Guinness Cork Jazz Festival 2013
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.