10th Bray Jazz Festival
May 1-3, 2009
The small town of Bray in county Wicklow is not the most obvious location for an international jazz festival. Situated twenty kilometers south of the capital Dublin and hugging the coast, it has been battered by the Irish Sea since at least 1300, longer than any other seaside town in Ireland. The number of sea-front hotels, B & Bs, the amusement arcade and the so-called Fun Palace attest to its weekend-away character. Yet, it is a source of pride that the Bray Jazz Festival is celebrating its tenth anniversary with another excellent program and, by now Bray can surely lay claim to being one of the very best small jazz festivals in Europe.
What started off in 2000 as a largely Irish jazz festival with the international acts making the short hop from the UK has blossomed into a festival described by the Irish Times as "the connoisseurs' jazz festival," and with some reason. While not equipped with the kind of budget that would bring the biggest names in jazz, the Bray Jazz Festival over the past decade can boast appearances by respected and influential artists such as Andrew Hill, Henri Texier, Tomasz Stanko and Dave Douglas, the latter who recorded a live album here in 2007, Moonshine (Greenleaf Music, 2008)
Savvy programming includes up and coming names as well as world music artists, and there is no fear of including avant and experimental musicians too. The man behind the Bray Jazz Festival is George Jacob, who recognized the potential of Bray to host a festival in the run-up to the millennium celebrations. He drew up a proposal for a jazz festival and got both approval and part funding from the Arts Council of Ireland. It was definitely a business proposal at the beginning, as Jacob admits that he was no lover of jazz, an aversion that proximity to this music rapidly changed: "I have become a jazz fan and feel the need to convert everyone else."
George Jacob may now even be a jazz proselytizer, but it's the integrity of the art showcased and the festival brand name (its brand is its location) that are paramount. Although the success of the festival is inevitably measured by bums on seats, no compromise is made to pander to a more populist palette, and over the years the Bray Jazz Festival has become synonymous with quality music.
The good reputation the festival enjoys can be evidenced by the fact that despite the Arts Council's twenty percent cut in the budget for the 2009 program, which meant a cut in wages for all, the festival was still able to put on as strong a program as ever. Jacob has boxed clever over the years, enticing artists over to Ireland from the Cheltenham Jazz Festival and from the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in a somewhat rejuvenated area of Belfast. Splitting the cost of artists' flights with other promoters means that everyone is a winner and, although Bray cannot match the fees of larger festivals, musicians are attracted by the intimacy of the venues and the respect and warmth they are accorded from organizers and public alike. This year Bray had to cut artists' fees, and George relates with a modest pride: "In not one case did a band turn us down."
Old Town Hall
And so to the music: The venue for Friday's festival opener was the old Town Hall, a mock Tudor edifice and former weighing station in the middle of the high street. More than a few festival goers entered the portico, only to be totally befuddled to find themselves in a McDonald's restaurant. What would Henry VIII have thought? But we were in the right place, after all, as the function room above the fast-food joint was one of the four main venues over the three days. Stain glass windows depicting the English royal crown and English heraldry and regalia adorning the small chamber served as the slightly surreal backdrop, in this most Irish of towns, to the wonderful trio Boi Akih.
Boi Akih is essentially Indonesian vocalist Monica Akihary and acoustic guitarist Niels Brouwer from Holland, joined here by Indian tabla player Sundip Bhattacharya. For over a decade now, Akihary and Brouner have been exploring world rhythms, starting from Akihary's ancestral homeland, the small islands of the Moluccas in the Indian archipelago, and radiating outwards to India and West Africa.
Sung primarily in the all but expired language of Haraku, Akihary's songs speak of the everyday: the perfume of the gourd flower, the 'wind' of the flute, day's end, the rustling of bamboosongs of memory and of longing. Akihary is an exceptional singer with a voice full of emotion and a surprising range that climbs from a deep, sonorous bass to the heights of birdsong.
Equally impressive was Brouwer on acoustic guitar: his technique was never less than arresting, though never showy. African, Spanish and classical Indian colors emanated from his strings with subtlety and tremendous passion in turn. At times his guitar sounded like a kora, then a berimbau. Like Italian maestro Antonio Forcione, Brouwer maximizes his guitar's percussive possibilities, tapping and rapping the body, shaking it to prolong and accentuate the resonance of the notes, and running a wetted finger up and down the body to produce a Brazilian cavaqhuino sound.
Sandip Bhattacharya provided rhythmic drive to the music on tabla and occasional gourd, and traded konokol vocals with Brouwer. This is a trio in total control of its musical environment whose strength lies in the musical empathy between the three musicians. Its joyous, captivating set was rewarded with a deserved standing ovation.
Securing suitable venues has been a challenge for the festival organizers since the festival's inception, but the construction of the Mermaid Arts Centre in 2002 has succeeded in providing the festival and the town itself with a small but acoustically sound theatre. An intriguing double bill of some contrast brought the theatre to life on Friday afternoon.
Morla, consisting of guitarist Simon Jermyn and saxophonist Sean Og, emerged from the Dublin creative collective, Bottleneck, and have created their very own space in the contemporary Irish music scene. An adventurous duo, Jermyn and Og utilize electronics and their respective instruments to create atmospheric, dynamic soundscapes. Their thirty-five minute set was a continuous improvised piece pleasingly called "Three More Sweets and then a Treat;" starting from a meditative guitar loop, layers of sustained sound, electronic drone, and programmed percussion created dense walls of sound over which Og played minimal, dreamy saxophone.
Morla's out-of-the-box thinking, clever use of contrasting textures and mating of sound and music recalled the work of great American creative duo, Chris Schlarb and Tom Steck's "I Heart Lung" an undeniably powerful and at times beautiful improvisation.
There was barely enough time to sink a pint before Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick's quartet took to the Mermaid stage and rewarded those present with a performance that left little doubt in anyone's mind that we were watching a major new voice on the contemporary jazz scene. Although Eick has been around for a decade or so, his first solo album The Door (ECM, 2008) fully revealed his songwriting talents and his quite personal trumpet-playing style.
Eick's rhythm section of Auden Erilen on bass and Rune Arnerson on drums provided deft interplay, with the animated Arnerson particularly impressive. The piano stool saw Eple Trio's Andreas Ulvo providing tasteful accompaniment and counterpoint to Eick's long, lyrical notes. The concert got underway with the melodic "December," which segued rather seamlessly into "Williamsburg, power and minimalism combined." The elegiac "Cologne Blues" took on a somewhat epic quality live; the classical overtones of Auden Eriien's bass solo and the penetration of Eick's trumpet lines were quite captivating. When Ulvo switched to fender Rhodes, with Arnerson lifting the tempo and Eick adding percussion, the song grew into an extended fusion-style exploration of a 70s Miles intensity. Two new compositions suggested that Eick is looking towards new musical horizons, and the strong vamps, deep grooves and dramatic melodies won the approval of the crowd and whetted the appetite for whatever music he produces in the future.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the 10th Bray Jazz festival was the sheer variety of music on offer. Each of the three evenings festival-goers had the chance to dance to some pretty intoxicating rhythms at the World Stage in the club attached to Katie Gallagher's bar on the sea-front.
On Friday night Brazilian six-piece band Orquestra do Fuba rocked the dance floor with its funky, samba jazz. On Saturday, Irish band Yurodny stirred the crowd with its infectious Balkan rhythms reminiscent of Romanian group Fanfare Ciocarlia, and provoked an outbreak of Irish dancing from some Bray girls. But arguably the biggest hit of the World Stage was the pulsating African blues of electric guitarist Justin Adams and Gambian griot musician Juldeh Camara. Adams has long been interested in the rhythms of West Africa and the Middle East and their strong connection to the blues, and has produced Taureg band Tinariwan.
Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara
Camara's ritti, a one-stringed instrument played with a bow like a fiddle, produced wonderful flowing sounds, accompanied by the gritty electric blues and grinding rock 'n' roll rhythms of Adams and the percussion of Martyn Barker. The cocktail was a hypnotic and powerful one and the trance-like Bo Diddley rhythms, Camara's stirring vocals and riti virtuosity was over all too quickly.
The organizers of the Bray Jazz Festival have done their best to bring the festival to the people of the town, and a dozen bars and hotels around town were offering free jazz of various shades over the weekend. The Royal Hotel was the venue for the two free early shows on the last two days and singer Carmel McCreagh led her tight band through a set of torch songs including her own compositions to a packed house on Sunday. The day before The Hot Club of Dublin played a rousing set of the music of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.
Guitarist Fintan Gilligan played Reinhardt to Russian violinist Oleg Ponomarev's Grappelli, and the level of musicianship from the two was outstanding. Father and son team of John Gilligan on double bass and Daniel Gilligan on rhythm guitar kept impeccable, swinging time and Cyrille Laurence joined the band for several numbers on tenor saxophone, bringing a lovely Stan Getz lyricism to the music. Fintan Gilligan reminded the audience of the current credit crunch: 'We've got CDs for sale at the back, some Billy Joel, a couple of Queen ones;' older brother John concurred: "We've also got a set of van tires, slightly worn, but times are tough folks.' The gags were corny, but the music was anything but, and an impressive reminder that the music of Django Rheinhart and Stephane Grapelli, when in the right hands, swings like no other.
There are guitars and then there are guitars; if you thought Pat Metheny's 42-stringed Picasso was unusual, then you would be amazed by the invention of Sardinian guitarist Paolo Angeli, as were all who witnessed his captivating performance in the Town Hall on Saturday afternoon. If Metheny's custom-built guitar is a Picasso, then Angeli's creation is most definitely a Dali.
To a conventional acoustic guitar Angeli has added the machine head of a cello from which strings run parallel above the guitar's own. Eight more strings run across the mouth of the body perpendicular to the conventional strings. Two motors inside the body of the guitar can be activated to rotate tiny strings, which rotate furiously against the main strings producing a high-pitched trilling noise like a harp on 78 rpm. Two blocks of wood hold a series of foot pedals which activate a row of hammers on the base of the body to strike the base of the strings. A couple of large springs protrude surreally from the body like antlers and are used percussively. The instrument also has fourteen direct outputs, and the spaghetti of wires running to his tuner and effects box (added to the high-backed Tudor chair) gave the whole apparatus the look of an electric chair for guitarists.
The multi-instrumentalist studied jazz guitar in Bologna at the end of the '80s as well as ethnomusicology, and he is not short of technique. His playing is less about technique however, than about sound; to this end Angeli is indebted to guitarist Fred Frith, and his improvised performance in the old Town Hall drew from his album tessuti:paolo angeli plays frith & bjork (ReR Megacorp, 2007)
The former guitarist with Henry Cowell had a significant effect on the Angeli after a collaboration between Frith and the Eva Kant ensemble in which Angeli played and which realized the Frith albumPacifica.(Tzadik, 1998). Frith's application of found objects to alter the sound of his strings has been adapted by Angeli, and he employed miniature clothes pegs, train tickets, batteries and plastic strips to this end. A sink drainer-plug placed under the strings brought an oud-like quality to the playing and at the beginning and end of the concert he used a plastic bag under his bare foot as a gentle percussion instrument.
Angeli used a bow to maximum effect, not only on the strings, but on the springs too. A flick of a switch would amplify his instrument and depending on the direction the music was taking he would play electric guitar or electric cello, layering sounds, searching for sounds. The hour-long improvisation which started from compositions by Frith and Bjork had the elegance of chamber music in certain passages and the intensity of King Crimson in others, and there was a touch of Sardinian folk added to the mix.
It is no easy task to do Angeli's music justice in describing it, but as guitarists go, he is definitely an original of the species; better perhaps to let the guitarist's own words describe his approach to improvisation: "When I start to play I really don't know what I play; it is a kind of a travel for me. It is like navigation between two islands. When there is something to explore I stop there and think this is nice. I like, and I try to fish something." Angeli encored with a haunting, bow-led take on Bjork's "Unravel," plastic bag and all, and arrived once again to an island of silence which marked the end of his travel and that of the audience who had travelled with him, rapt all the while.
The Bray Jazz festival has since its inception promoted Irish jazz talent and festival director George Jacob enthuses about the musicians coming up: "There's some fantastic contemporary jazz coming out of Ireland thanks to the Newpark Music Centre in Dublin. We're always anxious to retain a strong Irish element." This year's edition was no exception with one third of the eighteen concerts on the program showcasing Irish musicians of a uniformly high standard.
Just fifteen minutes after Paolo Angeli's concert an appetizing double bill kicked off in the Mermaid Art's Centre. First off was a trio consisting of Irish pair Michael Buckley (pictured right) on tenor saxophone and Ronan Guilfoyle on acoustic bass, alongside Indo-Dutch drummer Chander Sardjoe.
Buckley and Guilfoyle are seasoned musicians and can boast collaborations with the likes of Sonny Fortune, Joe Lovano, Lee Konitz, Kurt Rosenwinkel, John Abercrombie and Rudresh Mahanthappa amongst others. Sardjoe has performed with Steve Coleman, and with Guilfoyle he formed one of the most impressive rhythm sections of the three days; his blistering drumming was not dissimilar to that of Jeff "Tain" Watts.
Although this was the first time the three had performed together, Guilfoyle has played with both in different combos so the tight interaction in this trio was no surprise. Guilfoyle's lead lines demonstrated why he is so in demand around the world as a teacher of improvisation, and Buckley too demonstrated personality aplenty on tenor; galvanized by the relentless energy of Sardjoe and the irresistible bass of Guilfoyle, Buckley fairly ripped it up without ever meandering. In just under an hour this trio delivered a muscular, highly satisfying performance and one hopes that this is the beginning of a long association.
As in most multiple-concert festivals it is simply not possible to be in all places at the same time, and it was a toss up between the Rez Abassi Quartet at the Royal Hotel or Stefon Harris & Blackout at the Mermaid Arts Centre. Harris, whether on vibes or marimba, is one of jazz's great instrumentalists, but he is also a great band leader, allowing his musicians the space to develop their voices and shine.
The twenty-minute opener "Blackout," which segued into a new number, "Gentle Wind," gave everyone the chance to stretch out a little. After an impressive opening statement from Harris, alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin cut loose before handing the baton to twenty-two year-old New Orleans pianist Sullivan Fortner. Harris discovered Fortner whilst giving a clinic in Ohio and was so impressed by the pianist that he took him on the road. Throughout the concert there were plenty of signs to suggest that Fortner, who possess tremendous touch, a formidable technique and imagination to match, is a name we'll hear a lot more of in the future.
Harris's solo improvisation was a concert highlight, and you could almost see his mind at work as ideas presented themselves to him and the pleasure he took in these discoveries and in his explorations of them. The gorgeous melody that eventually unfolded and which the rest of the band picked up was the title music for the film King Leopold's Ghost, (2006) a stunning interpretation of a composition entitled "Until" by Sting.
Spontaneity was a feature of the concert, and an exchange between Fortner and drummer Terreon Gully, which started off as a feel-you-way improvisation, developed into a full band workout with a lovely Latin sway. The sudden injection of pace by bassist Lucas Curtis completely turned the piece on its head and set Benjamin off on a full-blooded Parkeresque run, matched in turn by Harris in a blur of mallets between vibes and marimba in another jaw-dropping display of virtuosity. A song that started with probing improvisation finished with a tremendous swinging band groove, and this ability to create meaningful musical dialogue from scratch was fascinating to watch.
The encore, a new composition entitled "Langston's Lullaby," was dedicated to Harris' s new-born son: "It's my first child and its unbelievable" Harris explained, "I've had the chance to travel the world many times over and do what I love and I thought I had lived life, but you haven't lived life until your son's peed on you." The song, which began with the beautiful, tender melody carried by Harris and Benjamin, grew in intensity before fading slowly, as softly as slumber.
The late-night session in the upstairs bar of The Martello kicking off at midnight featured the quintet of Irish guitarist Hugh Buckley. Buckley (left)is a hugely talented guitarist whose straight-ahead jazz was particularly driving and energy-filled, perhaps due to the fact that the band had to fight against the noise of a couple of hundred late night revelers. After a fine first set from Buckley's quintet, Stefon Harris's band took the stage in an impromptu jam and, with the leader watching from the side of the room, it proceeded to hypnotize the crowd with its powerful playing.
The final day, too, was packed with outstanding performances. Tarab, a five-piece Irish ensemble led by Italian accordionist Francesco Turrisi, delighted the old Town Hall crowd with their blend of Irish traditional and southern Mediterranean melodies. Emer Moycock on flutes and pipes was exceptional and combined harmonically to great effect with Nick Roth on alto sax; a range of frame drums, tamburellos and bodhrans were expertly played by Robbie Harris and Turrisi.
Tarab varied the pace and intensity of the songs nicely: an Indian harmonium, Irish flute, saxophone and bodhran conjured Arabic vistas on a beautiful slower number. This ability to bring sounds from different cultures together whether on slow airs or faster jigs and blend them as naturally as the colors of nature lies at heart of this group. Tarab is an Arabic word which, as Turrisi explained, means the ecstasy of music, and the range of moods conjured and the top-notch musicianship certainly held the crowd under a spell. Tarab have as yet to record their music, but one can only hope that a group as good as this gets the wider exposure it surely deserves.
The choice in the afternoon was between guitarist Sylvain Luc's trio or the trio led by New York based Japanese pianist Eri Yamamoto. I opted to catch the band before Luc and then race over to the Royal Hotel for Yamamoto. Guitarist Tommy Hafferty is one of the very best in Ireland though his reputation extends far beyond these shores, having played with Benny Golson, Lee Konitz and Martial Solal. Backed by French pair Stephane Faucher on drums and Michel Zenino on double bass, the trio sailed through a set of Irish songs arranged by bassist Zeninon.
The interplay among the trio was sharp, and Hafferty, who has an original voice, employed space to great effect, with Zeninon enjoying equal protagonism. Zeninon fairly danced with his bass guitar, such was his enthusiasm, and seemed to embrace it as well, drawing deep, strong notes of thumping resonance. The crowd was appreciative of a set high on energy and quality.
Over at the Royal Hotel a packed room was treated to a fine performance by the Eri Yamamoto trio. Although she has been in New York for fourteen years and plays all over the world, Yamamoto (pictured left) is still a relatively unknown figure in the jazz world, although her excellent album Duologues(AUM, 2008) with the likes of William Parker and Hamid Drake should go some way to giving her more of the spotlight her talent deserves.
Playing with her regular sidemen of Dave Ambrosio on bass and Ikuo Takeuchi on drums, Yamamoto showed that she has an original voice whose inspiration lies in the most normal, everyday thingsa bumpy bike ride, sheep, bottled water, a treeand translates them into highly impressionistic playing. Her focus is on carrying a melody, her virtuosity never overshadowing the rhythm of her playing. With the exception of a gentle interpretation of "Danny Boy" the set was of original tunes that showcased Yamamoto's lyricism and penchant for joyous melodies. Her fertile imagination engenders songs of real character, and after more than a decade playing together this trio is tight and swinging. Yamamoto left the stage announcing her intention to go out and "drink a lot of Guinness." Now there's a jazz pianist the Irish can relate to.
It fell to drummer David Lyttle and saxophonist Soweto Kinch to bring the curtain down on Bray 2009. Lyttle has been a mainstay on the local scene for some years now and has earned a reputation as a drummer of real talent, having collaborated with Greg Osby, Dave Liebman, Jason Rebello and Tommy Smith. Most of the tunes performed alongside bassist Damian Evans and Kinch were Lyttle originals and underlined his skills as a composer too. Kinch for his part was in fine form; his extended solos, free-flowing and daring were suggestive of a young Sonny Rollins.
To the delight of a packed crowd, Kinch improvised a rap around key words suggested by the audience. When you hear the apparent ease with which his ideas are formulated and linked, and the fluidity of his delivery, the relationship between rap and his playing the saxophone becomes somehow clearer. At shortly after two A.M. the music stopped, and once last orders had been consumed the crowd shuffled out to join all the other late-night revelers spilling out of the bars and clubs.
The continued existence of many small, independent festivals in Ireland and elsewhere are threatened by the current economic malaise which has left one in ten of the population unemployed in the Republic of Ireland; many such festivals will not survive. It is a sign of the times that the national Irish press all but ignored the Bray Jazz Festival 2009, with the Irish Times reviewing just one concert due to cutbacks in coverage of the arts. The Bray Jazz Festival is too good a festival to disappear, and one can only hope that the support the festival has received over the last ten years from the Arts Council of Ireland and the Councils of Bray and Wicklow continues. Here's to the next ten years.