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.