The appalling weather did little to dampen spirits at the 2000 Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, which saw a wide variety of jazz and blues talents performing over the Irish October bank holiday weekend. Over 40,000 people flocked to Ireland’s second city to see acts ranging from the headliners appearing at the four principal venues to the vast array of lesser known bands playing in the numerous pubs, clubs, and hotels on the festival fringe.
Much of the advance publicity for Kyle Eastwood had focused more on his famous father than on his music, but the bassist confounded sceptics, this writer included, with an impressive set of elegant post-bop material. Performing in the newly refurbished Metropole Hotel on the Saturday night, Eastwood led a tight band through group originals such as his own “The Muse”, with its haunting, bowed bass intro and contemplative tenor sax from Joel Frahm, who impressed throughout, and pianist Jon Regen’s jaunty, stop-start “No, Lulu, No”. The group’s already distinctive sound was enhanced by the fact that when they did play non-band material, they eschewed standards for less conventional choices, including a wistful reading of Tom Waits’s “I Beg Your Pardon”.
Co-headlining at the Metropole on the Saturday was trombonist Chris Barber, one of the founders of the British post-war ‘traditional jazz’ or ‘trad’ revival. Barber has been leading his Jazz and Blues Band for 50 years, and this highly professional outfit can play crowd-pleasing versions of Dixieland warhorses like “Sweet Georgia Brown” without even breaking a sweat. What has always put the band ahead of the rest of the trad pack, however, is Barber’s extremely catholic influences, which even as early as the late ‘50s were raising the eyebrows of traditionalists who wouldn’t even tolerate a group with a saxophonist in its lineup. Barber is heavily influenced by the blues, and this was in evidence in Cork, as trumpeter Pat Halcox used the plunger to great effect, growling on dirty, down-home blues numbers such “Cornbread, Peas and Black Rice.” The band received a considerable boost on these cuts from the excellent blues guitarist John Slaughter. Even when the outfit returned to more familiar trad material, Barber’s fresh approach, such as his lengthy quotation from the hard bop standard “Moanin’” on his brilliant solo on “St. Louis Blues", meant that the gig will stay in the memory for far longer than those of many of his trad counterparts.
The other headline act, Organ Summit featuring veteran Hammond players Jimmy McGriff and Dr. Lonnie Smith, failed to reach their full potential, perhaps because they were playing to a late night crowd somewhat the worse for drink which was wildly appreciative from the outset. The band featured the fine, burnished trumpet sound of Kenny Rampton, who didn’t get much of chance to stretch out, but raised the level of the gig when he did. Lonnie Smith’s playing was one of the highlights of a Lou Donaldson concert in Dublin in the Spring, but it could mostly be described as solid here, except when he took the parts one would usually expect from a second horn and the band’s two-organ lineup momentarily paid off. For the most part, though, the group was content to hit a pleasant, undemanding soul jazz groove on numbers such as a reworking of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”, which, although understandable, was a pity.
Craig Handy’s failure to appear on Saturday due to a delayed flight had caused a good deal of disappointment, so it wasn't surprising that a free gig by the imposing U.S. tenorist the next day in the Metropole was packed to capacity. Handy's muscular, straight-ahead outfit was worth the wait, swiftly winning over the crowd with numbers such the bright, swinging "It's Up to You" and drummer Ali Jackson's "For Kenny". Written for the late Kenny Kirkland, the number received a more Latin treatment than on the 1999 Reflections in Change album, and here the graceful theme was reprised to launch each of the solos, including an exuberant, heartfelt one from Handy himself in what, for me, was the highlight of the festival. Live, the band played a brand of jazz that was more up-tempo and energetic than the largely contemplative Reflections in Change, but the strength in playing ballads indicated on that release was also in evidence in Cork as Handy offered a sensitive version of Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things".