Bray Jazz Festival 2014

Bray Jazz Festival 2014
Ian Patterson By

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Bray Jazz festival
Various venues
Bray, County Wicklow
May 2-4, 2014

It was an auspicious day. Fifteen years ago to the very day George Jacob introduced the first gig in the history of Bray Jazz Festival. The BJF has survived and prospered, growing from a small, largely national festival to one whose programming horizons extend the length and breadth of the globe, seeking out the innovative and cutting edge in jazz and creative music of all bents.

It's also to festival organizers George and Dorothy Jacob's credit that Irish talent has always figured prominently, not only on the fringe program that packs out Bray's pubs, hotels and bars, but on the main stages of the festival as well. And as the thriving and cosmopolitan Dublin music scene absorbs more and more musicians from around the world so too the face of BJF has changed. In a decade and a half BJF has gradually become more multi-national, both in terms of the music on offer and in the make-up of the audience that unfailingly turns out year after year.

Day One

So it was appropriate in many ways that the 15th Bray Jazz Festival got underway on Friday afternoon with a performance by Manden Express, a multi-national Dublin-based group that weds Malian rhythms and melodies with elements of electric fusion—jazz, rock and Latin. Manden Express has been around in smaller formations for a couple of years but given that this was only its second performance as a septet the band was remarkably tight.

Cote Calmet's primal bass drum pattern announced "Djigui," and in his simple but infectious rhythm lay the promise of some serious grooves to come. One by one the band members joined, swelling the sound; Brian Lynch on percolating African percussion; Paul McElhatton on the harp-like kamele ngoni, Jose Dominguez on electric guitar, Paddy Groenland on acoustic guitar, Manuel Sanz on bass, and finally, Emma Garnett—originally from Sierra Leone—on vocals and shaker. The ensemble voice in full cry was stirring and but for the genteel surroundings of the Town Hall's chamber room the adults would surely have followed the children's lead in dancing to this joyous cacophony.

Sanz' fat bass ostinato, Calmet's wily manipulation of the calabaz and handclaps steered the septet through the grooving "Songhoy," which brought together kamele ngoni and hand drums in an intimate duet. "Fasu Denu" from Burkina Faso featured Garnett on vocals, backed by the band in colorful call and response vocal passages. "Sinte Kanofe—another vocal number of similar design from Burkina Faso—went through the gears, starting from a slow tempo where the karinye a (metalic percussion stick) set the rhythm to a heady ensemble passage marked by psychedelic guitar sounds, thundering drums and riffing percussion.

Bass and drums combined on the deep funk intro to "Adanze" with McElhatton's kamele ngoni strings chattering like the babble of a busy market. At full throttle, with Emma to the fore, Dominguez' ripping solos and Calmet driving the ensemble with tremendous jazz-funk rhythmic zest Manden Express were like a cross between Oumou Sangaré and drummer Steve Reid's Daxaar ensemble. Rhythmic mantras guided the pulsating set closer "Safo Safo," which ebbed and flowed to allow guitar, kamele ngoni, percussion and drums to really stretch out.

The cozy intimacy of the small Town Hall chamber was not best suited to the powerful amplified grooves of Manden Express. To start with, the septet's music is made for dancing, something effectively prohibited by the lack of open space and the tight seating arrangement. Secondly, whereas acoustic music works wonderfully in this room, Manden Express' amplified music challenges the space's acoustics, which resulted in a slightly muddy, ear-bashing sound at times. It might be an idea to return this type of music to a venue similar to The World Stage of previous BJF incarnations, where people moved to the grooves of Brazilian six-piece Orquestra do Fuba, the Balkans-flavored Irish band Yurodny and the funk-heavy duo of electric guitarist Justin Adams and Gambian griot musician Juldeh Camara. Still, Manden Express's intoxicating music got BJF 2014 off to a rocking start.

Following pianist Eliane Elias sold-out festival-closing show at BJF 2013, the sounds of Brazil returned to the Mermaid Center with the Vinicius Cantuária Quartet. Guitarist, singer and percussionist, Cantuária—accompanied by bassist Paul Socolow, drummer Adriano Santos and pianist Hello Alves—served up a quietly sublime set that held the audience enraptured throughout.

Curiously, the set overlooked Cantuária most recent recording, the beautiful Indio De Apartamento (Naïve, 2013), but with a large back catalog dating back thirty years the singer had more than enough gold to mine. In a performance that ebbed and flowed artfully, shimmering bossa and gently jazzified samba rubbed shoulders with the more vibrant rhythms of son Cubano, trans-Atlantic blues and rock-edged jazz.

Cantuária paid double homage to Antonio Carlos Jobim, first on a beautiful version of "Retrato Em Bianco E Preto" and then on the haunting "Esse Seu Olhar, the latter one of several tracks from Sol Na Cara (Gramavision, 1996). The quartet flexed its improvisational muscles on singer-songwriter/guitarist Gilberto Gil's "Procissao"—a version close to that imaginatively reworked by Cantuária with guitarist Bill Frisell's on The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch Records, 2003), a wonderful, yet short-lived project; here, the quartet eased into an extended jam with Alves impressing on a jazz-inflected piano solo.

The Frisell connection was also present on two seductive, ballads: "Mi Declaración," from Cantuária and Frisell's Lagrimas Mexicanas (E1, 2011), and "Berlin" from Samba Carioca (101 DISTRIBUTION), an album which featured Frisell as well as pianist Brad Mehldau. Cantuária's hushed vocals—poetic in tone—and his caressing guitar lines were given beautifully sympathetic support by Socolow, Alves, and Santos on brushes.

Cuban son colored the energetic "Cubanos Postizos," while the up-tempo "Rio"—co-penned by singer David Byrne—ended the set with further jazzy improvisation. The inevitable encores served up a funky, guitar-driven version of "So Danco Samba" with Santos and Socolaw tapping the rhythms on small tamborims.

In a review of Silva (Rykodisc, 2005) in The Guardian, John L. Walters wrote of Cantuária: "If more people covered his songs, we'd be talking about him as the new Tom Jobim." Walters' was no facile comparison; Cantuária's melting lyricism, his subtle hues and songwriting sophistication have long marked him out as one of the most arresting of contemporary artists, as this delightful concert bore out.

Day Two

Day two of BJF 2014 kicked off with an afternoon showcase of three bands at The Royal Hotel. These free concerts have been a popular fixture for many years and this year was no exception, with the hall packed with festival goers, casual drop-in tourists and curious hotel guests. Guitarist Hugh Buckley, a veteran of the Irish jazz scene and the multi-national, Dublin-based group Karovka stood at opposite ends of the jazz spectrum, the former's classic quintet sound contrasting with the classical, folk and contemporary textures of quartet Kavorka.

Singer Edel Meade gave a polished performance of Joni Mitchell's songs, accompanied by guitarist Dick Farrelly. The Joni Project—due to be recorded in Denmark at the time of writing—has received Mitchell's blessing, and Meade's affection for early-career Mitchell was evident as the duo waltzed through up-tempo fare like "In France They Kiss On Main Street," "Al I Want" and "Big Yellow Taxi." However, it was on the slower numbers that Meade's appealing voice was heard to best effect, notably on "Woodstock," "A Case of You," "Blue Motel Room" and the bluesy "Centerpiece."

With the exception of "At Last"—the Mack Gordon/Harry Warren track popularized by singer Etta James—from Mitchell's orchestral concept/covers album Both Sides Now (Reprise, 2000), Meade's focus was on Mitchell's work up until Hejira (Asylum, 1976). Meade's vocal range suits Mitchell's early work and she had no problem reaching Mitchell's quasi-falsetto pitch on these fairly faithful interpretations, but the smoky gravitas of latter-day Mitchell may be as yet beyond her grasp. Meade and Farelly's set was warmly received by the crowd and it will be interesting to see how Meade molds this material with a full band on the forthcoming recording.

BJF 2013 saw the introduction of an educational workshop to the program and a new venue, The Well. Though it sounds like another great Bray drinking den, The Well is in fact a church. There's nothing particularly New Age about it either, it has pews, a pulpit, stained glass windows and a pastor. Last year Scottish saxophone quartet Brass Jaw gave a rousing session on group interplay and improvisation and this year it was the turn of trumpeter Dave Douglas to inspire those assembled for his workshop. And inspire he did.

"Each of us has a unique viewpoint on music," Douglas told the small but attentive gathering, "but how do you tap into that and play something that you can call your own?" From the outset Douglas coaxed and encouraged the attendees to voice their concerns, understand them better and take steps to dealing with them.

What emerged was that all the frustrations and anxieties expressed by individual attendees were shared, or had been shared at some point by everybody else, including Douglas. The genial trumpeter and educator admitted being so nervous in the past about performing that his legs used to shake. The solution was simple enough: Yoga? Meditation? Breathing exercises? A shot of something strong? No, sagely Douglas had masked his shaking legs by donning baggy trousers.

On the subject of writer's block Douglas stated that improvisation with guiding ideas is the root of composition. Douglas gave the attendees two minutes to write a melody it was surprising how strong some of the results were. The whole point of the exercise was to obtain the germ of an idea, from where building and experimentation can take off. Playing around with the music, Douglas stressed, is key. He encouraged musicians to adopt different strategies with newly minted melodies, such as playing them backwards, in a different key or with as many rests as there are notes. The idea of composition as controlled improvisation was a recurring theme of Douglas' workshop.

Douglas stressed the need for musicians to value their ideas and asked three musicians to play the short, newly crafted scores of all those who wished to submit their work to the group's scrutiny, which happily most did. Everybody, as Douglas inherently knew beforehand, had something worthwhile and personal to say with their music.

Just as serious musicians practice their respective instruments every day, so too Douglas underlined the importance of practicing writing every day: "Exercise the composition muscle. Over time it gets easier," he said. "Get your paper dirty. Get your hands dirty."

In a revealing anecdote Douglas described how he responded to writer's block blues by transcribing Igor Stravinsky's Violin concerto in D over several days. Douglas described the mechanical process as a transcendent experience: "When I had finished a flick had been switched and I could write again," he said.

Patience is key, for as Douglas noted you cannot expect to write your Blood on The Tracks [Bob Dylan, Columbia, 1975] or your Kind of Blue [Miles Davis, Columbia, 1959] in a day. The session concluded with an exercise in writing a three-part harmony for two saxophones and a trumpet. Once again, the results can't have been anything other than highly encouraging for their composers. Douglas concluded the two and a half hour workshop—which flew by without a break—with the following words of advice: "If you don't play around with different things, try different ideas, it's very hard to be a composer."

The early evening gig in the Town Hall was by This Is How We Fly, clarinetist Sean Mac Erlaine's trad-not-quite-trad quartet. In recent years a number of innovative groups have recast Irish folk music in a more contemporary light: The Gloaming, Tarab, Moxie and The Olllam all spring to mind, but for sheer originality you'd be hard pressed to match This Is How We Fly. Formed by Mac Erlaine in 2010, TIHWF fuses Irish, Swedish and American folk traditions and what was evident during the course of a totally absorbing concert were the common threads that bind the traditions.

Fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Mac Erlaine on clarinet engaged in minimalist dialog on the traditional number "Céad Molad," underpinned by percussionist Petter Berndalen's subtle stirrings. American Nic Gareiss took center stage with an exhibition of flat-footing, the Appalachian dance that likely has roots in the Irish sean-nós tradition. An improvised dance, with more liberal use of the arms than in traditional Irish dance, Gareiss captivated the audience with his mixture of exuberance, grace and imagination.

Gareiss was left the stage to himself for the second number, and his joyous shuffling, singing, toe/heel-tapping and percussive flare was a delight to watch. It also didn't take a great leap of the imagination to equate the rhythmic and sonic textures he conjured with the more urbane turntable tradition of scratching. Joined by Ó Raghallaigh, the duo then combined in a celebratory ditty, with Gareiss clearly inspired.

Though most of the tunes came from TIHWF's stunning eponymous debut (Playing With Music, 2013), a healthy portion of its set involved improvisation or solo turns, such as Berndalen's lively drum/percussion turn based on a Swedish folk song. This was followed by a couple of quartet pieces; "March for a Dark Day," an atmospheric number played at dirge tempo and the catchy fiddle/clarinet vignette "On One Wing," taken at only a moderately faster pace.

Another dirge, "Lonesome Road" evoked the faintly ghostly atmosphere of the tile theme to the film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Mac Erlaine, solo, switched to baritone saxophone on new number, alternating between lilting melody and growls like an ocean liner's fog horn. The infectious, clap-along, pop-centric shuffle of "Woo Dr. Hythm" was followed, oddly enough, by a short discourse on beards and a meditative solo fiddle turn by Ó Raghallaigh. A mesmerizing set concluded with "What What What," another melodically memorable tune of undulating rhythms.

This Is How We Fly spice folkloric traditions in a manner that is utterly seductive. It will be fascinating to follow this quartet's singular path.

Without time to draw breath, take a leak, grab a cup of coffee or even talk about the gig it was a quick dash over the road to the Mermaid Center for day two's headliner, the Marius Neset Quartet. Norwegian Neset has built a reputation as one of the most innovative and exciting saxophonists in Europe with several outstanding releases in recent years.

It was the title track of Birds (Edition Records, 2013) that opened the show. Pianist Ivo Neame, bassist Petter Eldh, drummer Anton Eger and Neset eased out of the blocks with the kind of intuitive interplay associated with saxophonist Wayne Shorter's quartet. This quiet intro merely set the scene for the breathless sonic assault that followed. If any in the audience had questioned the hype surrounding Neset, the following ten or so minutes will have blown such doubts away as he demonstrated rare virtuosity married with tremendous musicality. Originally composed for saxophone and flute, Neset recorded "Birds" with a large ensemble and remarkably it lost none of its power in the hands of Neset's first-rate quartet.

A brand new song entitled "Pinball" followed, with Neset switching between tenor and soprano either side of a wonderful, tumbling solo from Neame. The pianist and Neset combined in a balladic exchange before the quartet ratcheted up the tension several notches on "Boxer," a number of barreling energy that featured explosive drumming from the effervescent Eger.

After a short break, Neset introduced another new track, a charging feature for tenor which blurred the lines between sinewy composed lines and continuously-unfolding improvisation. "Sane" from Golden Xplosion (Edition Records, 2011) revealed Neset the balladeer, caressing the melody like Jan Garbarek; Neame's under the radar intervention gradually steered the piece into more restless territory, laying the ground for a quartet passage of Frank Zappa-esque knottiness that unknotted itself in a riotous romp between Neset and Eger. An exhilarating set climaxed with the anthemic "Angel of the North," with melody holding the high ground over virtuosity.

Neset is an extraordinary talent. No yet thirty, it whets the appetite to think what music lies ahead. Kudos to the BJF, which continues to host the best of Norway's bottomless pool of artistic talent, and to the Norwegian Embassy for its ongoing sponsorship and support of the BJF. In recent years, the Mathias Eick Quartet, the Tord Gustavsen Trio, Mari Kvien Brunvoll and Trygve Seim & Frode Haltle, and Mats Eilertsen Skydive have all graced the festival. Neset's stunning performance at BJF 2014, however, may well be the pick of the bunch.

Bray on a Bank Holiday weekend is a lively spot. Weekenders from Dublin and tourists fill the town's accommodation and the packed bars and pubs ring with high spirits. On a Saturday night of the weekend, The Martello is teeming with diners and party-goers. Music in the back of the bar is little more than background music, which is a pity when the band is as good as Metric Electric. The quartet of drummer Cote Calmet, keyboard player Darragh O'Ceallaigh, bassist Peter Erdei and saxophonist Tom Caraher hasn't been together for long but its hard-grooving take on material by saxophonists Chris Potter, Joshua Redman and trumpeter Roy Hargrove was absolutely riveting. It was also a breath of fresh air to hear a band look to jazz's modern icons for its inspiration, rather than just trot out in formulaic fashion the same old standards that have been doing the rounds for the past seven or so decades.

Day Three

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the BJF is the involvement of so many of the town's pubs, restaurants and hotels. There's a real feel that the festival belongs to the town, and that's how it should be. The latest venue to open its doors to jazz was The Harbour Bar, one of the town's most iconic watering holes. Sunday afternoon saw Czech singer Zeurítia entertain a packed Harbor Bar with a selection of bossa nova standards, sung in Portuguese.

Backed by fellow countryman, guitarist Peter Moc and local stalwarts Tommy Gray on drums and bassist Cormac O'Brien, Zeurítia won over the crowd with a version of Irish folk anthem "The Fields of Athenry." Gray and O'Brien—as solid as Bray Head throughout and as lively as the wind that dances around its peak—buoyed Zeurítia with their rhythmic guile during an enjoyable set. The acoustics of the Harbor Stage were marvelous, making for a very pleasing listening experience and the cozy, shoulder to shoulder ambiance of the room added to the friendly intimacy of the gig. In the adjoining and larger of the Harbor Bar's several bars a traditional Irish session was in full swing as the beer pumps flowed. With a glass of your favorite tipple to hand there are few better ways to spend an hour or two in Bray on the Bank Holiday weekend and the success of the Harbor Stage during BJF 2014 should cement its place as one of the festival's essential venues.

These days the majority of jazz festivals both large and small have followed the suit of the Montreux Jazz Festival in adopting a more liberal programming policy. The punters are the lifeblood of any festival and if a little musical cross-dressing does the trick then there's not much wrong with the odd indie-rock act, a singer-songwriter here and there or a touch of World Music.

Cross-polination is increasingly the norm in jazz and these days the musics of the world meet in myriad colorful fusions. The lines between jazz and so-called World Music are less distinct, not only in the music itself but also on festival bills. At the 2013 WOMEX (World Music Expo) Paul Augustin, Director of the Penang Island Jazz Festival was invited to give a paper entitled "Crossing Borders: Programming World Music Artists in Asian Jazz Festivals" and for the first time there was a small jazz program at WOMEX. Simply put, musical diversification is an economic necessity for most jazz festivals, but as can be seen from the example of WOMEX, savvy jazz musicians can also benefit from the growing market in World Music.

Certainly all who witnessed the concert of sister and brother Joyeeta and Debajyoti Sanyal at the Town Hall on Sunday will not only have forgiven George and Dorothy Jacob this programming incursion into Indian classical music, but will count themselves truly blessed. Sitarist Joyeeta and tablaist Debajyoti are world-class Indian classical musicians and this concert, courtesy of the Indian Classical Music Society of Ireland, was a true gem.

With Yameena Mitha and Sadanand Magee providing constant harmonic drones on tanpura, the Sanyal's embarked on a fifty-minute raga—an epic love story in essence—of breathtaking poetry. From achingly tender passages to thrilling charges, the emotive language, shifting rhythmic contours and jaw-dropping virtuosity of their dialog captivated the Town Hall audience. A brief retuning session allowed pause for breath before the quartet played a much shorter lyrical piece, which after the stormy intensity of the opening raga was as sweet as a spring shower. A playful encore, impressive despite its brevity, wrapped up a stunning concert that raised the spirits.

Though Dave Douglas and pianist Uri Caine's concert was delayed to allow punters to make their way from Joyeeta and Debajyoti Sanyal's concert, a half hour pause wouldn't have gone amiss. After such a transcendent performance some time is needed to digest and linger over the experience, to chat with others who have shared that experience and even to talk to the musicians. Or go to the toilet. Either way, BJF might consider the upside of leaving a half hour gap between the two evening concerts in future editions.

Douglas and Caine share a penchant for experimentation and this particular project was no exception, though the duo's collaboration wasn't so much an experiment of setting as a journey into little explored repertoire. Their set drew from early North American folk music around which they shaped their fascinating dialog. The duo opened with a medley of songs dating from the early 1700s. It was hard to know whether the European folk, church and classical hues that colored these tunes were part of their original DNA or part of the duo's own vocabulary—probably a little of both.

In addition, the duo played original tunes especially written for this project, all of which will see the light on a forthcoming CD. In a concert bursting with folksy melody, hymnal lyricism and individual brilliance there was also room for levity; Douglas' wonderfully original tune "End to End" consisted only of phrases tailored to sound like endings. In the duo's almost slapstick unison and contrapuntal lines there was tremendous technical precision and mighty big ears.

Caine flexed his considerable chops on "Seven Seas," mixing up boogie woogie, stride and blues in his dancing lines. "The Old Put" pursued a more meditative course; inspired by the sound of a distant train, Caine's sparse notes and Douglas's faint whistling painted an evocative, nostalgic picture. The duo dipped into the North American folk tradition on "Present Joys," a celebratory hymn laced with the blues. "Devotion," the first of two encores, was also inspired by church music, though more by gospel than the European tradition. An absorbing set finished with Caine playing a supporting role to Douglas, who embellished striking melodic phrases with some dazzling improvisational flashes.

In the first fifteen years of the BJF Douglas is the only headliner to have been invited back a second time, seven years after his first appearance. Judging by the audience reaction to Marius Neset, This is How We Fly and Joyeeta and Debajyoti Sanyal a few more repeat performers in the years to come wouldn't go amiss.

The philosophy of the BJF, however, has always been to look ahead, to scout out what's new and happening, or to bring iconic figures to the festival for the first time. Jazz festivals, like the music, need to evolve and grow in order not stagnate. If the BJF 2015 is governed by the same spirit of adventure and ambition as BJF 2014 then the sold out signs should go up long before the first notes sound next year.

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Dublin Jazz Photography

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