Bray Jazz Festival 2015

Ian Patterson By

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Good musicians begin with hearing more than one thing at the same time —Pete Churchill
Bray Jazz Festival 2015
Various Venues
Bray, Ireland
May 1-3, 2015

Sunshine and squall. The sun and the clouds chased each other's tails throughout the May Bank Holiday weekend of the Bray Jazz Festival. In a way the weather mirrored the music—a pleasingly eclectic, bracing mixture—and the fortunes of the festival itself, which has been buffeted by the recent storms of funding cuts, yet remains unbowed.

In spite of a reduced budget and a program tailored accordingly, Bray Jazz 2015 did what it has done every year for the past sixteen editions—that's to say, it brought the charming seaside town of Bray to life with a smorgasbord of jazz and related music.

For three days Bray's pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels heaved with Bank Holiday revellers enjoying dozens of free gigs, while the main program unfolded with some truly memorable performances in the Town Hall and Mermaid Arts Centre.

Day One

Francesco Turrisi & The Taquín Experiments

The Taquín Experiments is a modular ensemble led by Bray-based Italian Francesco Turrisi, which operates as a trio, quartet and sextet, or with whatever number of instruments can be mustered to the cause. This Town Hall concert was the first run-out in this format with saxophonist Nick Roth and cellist Kate Ellis rounding out the trio, though the three performed here as part of the Irish/Mediterranean folk ensemble Tarab during a memorable performance at Bray Jazz 2009.

Turrisi's 1950s Wurlitzer relayed baroque hymnal hues and jazz improvisation, before the slowly hypnotic motif of "Grigio" unfurled over Ellis' languid lines and Roth's keening soprano. Another Wurlitzer motif introduced John Zorn's "Hadasha," as lilting melodies bled into pockets of dissonance. The seamless transition from classical European church music to Middle Eastern lament was followed by "Hanukkah," Roth's haunting, lullaby-esque arrangement inspired by the Jewish Festival of Lights.

A celebratory Turkish melody and an equally heady Macedonian traditional tune rubbed shoulders with an Armenian ballad of aching lyricism. The Taquín Experiments may be inspired by pan-Mediterranean roots music but its untraditional approach was punctuated by bustling tenor, cello drone and Turrisi's psychedelic keyboard wizardry.

An untitled original by Turrisi—a spinning waltz of Eastern European origin—closed an absorbing set. For the encore, the trio played "Nel Mezzo" from Songs of Experience (Taquín Records, 2013), a beguiling tune of overlapping melodies. The Taquín Experiments has yet to record but with music so heartfelt and so universal it surely must.

Pete Churchill & Dublin City Jazz Orchestra, featuring Lauren Kinsella and Laura Jurd

It was a tale of two halves at the Mermaid Arts Centre with the Dublin City Jazz Orchestra. The first of its two sets served up jazz standards by Thelonious Monk ("Well You Needn't), Thad Jones ("Big Dipper"), Neal Hefti/Count Basie ("Li'l Darlin'") and Oliver Nelson ("Hoe Down"), amongst others. Swinging, bluesy and featuring a series of excellent soloists, the DCJO mightn't have thrown too many curve balls but as repertoire bands go it's about as good as they come.

Conductor Pete Churchill picked up the reins for the second set, leading the DCJO through the late Kenny Wheeler's The Sweet Time Suite. Churchill and the DCJO had a bit or previous, having performed Duke Ellington's Sacred Concert at the Limerick Jazz Festival 2014. Few know the ropes of Wheeler's music as well as Churchill, having led the Kenny Wheeler Big Band for years, been a member of Wheeler's vocal project and conducted the KWBB on the tour to celebrate the trumpeter's 80th birthday.

Wheeler was known for his economy of words, as Churchill reminded the audience: "He was a very humble man. He famously said, 'I don't say much and when I do I don't say much.' "Kenny Wheeler said so much with his music," Churchill added, "that had he spoken as well he'd have been exhausted."

Lauren Kinsella and Laura Jurd superbly reprised the roles of Norma Winstone and Wheeler respectively in a triumphant ensemble display. Jurd perhaps enjoyed more solo time than the original score dictated, but Wheeler would doubtless have been impressed by his young deputy, who played with passion and confidence. Kinsella sang like another horn on the ensemble parts and seduced during her solo flights.

Wheeler's generosity as a writer was reflected in the number of meaty solos, with notable turns by Jurd, trombonist Paul Dunlea, saxophonists Nick Roth, Cathal Roche, Tom Carragher and pianist Phil Ware. Arguably the cream of the crop, however, was the bass solo by Cormac O'Brien, who filled Dave Holland's shoes with aplomb. The rhythm section of O'Brien, drummer Shane O'Donovan, guitarist Hugh Buckley and Ware played with a notable elasticity that breathed additional life into Wheeler's score.

Wheeler's harmonically rich score, which moved from moody impressionism to expansive big-band bop was Ellingtonian in its breadth and power. The DCJO responded brilliantly to Churchill's animated direction, suggesting in persuasive terms that it has more strings to its bow than the well-polished standards repertoire that is its staple.

Day Two

Pete Churchill Workshop

The next morning the Town Hall was the venue for Pete Churchill's workshop on developing strategies for learning by ear. It maybe seemed like a strange point of departure coming from a jazz musician and educator, particularly given that most jazz musicians these days either graduate from a jazz school or aspire to do so.

However, it wasn't always thus. Remembering jazz's roots, Churchill observed, a little tongue in cheek, that "jazz was something you did not to go to college."

Not that Churchill is diametrically opposed to notation per se, but as he pointed out from the outset "maybe 80%, or more, of the music on the planet is not made that way."

Memory is key, Churchill said, for the majority of musicians who have never seen notated music. "What we usually find is that they have fantastic aural sense and that they rely on their memories to hold music, through generations." Churchill emphasized the desirability of developing muscle memory, visual memory and aural memory equally, though not at the expense of notation. Instead, Churchill advocated finding a workable balance between the two paths.

"If you're going to learn by ear then you commit yourself with the whole body," Churchill stressed, directing the workshop attendees—mostly singers—to sit on the edge of their chairs. "So much music demands that you physically engage. Counting is death, you have to sing to your feet. Learn in the most childlike way you can if you want to remember forever," he urged.

Using a simple scale—and singing the intervals—Churchill demonstrated via hand signals strong visual cues through which to develop musical control. A three-part harmony with the attendees followed. "Good musicians begin with hearing more than one thing at the same time," Churchill observed.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the workshop was Churchill's dissection of several standards and the key writing/performing tools that make songs like "The Very Thought of You," "Tangerine" and "Lush Life"—written by Billy Strayhorn when he was still at high-school—so eternally popular.

Churchill explored the vowel and consonant sounds, the alliteration, assonance, slant rhyme, fricative and plosive sounds that make up the recipe of these enduring standards. In essence, Churchill was teaching swing, but as he himself underlined, learning swing is experiential. "We live in a singalong culture, not a singing culture," said Churchill, emphasizing the interpreter's obligation to the songwriter and lyricist.

Given that jazz' home is increasingly found in the educational institutions where students study, form bands and jam, one of Churchill's comments on the nature of learning music held particular resonance: "In the institutions if you forget it's an oral tradition you misrepresent it."

Whether the singers in the workshop hope to make a career singing standards or forging more personal paths, Churchill's fascinating workshop illustrated that the great composers of the jazz standards—and their greatest interpreters—have much to teach about the art of writing and singing a good tune.

Francesco Turrisi Quartet

With three gigs over the weekend Francesco Turrisi was one of the busiest musicians at Bray Jazz 2015. This free, afternoon gig in the cosy surroundings of the Harbour Bar featured the pianist in a more straight-ahead jazz setting, though laced with the folkloric vocabulary that is Turrisi' stock in trade.

Drummer Matthew Jacobson and bassist Dan Bodwell's grooves underpinned melodic improvisations from Turrisi on Wurlitzer and guitarist Julien Colarossi on the sunny opening number, a tune inspired by a bass line from a seventeenth century lute player. In a gig of contrasts, fluctuating tempos, from balladic reverie and slow-medium blues to post-bop fluency provided plenty of grist to the quartet's mill.

Turrisi's hybrid jazz-classical vocabulary was evident during a captivating solo on "Le (Lullaby for Aoife Naima)," a dreamy ballad, that helped by Colarossi, built towards a darkly brooding finale. The suitably episodic "Canto Primo"—inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy—served up feisty solos bracketed by the tune's striking head. Bodwell's arco introduced "Variazioni Sopra La Folia" from Turrisi's Si Dolce e il Tormento (Diatribe Records, 2008), a contemporary take on a seventeenth century standard, where Jacobsen and Bodwell's industry propelled the quartet to some of its most animated interplay. A standard of more recent vintage, Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach's 1933 show-tune "Yesterdays" was followed by a hauntingly melancholic Turrisi original, "Lamento di Paolo e Francesca."

The incendiary "Tu Ridi" from Grigio (Diatribe Records, 2013) and "Passamezzo Moderno," a jaunty tune with New Orleans rhythmic inflections, took the band over the finishing line in top gear. A memorable performance from an outstanding quartet that fuses traditions old and modern with reverence and irreverence in equally healthy measure.

Kyai Jati Roso

Traditions of a very different kind were on display in the Town Hall with Kyai Jati Roso, the National Concert Hall Gamelan Orchestra. Western gamelan orchestras can be found in many countries, though Kyai Jati Roso was the first in Ireland to explore the hypnotic music that inspired Debussy, Satie, Messiaen and Bartok among classical composers. Later, the likes of Lou Harrison, John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Harry Partch, Evan Ziporyn and Mike Oldfield—to name but a handful—have borrowed from gamelan traditions.

Using metallophones, kendhang (double and single-headed), xylophones, flute and vocals the ten-piece orchestra led by Dr. Peter Moran—an expert on Javanese gamelan—entranced the audience with its strangely lulling yet stimulating rhythms and melodies.

Closing the eyes and listening to the slowly entrancing, cyclical figures, the listener was transported to Java and back in time, which was all the more impressive given that these were original compositions. "If tradition doesn't evolve it dies," said Dr. Moran—a cautionary reminder to jazz's conservatives who believe jazz is a codified, unchanging style.

As yet, most of the experimentation between jazz and gamelan is coming from Indonesia, spearheaded by groups like Kulkul and veterans SimakDialog, whose albums Patahan (Moonjune Records, 2007), Demi Masa (Moonjune Records, 2009) and The 6th Story (Moonjune Records, 2013) are essential to anyone interested in cutting edge modern jazz emanating from South East Asia.

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