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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.
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