Cork Jazz Festival: Cork, Ireland, October 26-28, 2012

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Cork Jazz Festival 2012
Cork, Ireland
October 26-28, 2012

Cork is Ireland's second city, but it still doesn't feel like too much of a metropolis. Its jazz festival has been running for 34 years, and is always scheduled to coincide with the national public holiday weekend at the end of October. There is no central location, the weekender operating all around Cork, with performances ranging in scale from big concert halls to tiny pubs. The starry bookings form a core program, but it's the vast free-entrance feast that resonates most profoundly amongst the local population. This is probably even more important, given the current economic problems of Ireland, leaving vital funds free to spend on Guinness, Murphy's, Beamish and Smithwick's beer. Yes, the brews were definitely flowing around Cork's prodigious spread of atmospheric and lively pubs and bars.
This is where the weekender's chief weakness lies. The stellar acts were inexplicably bunched into a fairly tight evening slot, mostly beginning around 8:00 p.m. This left the potential punter with a frustrating choice over which big-name artist to catch. It was particularly difficult to jump from one gig to another, especially when some of them had a tendency to run late, or to unfold with an unpredictable running order. There were several late-night choices, but some of the earlier gigs ran much longer than expected. It was far more relaxing to ramble around the free-gig selections that were spread out all weekend, beginning around midday. Most other music festivals tend to range their high profile gigs throughout the day, allowing attendees to book a selection of tickets for separate shows.
Friday evening opened at Cork Opera House with Taraf De Haïdouks, the famed Romanian gypsy ensemble. They are blessed with more than the usual number of accordions. Fiddles, double bass and cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) are also crucial to the sound. The venue's stalls had seats removed, with mini-ledges dotted around for drinks and general leaning. There were some seats right at the back, and up in the circle, but the general set-up encouraged the audience to informally mill around at the front of the stage. Despite this prime circumstance, the gig didn't really ignite in the way that might be expected from this masterful band. The connections just weren't sparking. Nevertheless, even a standard gig by this crew possesses copious amounts of energy, virtuosity and emotional expression, not least when the vocal duties are alternated between such a communicative team of lead singers.

It took a much smaller gig to provide the evening's consummation. The Triskel Auditorium is part of a multi-space arts venue which also includes a café bar. This cozy joint closed each night of the festival with an 11 p.m. set, exploring the dancier reaches of jazz. It was thrilling to discover Mixtapes From The Underground, an improvising hip hop group from Dublin. Surely this combo wasn't improvising completely from scratch (so to speak)? Their grooves sounded so well shaped that, supposedly, certain core elements were pre-existing, even if they were shuffled and combined, ditched or rearranged. There were two keyboardists, one of them doubling on trumpet. Darragh O'Kelley had supreme taste in his selection of distorto-bass sounds, often providing the hard body of each groove. Bill Blackmore married his trumpet to the synth-electronic palette, melding horn and keys. The frontline rappers Raven and MC Ophelia were more obviously free-forming, but their rhymes were so impressively tight that they also sounded pre-meditated, without being overly slick. The result was an uncompromising blend of hip hop, brutal funk and jazz licking.

Most of the freebie gigs involved lesser-known local talents, but there were also many multi-set appearances by more internationally famed outfits. Get The Blessing played on Saturday and Sunday, first filling out the massive Bodega bar, and then doing the same for the more intimately bustling Crane Lane Theatre—it's not really a theatre now, but a many-roomed pub creation. Part of each crowd visibly knew of this band's existence, but many viewers were obviously experiencing something completely unfamiliar. Mostly, they appeared to be caught up in the spell of the English foursome's weaving, intricate funk-jazz-rock complexity. Trumpeter Pete Judge and saxophonist Jake McMurchie specialized in closely cutting riff-figures, driven by the precision funk- punk cycles of bassist Jim Barr and drummer Clive Deamer, these last two also known for their work with fellow Bristolians Portishead. Barr's extremely dry between-tune pronouncements provided a strong conceptual platform, jokily profound. Sadly, this was one element that sometimes didn't survive in the rather lively audience pits at both joints.

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