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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.


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