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.