Bray Jazz 2016

Ian Patterson By

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Bray Jazz
Various venues
Bray, Ireland
April 29 -May 1, 2016

With first-rate music festivals mushrooming all over Ireland, Bray Jazz remains a highlight in a crowded calendar. Now in its seventeenth year, Bray Jazz' tried and tested format strikes a pleasing balance musically, with jazz, folk and world musics in the afternoon and evenings catering for the traditionalists and modernists alike. The weekend program, whilst full, is not overly cluttered, and mornings are left free to either catch up on sleep, explore the oldest of Ireland's seaside towns, walk by the shore or venture into the heather-clad foothills of the Wicklow Mountains.

The seventeenth Bray Jazz Festival served up a colourfully eclectic program, with a series of outstanding duo concerts in the Town Hall pointing to a more themed approach to programing this year. Enthusiastic crowds—the largest for some years—were treated to the contrasting strains of jazz from Europe and the Americas, with Magnus Ostrom and the Kenny Werner Trio presenting two very different sides of the same coin.

And in this, the centenary of the Easter Rising, when Republicans raised arms against British rule in Ireland, Ronan Guilfoyle 's suite A Shy-Going Boy cast a highly personal light on events whose significance is still the source of fresh analysis and debate a hundred years on.

As ever, high calibre local bands marked the Bray Jazz Trail, with the town's great pubs, hotels and eateries resonating to the sounds of vocal jazz standards, bebop, soul, funk, free-jazz and more bedsides, on this busy and memorable Bank Holiday weekend.

Traditionally, the opening concert of Bray Jazz has kicked off in the Town Hall in the early evening, but with plans seemingly afoot to grow the festival, Bray Jazz 2016 got underway at one o'clock, and in a new venue to boot.

The Well, a church with a long and convoluted history, had hosted workshops in past editions of Bray Jazz but this year was the first time that concerts were staged here as part of the festival's main program.

Day One

Alex Mercado

Mexican pianist Alex Mercado has grabbed a little spotlight since the release of his second album Symbiosis (Self-Produced, 2014), which featured heavyweights Antonio Sanchez and Scott Colley.This performance, however, drew mainly from his recent solo piano release, Refraction (Self-Produced, 2015), and it was a performance full of flare and vision.

"Art is a prism that absorbs reality and turns it into colors," Mercado told the audience. With the church's columns and arches bathed in blue and orange spotlights, and with the natural sunlight filtering through the church's windows, Mercado's musical prism reflected the dual strands of classical and jazz that inform his idiom. Melodically and rhythmically pronounced, Mercado's impressive two-handed technique unleashed technical bravura on thrilling tracks such as "Magnifying Glass" and "Aguila o Sol," and refinement on the quietly mesmeric "Refraction" and the elegiac "Broken Light." Whether attacking or caressing the Steinway keys, a notable classical vein colored Mercado's dramatically undulating compositions, including one wholly improvised number.

"Metropolitan Blues," inspired by Mexico City, captured the chaotic rhythmic currents of the densely populated metropolis, and brought more overtly jazz-influenced playing from Mercado than at any time during his performance, from bluesy cadences to accelerated Art Tatum-esque runs. A stellar performance concluded with the episodic title track to Mercado's first album, The Watcher (Self-Produced, 2012), an energetic number of grand design.

A technical heavyweight and a bold yet nuanced composer, Mercado is a virtuoso of whom we're sure to hear more.

Catriona McKay & Chris Stout

Bray Town Hall has played host to more folk music than jazz in the festival's life but such is the quality of the music, year after year, concert after concert, that these sunset performances are often a highlight of the three days. Harpist Catriona McKay and fiddler Chris Stout, without doubt, provided one of the most memorable concerts of Bray Jazz 2016.

Drawing inspiration from the music of Scotland's Northern isles, the duo began with the gentle "Louise's Waltz" before unleashing the foot-stomping reel "Time to Retreat." Having collaborated for twenty years and recorded together for over ten, the deep-rooted connection between the two musicians was pronounced, both on lyrical airs such as the hymnal "A Home Under Any Tree" and on jigs and reels where lead and comping roles were swapped back and forth either side of exhilarating unison play.

McKay's rhythmic, melodic and harmonic dexterity was simply phenomenal and her comping was every bit as thrilling as her lead lines; not for nothing was the harpist voted Scottish Traditional Instrumentalist 2014. Stout was no less impressive and together the duo spun a virtuoso masterclass on "Edges of High Water." A two-part segment from Seavaigers (Coda, 2014)—the duo's collaborative suite with composer Sally Beamish—began with a haunting lament recalling a mass-drowning of fishermen in the late 18th century; Catriona's unaccompanied harp then broke through the pervading melancholy like a shaft of sunlight, ushering in a delightfully cheery, upbeat melody.

Two stirring reels with the working title of "Barry's Reels" were inspired by a project the duo undertook in 2014 with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra—"a good gig to land" quipped Stout—and Irish classical pianist Barry Douglas. Meaty rhythms underpinned flowing melodies, with McKay bringing Piazzolla-esque drama to the second reel. A captivating concert was rounded off with "Michael's Wood," a delicate air of undeniable beauty.

Passionate, emotive and uplifting—McKay and Stout's concert will rest long in the memory.

Magnus Öström

It had been three years since Magnus Öström last visited Irish shores for two low-key gigs in Navan and Carrick-on-Shannon, and the intervening period has seen the quartet develop into an increasingly powerful live unit. Bray Jazz was only the fourth gig of a tour promoting band's third album, Parachute (Diesel Music AB, 2016), and the four members—with Adam Forkelid subbing for Daniel Karlsson—stuck fairly closely to the sheet music throughout. Yet despite the relatively few road miles with this new material Öström striking compositions were delivered with no little swagger and bundles of energy.

Melody and infectious groove lay at the heart of punchy tunes like "Dog on the Beach" and "Parachute," and the harmonically intricate "Junas," with Andreas Hourdakis and Forkelid afforded greatest leeway to stretch out. Öström, however, is also a fine balladeer, as the brushes-directed "The Green Man and the French Horn" demonstrated. The dreamy reverie of the hypnotic "The Shore of the Unsure," the rock-inflected buoyancy of "Reedjoyce," the epic melodic contours of "Longing" and the plaintive tones of "Song for E"—Öström's heartfelt tribute to Esbjorn Svensson—made for satisfying shifts in dynamics.

The leader flexed his rhythmic muscles on the lively, prog-rock tinged "The End of Eternity," his solo spot juggling polyrhythmic bustle and humor to great effect. For the encore, the quartet ratcheted up the energy levels once more with "Piano Break Song," delivery a final dose of groove-based melodic medicine of the most infectious kind.

What's clear is that EST has informed Öström's solo music to some degree, just as Öström helped shape the music of that unique, uber-influential trio. Yet five years and three albums into his solo career, the confidence in Öström's writing, and above all in the live delivery, leave no doubt that the drummer is plotting a new course all his own.

Day Two

The hullaballoo in Ireland surrounding how the centenary anniversary of the Easter Rising should best be commemorated revealed much about the nation's sense of identity, its unresolved issues with the past and present, the romanticism and the schisms that persist. Uprisings against English rule in Ireland date back to the early sixteenth century but the Easter Rising of 1916, which led to civil war and the eventual partition of the country, is still a matter of emotive historical debate. In the end, however, the big event passed off with color, pageantry and solemnity that seemed to satisfy all.

Ronan Guilfoyle

Poets, writers, documentary makers and composers of every stripe all labored hard to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising but few had such a personal connection to the events of Easter Week 1916 as Ronan Guilfoyle, whose suite, A Shy-Going Boy paid tribute to his grandfather, Joe Guilfoyle, who served in the Volunteers under Éamon De Valera.

The eight-part suite was interspersed with audio recordings of Joe Guilfoyle and Padraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 armed insurrection, subsequently executed by the English army. The suite was an attempt by Ronan Guilfoyle to reconcile the "quietly-spoken, humorous old man" that he remembered his grandfather as, with the idealistic youth who fought the English and would go on to serve on Michael Collin's intelligence staff and engage in political assassinations.

Musically, the suite was melodious and tempestuous in turn, with Guilfoyle's sextet comprised of some of the best musicians from Ireland's exciting contemporary music scene. Saxophonist Sam Comerford, trumpeter Nick Smart and guitarist Chris Guilfoyle plied rich harmonious lines or wove dancing counterpoint under the bedrock of Ronan Guilfoyle's elastic bass ostinatos, Matthew Jacobson's lithe drumming and pianist Izumi Kimura's bold, sometimes angular attack.

Martial drums and sombre harmonies set an early tone of contemplative gravitas, though on the whole the suite was characterized by a combustible energy, and a sense of ever-evolving drama. Dense ensemble passages and exhilarating solos dovetailed over punchy rhythms and sharply defined riffs. Kimura played a largely comping role, though her interventions, particularly her two-handed, staccato motifs, were just as thrilling as the extended guitar, saxophone and trumpet solos. Her sketches—bar one rumbling exploration—were brief, but significant in the context of the suite as a whole, conjuring atmospheres both brooding and nostalgic.

Drum, bass and guitar carved out a twisted blues that bore Guilfoyle's signature knottiness but the music followed strikingly melodic contours for the most part, gospel-sweet at one extreme and intensely Mingus-esque at the other. To bass accompaniment, the sound of Pearse's oratory championing blood-shedding as "a cleansing and sanctifying thing" struck a chilling cord. The intense ensemble passage that ensued evoked the adrenalin and frenzy of battle that such oratory endlessly inspires. The final segment grew from a quietly celebratory motif into an anthemic ensemble chorus of beauty and power.

Even a twenty-minute interruption due to technical difficulties could not diminish the effect of the sextet's performance of what is arguably one of Guilfoyle's most arresting extended compositions. Hopefully, A Shy-Going Boy will make it onto record, take wings, and reach the wider audience it merits.

Nigel Clark & Hugh Buckley

Glasgow's Nigel Clark and Dublin's Hugh Buckley—two of the finest exponents of instrumental guitar in their respective countries—first came together at the Glasgow Jazz Festival 2013 and the story continues to unfold. With Clark on nylon string Lowden acoustic and Buckley on a solid-body Nemesis—designed and built by John Moriarty—the duo regaled the Town Hall audience with a delightful program full of lyricism and helter-skelter virtuosity that drew in the main from its recording The Day of the Duo (Self-Produced, 2013). Opening with a cheery rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste," the set offered up covers of jazz standards, reimaginings of Celtic folk tunes, a dash of bossa nova and a few originals for good measure.
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