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.