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Bray Jazz Festival 2014

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What emerged was that all the frustrations and anxieties expressed by individual attendees were shared, or had been shared at some point by everybody else, including Douglas. The genial trumpeter and educator admitted being so nervous in the past about performing that his legs used to shake. The solution was simple enough: Yoga? Meditation? Breathing exercises? A shot of something strong? No, sagely Douglas had masked his shaking legs by donning baggy trousers.

On the subject of writer's block Douglas stated that improvisation with guiding ideas is the root of composition. Douglas gave the attendees two minutes to write a melody it was surprising how strong some of the results were. The whole point of the exercise was to obtain the germ of an idea, from where building and experimentation can take off. Playing around with the music, Douglas stressed, is key. He encouraged musicians to adopt different strategies with newly minted melodies, such as playing them backwards, in a different key or with as many rests as there are notes. The idea of composition as controlled improvisation was a recurring theme of Douglas' workshop.

Douglas stressed the need for musicians to value their ideas and asked three musicians to play the short, newly crafted scores of all those who wished to submit their work to the group's scrutiny, which happily most did. Everybody, as Douglas inherently knew beforehand, had something worthwhile and personal to say with their music.

Just as serious musicians practice their respective instruments every day, so too Douglas underlined the importance of practicing writing every day: "Exercise the composition muscle. Over time it gets easier," he said. "Get your paper dirty. Get your hands dirty."

In a revealing anecdote Douglas described how he responded to writer's block blues by transcribing Igor Stravinsky's Violin concerto in D over several days. Douglas described the mechanical process as a transcendent experience: "When I had finished a flick had been switched and I could write again," he said.

Patience is key, for as Douglas noted you cannot expect to write your Blood on The Tracks [Bob Dylan, Columbia, 1975] or your Kind of Blue [Miles Davis, Columbia, 1959] in a day. The session concluded with an exercise in writing a three-part harmony for two saxophones and a trumpet. Once again, the results can't have been anything other than highly encouraging for their composers. Douglas concluded the two and a half hour workshop—which flew by without a break—with the following words of advice: "If you don't play around with different things, try different ideas, it's very hard to be a composer."

The early evening gig in the Town Hall was by This Is How We Fly, clarinetist Sean Mac Erlaine's trad-not-quite-trad quartet. In recent years a number of innovative groups have recast Irish folk music in a more contemporary light: The Gloaming, Tarab, Moxie and The Olllam all spring to mind, but for sheer originality you'd be hard pressed to match This Is How We Fly. Formed by Mac Erlaine in 2010, TIHWF fuses Irish, Swedish and American folk traditions and what was evident during the course of a totally absorbing concert were the common threads that bind the traditions.

Fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Mac Erlaine on clarinet engaged in minimalist dialog on the traditional number "Céad Molad," underpinned by percussionist Petter Berndalen's subtle stirrings. American Nic Gareiss took center stage with an exhibition of flat-footing, the Appalachian dance that likely has roots in the Irish sean-nós tradition. An improvised dance, with more liberal use of the arms than in traditional Irish dance, Gareiss captivated the audience with his mixture of exuberance, grace and imagination.

Gareiss was left the stage to himself for the second number, and his joyous shuffling, singing, toe/heel-tapping and percussive flare was a delight to watch. It also didn't take a great leap of the imagination to equate the rhythmic and sonic textures he conjured with the more urbane turntable tradition of scratching. Joined by Ó Raghallaigh, the duo then combined in a celebratory ditty, with Gareiss clearly inspired.

Though most of the tunes came from TIHWF's stunning eponymous debut (Playing With Music, 2013), a healthy portion of its set involved improvisation or solo turns, such as Berndalen's lively drum/percussion turn based on a Swedish folk song. This was followed by a couple of quartet pieces; "March for a Dark Day," an atmospheric number played at dirge tempo and the catchy fiddle/clarinet vignette "On One Wing," taken at only a moderately faster pace.


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