Guinness Cork Jazz Festival 2013
October 25-28, 2013
Whether it was chance or fate is debatable but the fact is that had it not been for a cancelled bridge tournament the first Cork Jazz Festival might never have got off the ground. The 35th Guinness Cork Jazz Festival was officially launched in the Gresham Metropole Hotel, with a bit of the red carpet treatment for guests, sponsors and local dignitaries. It was an entirely appropriate setting in which to kick start four days of music and celebration: "The very first festival was held here in 1978," explained Roger Russell, General Manager of the hotel. "The Gresham Metropole is the spiritual home of the GCJF."
Russellwho has been involved with the GCJF in a variety of capacities for 15 yearsrelated how the festival had been the brainchild of the then hotel manager Jim Mountjoy. "A bridge tournament to be held that Bank Holiday weekend was cancelled so Jim had the idea to run a jazz festival to fill the hotel," said Russell. The Cork Jazz Festival, as it was known in those less branded times, was Ireland's first jazz festival and although it started on a small scale it didn't lack for ambition.
Within a few short years it had attracted such jazz legends as singer Ella Fitzgerald, pianist Oscar Peterson, saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Mountjoy, the festival director until 1986, did much to expand the festival and make it a genuinely city-wide celebration, with jazz in the local pubs, a jazz boat on the river and a jazz train from Dublin to Cork.
Any festival that has lasted this long is bound to have evolved and the GCJF is no exception. Guinness came on board in 1982 and has been a loyal sponsor ever since. As Cork's Lord Mayor and the representative from the Irish Tourist Board told the gathering at the festival launch, the GCJF plays an important role in fostering tourism to Cork/Ireland, in creating jobs and boosting the economy. It's quite a responsibility and the slightly corporate tone of the speeches at times underlined the evolution of the festival's role and character over the years.
The 40,000 people who attend the festival each year, pumping 18 million Euros into the local economy, have also been very loyal to Guinness, it has to be said. The pumps of Cork's bustling pubs work overtime during the GCJF, dispensing Ireland's famous black stout to locals and increasingly, foreign visitors against a continuous backdrop of jazz. The GCJF is a fun weekend and the atmosphere is, needless to say, pretty damned relaxed. And as Roger Russell recounted, the Gresham Metropole increases its staff by about 50% over the weekend of the festival. Every hotel, B&B and flop house in the Cork is fully booked weeks ahead. Jazz, it seems, is good for business.
The first day of the GCJF 2013 started in the morning at various venues around the city centre. Workshops, talks, photographic exhibitions, art installation and jazz in the street announced to the wider public that it was that time of year again when jazz invades the city. Though the festival has contracted geographically speaking over the years, it has at the same time, extended its reach into more corners of everyday walks of life from schools to shopping malls, and from shops and restaurants to galleries, squares and churches. Cracking after hours jam sessions fired passions in the Metropole Hotel. The serious business, however, got underway on Friday evening at the Everyman Palace Theatre with a double bill of singer Rene Marie and saxophonist Courtney Pine.
Rene Marie is a jazz singer of the old school, with a dozen titles to her name and collaborations with the likes of drummers Jeff "Tain" Watts, Gerald Cleaver and pianist Mulgrew Miller. Her voice was steeped in the blues and gospel and her delivery was sassy, teasing and soulful. Marie's set showcased I Wanna Be Evil (Motema, 2103)a tribute to the late Eartha Kitt and the jazz singer/songwriters of yesteryear. Kitt's "They Say I'm a Witch" got things off to a swinging start, and introduced saxophonist Perico Sambeat.The saxophonist is one of the most renowned jazz musicians in his native Spainpianist Brad Mehldau has played on four of his albumsbut his interventions were mostly short and rarely caught fire.
The rhythm section of double bassist Alex Davis, pianist Albert Sanz and drummer Stephen Keogh lent tight, swinging support on "C'est Si Bon," the slow-burning "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Oh, John." Two of Marie's best interpretations came with Cole Porter's "Let's Do It" and Dave Frishburg's "Pick Me a Grape"sensuous numbers that sizzled sexily in the singer's hands and underlined Porter's craft in masking earthy, sexual subject matter with poetic innuendo. The self-penned "Weekend" sprang from a terrific bass ostinato and ran its bluesy course with Marie a sultry presence. The title track of the CD rounded off the crowd-pleasing set on a swinging note, with Sambeat finally tearing free.
Courtney Pine is no stranger to the GCJF, having played here several times. This time up he was presenting music from House of Legends (Destin-E Records), inspired by the roots music of the British Afro-Caribbean community. The quartet tore through the rhythms of calypso, soca and zouk at mostly breakneck speed, fueled by Pine's inextinguishable energy. Unfortunately, this was not music best appreciated in the formal setting and atmosphere of a municipal theatre.
In a standing arena or in the open air, such music would inspire a dancing party. Pine did his best to lively up the crowd but there was little energy coming back towards the stage, making for a strangely subdued event. Perhaps the GCJF could use a standing-room venue for such dance-oriented gigs in future. Marketed as such, it would probably also help to draw a younger crowd to the festival.
Pine set out his stall on the opening track with a frenzied soprano solo that set the blueprint for his rather self-absorbed playing throughout the entire show. Samuel Dubois brought a genuine flavor of the Carribean on steel pans, impressing with a firey solo on "Claudia Jones"Pine's heady calypso tribute to the founder of London's Notting Hill Carnival. Guitarist Cameron Pierre took an extended solo as did Pine, who turned the Everyman into a 19th century English variety hall with a verse of the old nursery rhyme "Pop Goes the Weasel," with the crowd playing its part on the obscure refrain.
Pine switched to EWI when accompanying but only on the final number, "Samuel Sharpe" did he tear into it as he had done on soprano all evening. Though tunes like "Kingstonian Swing" and "House of Hutch" were celebratory in tempo and uplifting melodically, the barrage of solosmostly from Pineone after the other grew a little tiring. In a dancing environment such virtuosity can fire a crowd whose energy in turn feeds back to the stage, but sat in the stalls on the receiving end of relentless high voltage virtuosity became energy sapping.
Pine encouraged clapping, standing and clapping, fist waving and general carnival-esque participation, but this wasn't Notting Hill with its teeming streets full of color and energy. Pine gave a typically energized performance but there was little of the nuance and interplay that characterized House of Legends.
One of the most satisfying aspects of GCJF 2013 was the degree to which the Fringe Festival enlivened Cork's streets. Local shops, cafes and restaurants decked their windows with all manner of jazz paraphernalia; there was live music on street corners and in squares and in public spaces such as a church, the library and a former jail; even Cork's mime artists got into the jazz swing of things.
The New York Brass Band, a septet comprised of grooving tuba, swinging trumpet, trombone and saxophone plus percussion animated a packed Duant's Square with its infectious New Orleans funk tunes. Several dancers got their jazz groove on to everybody's delight. Toyin Adelasoye and Camille Roy had traveled from London and Paris respectively just to dance when and wherever possible over the weekend and they found an able partner in Michael Munane of the Cork Jazz Exchangea dance group that has created a fringe within the Fringe with its 'flash-mob'-style spontaneity.
Performances that transform civic spaces from their everyday function into places of celebration largely mark the character of a city's festival. The real fun is when the lines between performer and audience blur and in this respect the GCJF 2013 was a great success. The only event that didn't quite come off as planned was the New Orleans-style Jazz Funeral March. A large crowd assembled at the artisanal English Market but half an hour after the appointed time there was no sign of movement: "It's like a feckin' funeral" one man observed. Thankfully, the New York Brass Band saved the day with an impromptu performanceperched on a plinththat breathed life into the gathering.
Saturday evening's double bill at the Everyman Palace Theatre began with Portico Quartet, complete with new addition to the group, singer Cornelia. Its hybrid electronic-acoustic music has inspired many groups in the past half dozen years since its debut, Knee Deep In the North Sea (Babel, 2007) but few have managed to straddle genres quite as successfully. The one-hour set began with "Window Seat" which segued into "Ruins"a delightful opening serving of ambient soundscapes, pulsing rhythms and electronic-infused minimalism.
Portico Quartet was one of the first groups to fully integrate the hangthe percussion instrument that sounds like a cross between a tabla and a West Indian steel paninto its sound and percussionist Keir Vine's use of mallets to announce the repeating refrain of "Rubidium" sounded like the peel of church bells. Bassist Milo Fitzpatrick's shimmering arco and saxophonist Jack Wylie's drawn out notes created a dream-like vibe that was temporarily broken by Duncan Bellamy's combined electronic and drum trance. The rhythms gradually dissipated as the chill-out vibe reasserted itself on this striking number.
Singer Cornelia brought her ethereal vocals to a new number and "Steepless." The addition of the Swedish vocalist to the band is a further sign of Portico Quartet's refusal to stick to the tried and tested and its pursuit of new sonic territory. An absorbing show culminated in "City of Glass"; metronomic percussion and grooving bass ostinatos combined with floating saxophone and keyboard melodies in a striking juxtaposition of rhythm and ambient texture.
As absorbing as Portico Quartet's performance was, it had next to nothing to do with jazz. In this respect, the GCJF is seemingly going the way of so many other jazz festivals in diversifying its program musically with indie rock, Neo Soul, funk and whatever else has wide appeal. The inclusion in this year's program of artists such as Chic & Nile Rodgers, Soul II Soul Sound System, Bilal, Efterklang and Primal Scream at the Cork Opera House represented the festival's desire to attract not only a larger audience but a younger one to boot.
There was a full house to witness drummer Billy Cobham & Spectrum 40, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the drummer's best known album, Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973). Joined by keyboardist Gary Husband guitarist Dean Brown and bassist Ric Fierabracci, Cobham ran through almost the entire album, including "To the Women in my Life" and "Le Li"songs which Cobham stated he had never previously played live.
A couple of tight jazz-fusion numbers allowed everybody to stretch out but were just the anti-pasti whetting the appetite for the fantastically grooving "Stratus"a classic of 1970's jazz fusion. With Cobham and Fierabracci keeping a steady beat, the stage was set for some tremendously free soloing from Dean and Husband. The set was forty minutes old before Cobham unleashed one of his legendary solos; armed with four sticks he showed greater subtlety than perhaps might have been expected, prior to the inevitable barrage.
The set featured a composition each from jazz-fusion legend Deanwhose association with Cobham stretches back thirty yearsand Husband, whose dramatic "Dreams in Blue" from Dirty & Beautiful Volume 1 (Abstract Logix, 2010) featured incendiary collective play. However, the real fireworks came with the super-charged "Quadrant 4' which closed the set. The crowd did just enough to earn an encore, the steaming, slow funk-blues "Snoopy's Search"/"Red Barron," with Cobham content to play time-keeper as Dean and Husband let rip one final time to cap a scintillating show.
Besides the main GCJF program the Fringe Festival offered a rich and varied program over the four days. There were exhibitions by photographers Des McMahon and William Ellis, the latter whose One LP project was making its international debut; multiple workshops took place around the city as did lectures, jazz and blues dance classes, open mic jam sessions and jazz films of classic Montreux Jazz Festival performances.
The Jazz Festival Choir, led by UK jazz singer/pianist Lee Gibson proved to be a popular workshop. Over three mornings around 30 people of all agesmost without any real experience in a choirassembled in The Jazz Bar of the Everyman Palace Theatre and tackled spirituals, pop and soul numbers. Divided into alto, soprano, tenor and bass sections, Lee skillfully molded the choir into admirable shape given the limitations of three, one-hour sessions. Immediately after the final session the Jazz Festival Choir performed without a safety net in the foyer of the Metropole Hotel to what must technically count as a standing ovation from surprised hotel guests. "It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on at my age," said one woman soprano, seven decades young.
In the afternoon the jazz funeral march finally got off the ground a day later than advertised, prompting speculation that they'd just been waiting for the main protagonist to pop his clogs. At the Triskel Christchurch there was more life in an outstanding double bill featuring the Ronan Guilfoyle Quintet and Colombian harp sensation Edmar Castaneda.
Bassist Guilfoyle's Irish/French quintet performed his original work "Counterparts"a new commission by the National Concert Hall based upon the music quoted in the writings of James Joyce. A recording of Joyce's voice preceded the opening number, based around tightly coiled unison lines from violinist Dominique Pifarel, alto saxophonist Stephane Payen and tenor saxophonist Michael Buckley. Guilfoyle's wiry bass lines and drummer Christophe Lavergne's punchy rhythms ignited some firey individual playing from the front line. "Telemachus" swayed between pizzicato violin motifs, rich horn/string voicings evocative of bassist Charles Mingus's larger ensembles, and exploratory bass and tenor solosall buoyed by Lavergne's explosive play.
Three pieces followed without a pause; "Girlish Days," inspired by Joyce's only known composition ("Bid Adieu to Girlish Days") shared little of the somber chamber quality of Joyce's original and featured a fine solo from Payen. Swirling horn and violinminus the rhythm section initiallyintroduced "Sirens" but Guilfoyle and Lavergne's return ratcheted up the tension several notches. An extended abstract passage ensued, with the musicians mimicking the rhythmic cadences and emotions of a recorded extract from Ulysses; Buckley's flute intervention was particularly effective in imitating the contours of Joyce's vernacular. Grooving bass, cracking drums and honking sax introduced "Two Gallants," providing striking contrast to the abstraction of the previous section. Pifarley's searing solo recalled Jean-Luc Ponty's free-wheeling Frank Zappa days.
Guilfoyle's Joyce odyssey concluded with "Finnegan," whose knotty unison lines, flying improvisations and undulating tempos provided the perfect vehicle for the impressive Lavergne's considerable range of dynamics. It sealed a remarkable quintet performance. Following the performance of Guilfolye's triumphant Indo-jazz suite "Five Cities" at the Down With Jazz festival in Dublin in September, "Counterparts" stakes a further claim for Guilfoyle as amongst the most innovative voices in contemporary jazz.
Harpist Edmar Castaneda is to the harp what Jaco Pastorius was to the bassan innovative virtuoso redefining what's possible on his chosen instrument. Castaneda's grounding is in the folkloric harp tradition of Colombia and Venezuela but as this concert demonstrated his unique playing style is influenced by jazz, tango, flamenco and the rhythms of New Orleans, Brazil and the CaribeanCastaneda is truly a purveyor of world music.
From the beginning of the firey Latin jazz of "Cuarto de Colores," Castaneda revealed an uncanny ability to multi-task; grooving Afro-Cuban bass lines, rhythmic chords and melodic lines were managed simultaneously in a breathtaking display. The pretty title track of Entre Cuerdas (Artist Share, 2010) owed more to the arpa llanera folk tradition of the plains of Colombian and Venezuela, spiced up by Castaneda's lightening improvisations. "Jesus de Nazareth" moved from a tender, almost ballad-like opening to more expansive, flowing expression, though this was the least dense of Castaneda's compositions.
The harpist paid elegant homage to bandoneon maestro Astor Piazzolla on "Libertango." He was then joined by bodhrán player Eddie Kavanagh in an improvised jam; Castaneda led for the most part with Kavanagh's driving rhythms and accents providing intuitive support. During the concert Castaneda alluded a couple of times to the likelihood of recording in Ireland and the thought of flute and whistles, pipes, violin and Irish harp in union with Castaneda already paints a colorful picture. Certainly the simpatico collaboration with Kavanagh's Irish rhythms offered an exciting preview of the possibilities.
Samba rhythms colored Castaneda's delightful take on "Autumn Leaves." The up-tempo "Colibri" married flamenco and Colombian/Venezuela Joropo rhythms in a dazzling fusion. Castaneda's body language conjured a boxer dancing lightly on his feet as he plucked chords like little jabs or shifted his weight back and forth as his sweeping runs gathered pace. From time to time explosive right hand rasgeuos flew across his strings like flashing right hooks. A brief maraccas interlude was no less captivating, briefly altering the dynamic before the final flamenco flourish on harp.
A standing ovation brought an encore of pianist Chick Corea's "Spain," foreshadowed by the familiar melody of Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Castaneda's thrilling interpretation provided an uplifting conclusion to an electrifying performance and a stunning exhibition of the harp's possibilities.
Like all sizeable jazz festivals programming clashes can throw up some difficult choices. The Triskel Christchurch, a beautifully converted former church, offered concerts by Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, saxophonist Perico Sambeat and accordionist Dino Saluzzi at the same time as the Everyman Palace Theatre's shows. If anything, the program at the Triskel was the most jazz-centric of the three principal venues, and catered for free-improvisation/avant-garde jazz fans with late-night concerts featuring Omen 111 and the Smith/Edwards/Sanders Trio.
Not jazz, not fusion but instrumental music. This is how Snarky Puppy's leader Michael League describes the collective's music. The opener "Binky," from groundUP (Ropeadope, 2012) was a case in point; there was a funk vibe in the bass and Robert Searight's drums reminiscent of War, a brass-driven groove straight from Tower of Power, a Ska-type keyboard riff and a rock aesthetic in trumpeter Mike Maher's processed soloinstrumental music will do just fine. The ensemble voice rose and subsided, with an interlude of calm foreshadowing an almighty collective riff that charged towards the finishing line.
It wasn't all thumping grooves as Bill Laurence's delightful neo-classical keyboard intro on one number demonstrated. There was also a touch of sophisticated smooth jazz in "Light a Light." The highlight of the set, however, was a new number, from the band's 8th CD, due for release in early 2014an anthemic tune featuring great guitar work from Bob Lanzetti and a catchy sing-along hook that the Everyman crowd latched onto with gusto.
This was Snarky Puppy's 189th gig of 2013 so a tight group sound was to be expected. Any road-weariness after such a grueling slog would have been understandable but the collective energy of Snarky Puppy's performance was pretty remarkable.
The headlining act was the Mingus Big Band. Almost a quarter of a century long in the tooth, the MBB has been playing a Monday night residency in New York since 1991 and since 2008 at the Jazz Standard, alternating with the Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Orchestra. Such is the pool of players that the MBB habitually draws from that they could run three 14-piece bands simultaneously. The big band had just come off the back of a six-night stint at Ronnie Scott's and was finely tuned and purring.
Bassist and leader Boris Kozlov's charging bass announced the lively bebop-influenced "E's Flat A's Flat Too," one of two tracks from Mingus' classic Blues & Roots (Atlantic, 1959); the other, "Moanin'" grew from Ronnie Cuber's baritone saxophone riff into a heady ensemble shout punctuated by fine soloing. Throughout the set, the roaring ensemble passages and exuberant soloing brought equally loud cheers from the younger audience members who had in all likelihood rolled up for Snarky Puppy. The energy passing between the stage and the stalls made for a great atmosphere.
A growling blues lament introduced "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," Mingus' heartfelt ode to saxophonist Lester Young. Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery's mazy extended solo provided a highlight of the entire show. Another soloist worthy of honorable mention was pianist Helen Sung, whose emotional and dynamic range on "New York Sketch Book" was highly impressive. Vocal chants colored the swinging "Fables of Faubus," with Cuber unleashing a short, bruising solo. A plaintive bass arco intro to "Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters" soon gave way to a multi-layered, riotous ensemble voice that once again ignited the passions of the crowd.
The Snarky Puppy audience members' enthusiasm for Mingus' electrifying musicbrilliantly interpreted by the Mingus Big Bandvindicated the GCJF's leaning towards less jazz-specific, more contemporary programming. There's no escaping the irony that the future of jazz festivals the world over may well depend on diluting the jazz content in order to attract a younger audience. The GCJF 2013 struck a good balance between classic and modern jazzno small task in itselfand other genres of music. Maintaining this balance while seeking programming innovations with broad appeal will be the challenge in the years to come.
The GJCF spilled into a fourth day, with just a handful of gigs in pubs, a jam session led by trombonist Paul Dunlea in the Crane Lane Theatre and the final day of social dancing at the Cork Jazz Ball in the Camden Palace Hotel. The honor of closing the GCJF fell to Scottish indie-rock band Primal Scream, a band which has been together as long as Guinness has been sponsoring the GCJF. There were no reports of alternative rock versions of Mingus or Duke Ellington tunes but a packed arena proved that that there's plenty of elbow room for diversity at the GCJF. Roll on GCJF 2014!
All Photos: Courtesy of Dublin Jazz Photography /Devi Anna Chacon