Bray Jazz Festival 2013
The headlining gig of day two in the Mermaid Arts Center was Mats Eilertsen Skydive. Bassist Eilertsen is one of the quietly unsung stars of the Norwegian jazz boom. He's the go to guy for an increasing number of musicians, such as trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, guitarist The Jacobs Brothers, pianists Tord Gustavsen and Wolfert Brederode and singer Solveig Slettahjell. In addition, and without much fanfare, he's made half a dozen recordings as leader of compositional depth and beauty. The set showcased tracks from Skydive (Hubro, 2011) and 18 months of gigging since its release can only have tightened the group interplay.
Saxophonist Tore Brunborg got "Momento" under way, with pianist Alexi Tuomarila, drummer Olavi Louivuori, guitarist Thomas Dahl and Eilertsen following closely in the melody's slipstream. After five minutes of feeling their way together, passing the lead around in short improvisational gestures, Eilertsen's gentle bass ostinato steered the quintet into more clearly definable space. Guitar and saxophone in turn imposed melodic lines before a more expansive piano solo raised the group tempo. Dahl and Brunborg picked up the reins, and in contrast to the feathery impressionism of the intro, they both soloed strongly and with a clear sense of destination.
"Wheel" paid homage to trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and if not obviously inspired by the legendary Canadian/British figure, its soulful melody, stemming from and woven around a delightfully simple piano and bass motif, was as deceptively simple and graceful as many of Wheeler's own melodies. Louhivuori's deft percussion served as a bridge to an extended mood piece that eschewed solos for overlapping layers of sound. Eilertsen's unaccompanied solo, folk and classically colored, was seductively lyrical and paved the way for a more rhythmic group dynamic. Tuomarila and Thomas' animated solos were consistently melodic.
A tribal-esque drum pattern and rhythmic guitar initiated a groove-based new number, with Brunborg and Tuomarila taking their liveliest solos of the set. "Skydive" was a subtle tone poem of gentle lyrical patterns, with Dahl's sotto voce playing central to the number's subdued atmospherics. "Bravo" built around a steady pulse, and it was the mood that this insistent groove conjured that defined the piece more than Brunborg's melodic lines. The last number was characterized by brooding abstraction that ebbed and flowed until bass and drums found a groove, propelling Brunborg towards another charged solo. The encore, described by Eilertsen as "a Norwegian folk song from the '80s" began as gently as a lullaby. With Eilertsen's bass pulse strengthening, the piece briefly found wings but almost inevitably it returned to the hushed terrain of the intro before fading out.
Norway has produced a disproportionate amount of exceptional jazz in the last two decades and there seems to be no end to the stream of innovative musicians. The Bray Jazz Festival has kept an eye on the Norwegian scene for some years now, staging memorable concerts such as the Mathias Eick Quartet, the Tord Gustavsen Trio, Mari Kvien Brunvoll and Trygve Seim & Frode Haltle. Mats Eilertsen Skydive is the latest to grace the BJF and judging by the audience's response, more Norwegian jazz artists wouldn't go amiss.
The late night concert, kicking off at midnight in the the Martello Hotel, featured the Cajun/Zydeco trio Mama Rosin. Having just arrived the day before after a tour of America, vocalist, guitarist and banjo player Robin Girod, accordionist/vocalist Cyril Yeterian and drummer/vocalist Xavier Bray could have been forgiven for a little jet-lag, but if they were feeling any wear and tear they certainly didn't show it during a high-energy performance full of verve and swagger that had the crowd dancing throughout.
Four albums in, Mama Rosin have become something of a world-wide phenomenon, performing from Chengdou to Lafayette, and from Basel to Bray. The trio's infectious rhythms came from the traditional frottoirCajun washboardand on a couple of numbers a triangle. The tireless collective energy was a big part of the show, but there was no escaping the quality of the songs, mostly taken from the band's CD Bye Bye Bayou (Moi J' Connais Records, 2012), nominated for Best Alt Country Album of the Year by the Independent Music Awards.
Cajun, Zydeco and rhythm & blues were all in the mix and watching the trio bob and sway on the stage, high on their own melodies and rhythms, drunk on their wilder improvisations, was a joy. This was roots music at its danceable best.
Workshop/New Jazz Showcase
The final day of the Bray Jazz Festival began with a workshop by Scottish four-piece, Brass Jaw. This was the first time in the festival's 14-year history that an educational workshop was held in Bray, though in 2002 saxophonist Steve Coleman gave a master class at Newpark, Dublin. The long gap between such events has little to do with the organizer's desire to stage educational workshops and much more to do with funding limitations and logistics: "It's been necessary in recent years to concentrate the funding granted on maintaining the core element of performances by international and Irish groups," George Jacob explained, "to maintain the reputation and quality of the festival programme." However, thanks to the support from Music Generation Wicklow and Brass Jaw, a workshop went ahead this year and it proved to be a great hit with young musicians just starting out on their instruments.
The venue was The Well, a church formerly of the Church of Ireland. When a bigger church was built at the top end of the town in the 1970s, the church became a "church of ease"church speak for out of service. The church then became home to a local piano maker until a few years ago when Pastor Nigel Reid brought spiritual life back to the building. Instead of baptizing it the Church of This or the Church of That, he opted for the much more enigmatic name, The Well. As Pastor Reid explained, the name was inspired by Jesus words to a Samaritan woman at a well in Sychar, as told in the Book of John. "It [the church] is like a well," said Pastor Reid, "where people come to drink spiritually." This particular Sunday, however, was the church's baptism of jazz.
About seventy people of all ages came to Brass Jaw's workshop and quite a few will have left with another kind of enlightenment, after an engaging and highly enjoyable 90-minute session, whose aim, in a nutshell, was to demystify jazz. Brass Jaw is trumpeter Ryan Quigley, alto saxophonist Paul Towndrow, tenor saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski and baritone saxophonist Allon Beauvoisin. This Scottish band's roots go back to 2005 and they were Ensemble of the Year in the UK Parliamentary Jazz Awards in 2011. By way of introduction the quartet played keyboardist Joe Zawinul's "Walk Tall"a storming version that hooked the audience from the first.
In the center of a circle, the four musicians talked of their entry into jazz, their first steps in approaching, and eventually coming to grips with their instruments. They then invited volunteers to step forward with their own instruments. Three saxophones, a trumpeter, a guitarist and two fiddlers formed a line and joined in the improvisation lesson. Others were invited to conduct the mini-orchestra, and with everyone blowing, including the Brass Jaw quartet, the heady, beautiful cacophony had just a hint of an iconoclastic Charles Mingus celebration. This communal achievement alone made the workshop a success, and huge fun too.
The young trumpeter, who initially had been reluctant to join the line, found his voice and blew with some confidence. If the workshop managed to increase these aspiring musicians' levels of confidence and gave them a building block or two to progress withand watching from the sidelines it appeared to have done just thator if it managed to bolster self-esteem just a little, then it will have made a strong case for making such educational workshops an integral part of future editions of the BJF. Jesus would surely approve into the bargain.
Just across the road from The Well at the Royal Hotel, the New Jazz Showcase presented three Dublin bands in the early afternoon. The Multiverse is the new trio project of Cork-based Congolese singer/ guitarist. Niwel Tsumbu. A well known figure in jazz and creative music circles in Ireland since he arrived in 2004, Tsumbu has played in a wide-ranging number of projects with top local musicians. Currently, he can be found in The New Triangle alongside pianist/composer Roger Doyle and singer/cellist Vyvienne Long, exploring the meeting points of classical, African and folk traditions. Multiverse, with drummer Shane O'Donovan and bassist Peter Erdei, expands on a tradition of alternative jazz-rock ensembles that includes those led by guitarists James Blood Ulmer and Sonny Sharrock.
In an absolutely electrifying performance, Tsumbu caressed his strings to produce lighter-than-air Bill Frisellian sounds in moody, abstract passages, and attacked them with the fire and fluidity of Jimi Hendrix, sympathetically supported by O'Donovan and Erdei. His vocabulary, drew from his African roots, jazz, rock and folk in more or less equal measure and the integrated whole produced a fascinating language, delivered with intensity and passion. The crowd responded enthusiastically and the only disappointment was to learn that Multiverse hasn't as yet recorded a CD.
Butter was described in the program as playing classic neo-soul and hip-hop covers but the sextet, led by singer Georgia Cusack, had a lot more than that going on. Soulful, yes, courtesy of Berklee-trained Cusack and the tightly locked horns of tenor saxophonist Sam Comerford and alto saxophonist Chris Engel, but the intensity at times in the collective voice and a large dose of improvisation from the saxophones and guitarist Stephen McHale, lent an exciting contemporary jazz feel to the music. Drummer Dennis Cassidy and bassist Stephen Maynard Smith kept a tight groove when required but also enjoyed the freedom that was an inherent part of this exciting band's performance. Butter's original arrangements of well known tunesand others more obscureand the obvious chemistry among the musicians suggests that this band will be a strong draw throughout Ireland. Once it gets some original tunes under its belt there'll be no holding it back.
The third band of the New Jazz Showcase was Phisqa. Phisqa means five in the Quecha language of Peru and refers to the five members of the quintet, Italian guitarist Julien Colarossi, South Africa saxophonist Chris Engel, Irish double bassist Cormac O'Brien, Venezuelan pianist Leopoldo Oslo and drummer/percussionist and leader, Peruvian, Cote Calmet. With such a cosmopolitan line-up a 'world' jazz or jazz-fusion might have been expected, and whilst African, Latin and even flamenco accents surfaced at times, the various influences were successfully subsumed in a fairly straight ahead aesthetic, though one brimming with bravura.
That said, Cote's Peruvian rhythms on drums and cajon lent a distinctive other flavor to the music. Featuring songs from the quintets debut CD, Phisqa (Self Produced, 2013), Calmet's strong writing was as evident as the impressive individual musicianship. The leader swapped his drums for charangoAndean luteon the intro to "Ayarachi" before the piece settled into the flowing contemporary jazz mode that characterized the entire gig. Oslo, Colarosi, Engel and Cote all stretched out with telling solos. The stirring number ended serenely with Cote on charango again, accompanied by Engel on soprano saxophone.
The New Jazz Showcases have become a popular feature of the BJF over the past four editions, and four hundred people attended the free concerts this time around: "The plan is to include this in the festival each year," Dorothy Jacob said. "It's important to contribute to the development of jazz in Ireland." These three excellent bands provided a cross-section of the range of jazz talent that Ireland currently boasts. The enthusiasm of the mixed-aged audience for all three bands was also a sign that the Bray/Dublin jazz fan is as open-minded towards innovation and diverse influences as the musicians themselves.