Bray Jazz festival
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 fusionjazz, 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 Garnettoriginally from Sierra Leoneon 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 Kanofeanother vocal number of similar design from Burkina Fasowent 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
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, Cantuáriaaccompanied by bassist Paul Socolow, drummer Adriano Santos and pianist Hello Alvesserved 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 vocalspoetic in toneand 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 Byrneended 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 Projectdue to be recorded in Denmark at the time of writinghas 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.