Bray Jazz Festival 2013

Bray Jazz Festival 2013
Ian Patterson By

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Bray Jazz Festival
Bray, County Wicklow
May 3-5, 2013

For many years, the picturesque town of Bray's main claim to fame has been that it's the oldest inhabited seaside town in Ireland. That is, it was the main claim to fame until Bray local lass Katie Taylor won boxing gold at the 2012 Olympic Games in the lightweight division, emptying the pubs of Guinness on that heady August day and forever putting Bray well and truly on the map. The Bray Jazz Festival, which was celebrating its 14th edition over the Bank Holiday weekend Festival, is also doing its bit to spread the name of Bray far and wide. It may not be the biggest jazz festival in the world, but like Katie Taylor, Bray Jazz packs a hell of a punch.

Festival organizers George and Dorothy Jacob have overseen the growth of the Bray Jazz festival from a small, relatively local concern to an international festival that attracts some of the most renowned figures in contemporary jazz. Since All About Jazz last covered the Bray Jazz Festival in 2009 the Irish economy has struggled and as George Jacob said, as he welcomed the opening night crowd: "It seems like a bit of a miracle that we're able to put on the festival year after year."

Divine intervention in aid of Bray Jazz, if it's there, is bolstered by support from the Arts Council of Ireland, Bray Town Council and the council of County Wicklow, the National Tourism Development Authority (Fáilte Ireland), national radio (RTE) and the local tourism board. It is their commitment in the main that ensures that the festival survives from year to year. No less significant is the support that comes from the town itself—festival flyers in shop windows, old loudspeakers in the high street pushing the festival. This year pubs, restaurants and hotels played host to over 30 high-quality bands—a record participation for the festival.

There were a couple of important innovations in this year's program. Firstly, in a brazen challenge to the heavens, an outdoor concert was held for the first time, or better said, a festival within the festival, as the Civic Plaza showcased four bands in a five-hour celebration of Balkan music, with musicians hailing from Serbia, Russia, Turkey, Italy, Ireland and the UK. Secondly, an educational workshop was staged, also for the first time. All in all, 44 concerts were held over the three days, and to everyone's delight the sun came out and shone over the entire weekend, prompting one local to say: "I haven't seen sign of that since last September."

The Bray Jazz Festival 2013 got underway on Friday evening with a strong double bill at the Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Center featuring Christy Doran's New Bag and Mederic Collignon Le Jus de Bocse.

Chapter Index

Christy Doran's New Bag

Médéric Collignon Jus de Bocse

Hopa! Carnival of Balkan Music/Norrland

Mats Eilertsen/Mama Rosin

Workshop/New Jazz Showcase

Brass Jaw/Eliane Elias/Michael Buckley

Christy Doran's New Bag

For guitarist Doran this was something of a homecoming, as he was born just down the road in Greystones, moving to Switzerland while still young. Since the 1970s, Doran has played with some distinguished names in free jazz/avant jazz, including drummer Han Bennink, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, saxophonist Chico Freeman, multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich, and pianist Carla Bley.

New Bag has been Doran's longest continuous musical concern, and has recorded 8 albums since 1997. Although the line-up has changed over the years the common denominator has remained Doran's eclectic, jazz-rock aesthetic. This incarnation of New Bag featured drummer Lionel Friedli, vocalist Sarah Buechi and Vincent Membrez on minimoog and Rhodes, and they gave a thrilling performance that drew mainly from Mesmerized ( Double Moon records, 2013).

The first two tracks, however, came from Take the Floor and Lift the Roof (Double Moon Records, 2011); "Embarkation" charged out of the blocks with post-punk energy. Whether singing lyrics or improvising, Buechi was a compelling presence, her utterly distinctive voice going through some arresting gymnastics. A ruminative, quasi-psychedelic passage led by guitar and Rhodes segued into a foot-to-the-floor workout with Doran's innovative guitar lines-cum-riffing at the heart of things. "Take the Floor and Hit the Roof" followed with the propulsive groove of 1980s King Crimson and featured a biting solo from Doran that was part Jimi Hendrix, part James Blood Ulmer.

Doran and Buechi share a fascination with Indian music and this was felt in the singer's delivery on "The Other Side of the Fence," which swung between hard groove and a minimalist passage where ethereal vocals and keys floated in tandem. The short and punchy "Techno Sketches" featured Buechi's most outré improvisations, and tight melodic unison lines from the singer and Doran. "Three Punk Chords Tango" came from a post-punk rock mold with Doran's wild sonic sculpting driven by a drum barrage and heavy keyboard riffs.

The quartet's lean sound owed something to the absence of a bassist, a role filled by Membrez and Friedli combined. The drummer's bass drum fired a constant pulse and his animated playing throughout was tremendously exciting, particularly during an extended exchange with Membrez on "Mesmerized"—a powerful vocals-driven number that grew relentlessly in intensity. The plot of "Long Distance Runner" took a few turns; tight unison playing, alternating sung and spoken passages, and an exhilarating finale that saw Doran solo with inspired abandon. Returning to the head, Buechi and Doran's lines fused as one and the quartet burst through the finishing line.

New Bag was an inspired choice of opening act for the festival and its incendiary performance will go down in the annals of Bray Jazz Festival's history.

Médéric Collignon Jus de Bocse

Médéric Collignon, pocket trumpeter and improvising vocalist, is well known in France for the diversity of his projects, and for his showmanship. Besides collaborating with some of France's top jazz musicians, like clarinetist Louis Sclavis, saxophonist/clarinetist Michel Portal and violinist Didier Lockwood, Collignon has collaborated in various art forms including dance, theater and comedy. During his performance at the Mermaids Arts Center these diverse influences were exhibited in his jumping about the stage, his gesticulations, mugging and comic asides. Collignon, as the audience was witness to, is the complete entertainer.

With his quartet Jus de Bocse, Collignon has revisited two extremes of trumpeter Miles Davis oeuvre; his collaboration with Gil Evans on Porgy and Bess (Discograph, 2006) and Davis' first electric period from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s on Shrangri-Tunkashi-La (Plus Loin Music, 2010). It was to Davis' jazz-rock/funk that Jus De Bocse turned its attention on Friday evening, and it wasn't for the faint-hearted.

Almost inevitably, Collignon sounded a lot like Davis, but there was no escaping the power and skill in his improvisations during the colossal half-hour opening segment, which began from a simple bass funk motif. Pools of introspection—with keyboardist Mathieu Jerome and Collignon hanging ethereal clusters of notes in the air—were but oases in an enveloping wall of sound. Collignon let rip with a series of searing runs, that together with drummer Philippe Gleizes' unrelenting barrage could have woken the dead.

"Ife" began with Collignon's vocal improvisation, part beat-box, and part impersonation of distorted guitar and muted trumpet. With the bass motif gathering strength, the quartet was soon firing on all cylinders and the intensity only seemed to grow over the course of the next thirty five minutes. A breathless vocal improvisation married Collignon's hyper take on konnakol and an array of odd noises, ranging from Frank Zappa-esque comedy and heady sci-fi soundscapes to urban beatbox rhythms. With pocket trumpet in hand again, Collignon led the quartet in the theme to "Interlude," in a blistering climax to a powerful show.

After two such adrenaline-pumping shows only a pint or two of the dark stuff could reduce the excitement levels sufficiently to allow sleep, and there were plenty of pubs in Bray still serving up the black medicine. Over at the Martello Hotel, the Max Zaska Trio was holding the attention of a small pocket of the packed bar with a polished set of standards. Guitarist Zaska impressed not only with his technique but with his melodic improvisational flow. His style leaned towards a straight ahead John Scofield and he was ably supported by double bassist Baz Rycraft and drummer Satya Darcy.

All three musicians are products of Dublin's Newpark Music Center—the only institution in Ireland to offer a jazz program— and Rycraft described his studies there as intense but "life changing." During the three days of Bray Jazz 2013 a large number of Newpark music students and graduates of a very high level of competence—and confidence—turned up on the festival program, suggesting that there's jazz talent aplenty in Ireland. However, given the real dearth of jazz venues the trend seems to be for young musicians to pack their bags and head across the water to London, or over the bigger pond to New York and Boston.

When seen in this light, the number of foreign jazz musicians who have made Ireland their home in the immigration wave of the past two decades has helped not only to maintain jazz as a live entity, but to diversify the type of jazz being played and listened to.

Hopa! Carnival of Balkan Music/Norrland

There were foreign musicians galore to kick start day 2. A temporary stage was the centerpiece of the Civic Plaza on Saturday where musicians from Serbia, Russia, The Ukraine, Turkey, Italy, Ireland and the UK treated the crowds to a feast of Balkan music. The free "festival within a festival" entitled Hopa!, was the first stab at an outdoor event during the 14-year history of the Bray Jazz Festival and it proved to be a resounding success with the public.

Four bands, Paprika,Yurodny, She' Koyokh and North Strand Kontra Band blew tubas and trombones, exhausted fiddle strings, sang and danced for five hours, pulling the crowd into the celebration along the way. Paprika violinist Bogdan Vacarescu was one of several standout virtuosos on the day, but he lamented the fact that the quartet should have been a sextet but for the fact that the band's two London-based Serbian accordionists, Milos Milivojevic and Zivorad Nikolic hadn't received their performance visas in time to travel.

North Strand Kontra Band did have an accordion, and banjo, saxophone, clarinet and trombone to boot. Its mixture of Serbian and Romanian tunes had the kids in the plaza dancing deliriously. Hemel Hempstead may seem an unlikely well-spring for Klezmer and Balkan music, but that's where She'Koyokh was founded in 2001 by violinist Susie Evans. Evans and Turkish singer Cigdem Aslam danced in the plaza and singer Paul Tkachenko conducted a crowd sing-along in Yiddish, surely another first for the BJF. Dublin-based Yurodny played a rousing set featuring virtuoso violinist Oleg Ponomarev, accordionist Francesco Turrisi and saxophonist/founder Nick Roth.

In a grandstand finish, an impossibly large number of musicians from all four bands joined together on the small stage to the delight of the crowd. The outdoor mini-festival succeeded on a number of levels, not least of which was the casual, carnival atmosphere, something with which jazz festivals are not always associated. The stroll in stroll out nature of the event throughout the afternoon drew probably upwards of a thousand people and no doubt did a lot to spread news of the BJF 2013 around town. In addition, the relaxed, fun atmosphere and the top-drawer musicianship on display may well stir the curiosity of a few first-timers when the BJF rolls round again in 2014.

The early evening concert in the Town Hall was an intimate affair by Swedish duo Norrland. Saxophonist Jonas Knutsson and guitarist Johan Norberg have recorded three albums of music drawing from the rich Swedish folk tradition. The last of these was Skaren: Norrland III (ACT Music, 2008) but they continue to perform live whenever their respective schedules permit. With the last rays of the evening sun illuminating the stained-glass windows of the Town Hall chamber, there was a suitably relaxed and quiet atmosphere for such hauntingly beautiful music.

In the main, Knutsson's saxophone carved the principal melodic lines with Norberg plying intricate accompanying lines. Century-old polskas, and compositions inspired by towns and nature provided the inspiration for the duo's intimate dialogs. After one particularly pretty polska dating from the 19th century, Norberg said: "That's the beauty of a beautiful melody—it never dies." In explaining the Swedish folk musician's relationship with his or her subject matter, Norberg said: "We don't sing about the lake, we sing the lake."

One Swedish musician who did much to revive interest in old Swedish polskas and herding songs was pianist Jan Johansson, whose duo album with bassist Georg Riedel, Jazz Pa Svenska (Megafon, 1964) continues to have an influence far beyond the confines of Sweden to this day. Johansson and Riedel's interpretations of folk songs were jazz tinged, an idiom that was essentially absent from Norrland's interpretations. Norberg pointed out that playing their own traditional music with improvisation, yet without the blueprint of the American blues or jazz felt like "a kind of freedom."

Having said that, Norberg's strings betrayed a distinctly bluesy feel on the last two numbers, though as this was a performance before a typically open-minded Bray jazz crowd and not the elders from the Society for the Preservation of Swedish Folk Tunes, nobody minded.



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