish economy has struggled and as George Jacob said, as he welcomed the opening night crowd: "It seems like a bit of a miracle that we're able to put on the festival year after year."
Divine intervention in aid of Bray Jazz, if it's there, is bolstered by support from the Arts Council of Ireland, Bray Town Council and the council of County Wicklow, the National Tourism Development Authority (Fáilte Ireland), national radio (RTE) and the local tourism board. It is their commitment in the main that ensures that the festival survives from year to year. No less significant is the support that comes from the town itselffestival flyers in shop windows, old loudspeakers in the high street pushing the festival. This year pubs, restaurants and hotels played host to over 30 high-quality bandsa record participation for the festival.
There were a couple of important innovations in this year's program. Firstly, in a brazen challenge to the heavens, an outdoor concert was held for the first time, or better said, a festival within the festival, as the Civic Plaza showcased four bands in a five-hour celebration of Balkan music, with musicians hailing from Serbia, Russia, Turkey, Italy, Ireland and the UK. Secondly, an educational workshop was staged, also for the first time. All in all, 44 concerts were held over the three days, and to everyone's delight the sun came out and shone over the entire weekend, prompting one local to say: "I haven't seen sign of that since last September."
For guitarist Doran this was something of a homecoming, as he was born just down the road in Greystones, moving to Switzerland while still young. Since the 1970s, Doran has played with some distinguished names in free jazz/avant jazz, including drummer Han Bennink
New Bag has been Doran's longest continuous musical concern, and has recorded 8 albums since 1997. Although the line-up has changed over the years the common denominator has remained Doran's eclectic, jazz-rock aesthetic. This incarnation of New Bag featured drummer Lionel Friedli
on minimoog and Rhodes, and they gave a thrilling performance that drew mainly from Mesmerized ( Double Moon records, 2013).
The first two tracks, however, came from Take the Floor and Lift the Roof (Double Moon Records, 2011); "Embarkation" charged out of the blocks with post-punk energy. Whether singing lyrics or improvising, Buechi was a compelling presence, her utterly distinctive voice going through some arresting gymnastics. A ruminative, quasi-psychedelic passage led by guitar and Rhodes segued into a foot-to-the-floor workout with Doran's innovative guitar lines-cum-riffing at the heart of things. "Take the Floor and Hit the Roof" followed with the propulsive groove of 1980s King Crimson
Doran and Buechi share a fascination with Indian music and this was felt in the singer's delivery on "The Other Side of the Fence," which swung between hard groove and a minimalist passage where ethereal vocals and keys floated in tandem. The short and punchy "Techno Sketches" featured Buechi's most outré improvisations, and tight melodic unison lines from the singer and Doran. "Three Punk Chords Tango" came from a post-punk rock mold with Doran's wild sonic sculpting driven by a drum barrage and heavy keyboard riffs.
The quartet's lean sound owed something to the absence of a bassist, a role filled by Membrez and Friedli combined. The drummer's bass drum fired a constant pulse and his animated playing throughout was tremendously exciting, particularly during an extended exchange with Membrez on "Mesmerized"a powerful vocals-driven number that grew relentlessly in intensity. The plot of "Long Distance Runner" took a few turns; tight unison playing, alternating sung and spoken passages, and an exhilarating finale that saw Doran solo with inspired abandon. Returning to the head, Buechi and Doran's lines fused as one and the quartet burst through the finishing line.
New Bag was an inspired choice of opening act for the festival and its incendiary performance will go down in the annals of Bray Jazz Festival's history.