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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.

Ed Motta

Over the years Bray Jazz has played host to some of Brazil's finest musical exports. The likes of Hamilton de Hollanda, Vinicius Cantuária and Eliane Elias have all played the Mermaid Arts Centre. This year, multi-instrumentalist singer Ed Motta continued the tradition of Brazilians to have graced the festival.

The concert showcased songs from his album AOR (Dwitza Music, 2013) and older tunes from a career that dates back twenty five years. "Flores de la Vida Real" set the tone for the set, its catchy driven soul-pop groove evoking vintage era Steely Dan—a homage hinted at in the adult oriented rock of the album title. "Lost in The Night," with a ringing solo from guitarist Arto Makela, also echoed Donald Fagan and Walter Becker's legendary band.

A lunatic record collector, Motta name-checked Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Skid Row and Thin Lizzy on this, his first visit to Ireland, before launching into "Simple Guy," where Motta's incredibly soulful vocals and his 1970s guitar-like scat conjured Stevie Wonder at his best. Bassist Laurent Salzard's infectious bass ostinato formed the spine of "Smile," a delightful slice of danceable soul-funk, which featured a breezy Rhodes solo from Matti Klein. "1978," almost inevitably, served up more disco soul-funk.

The pretty soul ballad "Dondi" and "Farmer's Wife"—the latter influenced by TV themes composer Mike Post—were followed by the jazz-influenced "Um Dom Pra Salvador," one of only a few tunes sung in Portuguese. A highlight of the set was Motta's solo turn at the Rhodes piano, his ballad dissolving into an astonishing vocal improvisation—electric-bass style—that referenced, with a remarkable degree of fluency, Weather Report, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin and Rory Gallagher.

Almost as entertaining was Motta's in-between-tunes banter-sit-down comedy—but it was the songs and that one-of-a-kind voice that left the most lasting impression.

Day Three

Nick Roth Quartet

Playing his third gig of Bray Jazz 2015 following appearances with Francesco Turrisi's Taquín Experiments and the Dublin City Jazz Orchestra the day before, saxophonist Nick Roth led his quartet in another free, afternoon gig at the Harbour Bar.

Pianist Greg Felton, bassist Derek White and drummer Matthew Jacobson had to keep their wits about them as Roth led the way through an extended medley comprised of "Jaki"—dedicated to Jaki Byard—"Devil Woman" by Charles Mingus, "Humpty Dumpty" by Ornette Coleman, "Iris" by Wayne Shorter and concluding with a piece called "Stop Start."

Simmering rhythms and smoldering tenor—ruminative and spare—gradually gave way to first Roth and then Felton's sultry blues grooves. Jacobson's animation pushed Roth to some lithe improvisation, with White's fast walking bass then doing likewise. Instruments dropped out and back in, but the one constant for the first twenty five minutes was Roth's tireless exploration.

An extended piano passage gently lowered the flame, with Roth re-entering softly on alto. Then unaccompanied only by brushes, Roth weaved a long, mazy course until Jacobson kick-started first Felton and then the entire quartet into freer territory. After forty five uninterrupted minutes the music petered out and the musicians took a well-deserved rest.

The second set mixed up original tunes of fluctuating tempos and striking arrangements of Tim Berne's "Sci-fi" and Lennie Tristano's swinging "317 East 32nd Street." Felton's "Rum"—a swash buckling calypso—incited some serious collective blowing and rounded out an impressive set on an upbeat note of celebration.

Sue Rynhart Duo

The council chamber of Bray's Town Hall was a far cry from the main stage of the National Concert Hall, where Sue Rynhart and bassist Dan Bodwell opened for Tomasz Stanko's quartet during April Jazz 2015, but theirs is music that translates beautifully in intimate settings and on grander stages alike. Rynhart has received critical acclaim for her debut album Crossings: Songs for Voice and Double Bass (Self Produced, 2014), which provided the bulk of the material played.

Bodwell unleashed a stream of memorable bass ostinatos that underpinned Rynhart's personal tales of emotional crossroads faced. The singer's crystalline articulation drew on jazz, Irish folk and pop idioms alike, blurring the lines in a captivating performance. Bodwell's deep arco on the stunning "Wine Dark Sea" replicated the foghorn at the Kish Lighthouse, sympathetic accompaniment to the seductive poetry of Rynhart's lyrics.

On one captivating vignette Rynhart played mbira (thumb piano), accompanied by Bodwell on arco, but in the main the blueprint of bass ostinato and vocals dominated. The notable exceptions came on "Emerge," where the roles were reversed, with Rynhart's vocal riff supporting Bodwell's lead lines, and on "Red Light," where a striking arco intro gave way to layered vocal harmonies—the only occasion where pedal effects were employed.

Rynhart's improvisational prowess was central to "Wait and See" and especially "Stones," where her non-syllabic scat was cartoon-esque in its thrilling sense of abandon. By contrast, the haunting melancholy of "Stay Warm," the dreamy "Penny for your Thoughts" and the Irish folk-tinged ballad "Foxed" were lyrical highlights.

Several new tunes were premiered; "Little Sparrow," inspired by Homer's Odyssey, "Your Silliest Game" and "Compassion" sat well with the older material and demonstrated that Rynhart and Bodwell are not sitting still—searching for new lyric inspiration and incorporating fresh dynamics to their shows.

The final song of the set, "Somewhere to Go," exhausted pretty much all of the duo's prepared material as they were clearly surprised by the vociferous calls for an encore. After a brief consultation, the duo played a beautiful version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Dindi" capping a bewitching concert in a suitably poetic style.

Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet

The final act in the Mermaid Arts Centre for Bray Jazz 2015 fell to the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet. Discovered by Steve Coleman at seventeen, Akinmusire, now thirty three, is one of the brightest flames in the new vanguard of American jazz—one that occupies a space in the tradition without being enslaved by it. Like Coleman, Akinmusire's music can be complex for sure, but also devastatingly powerful, as this performance demonstrated in spades.

Akinmusire's blue-toned trumpet lament and Sam Harris' delicate piano accompaniment introduced "Roll Call for Those Absent." Harris' ensuing exploration drew bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown into a knotty dialogue, with Brown working his cymbals hard. Vibrant trumpet and piano solos followed but there were four engines at work all the time, making for a dense sonic palette.

A new tune with the working title of Brooklyn began with a ferocious drum barrage; once the storm abated Akinmusire steered the quartet into lyrical territory before putting his foot on the gas; never staying in the same place for too long—vamps were rare—there was a constant sense of evolution in the quartet's music. Harris' one-handed Rhodes solo—while comping on piano—provided a softer texture in contrast to Akinmusire's bold attack.

Akinmusire's tremendously nuanced playing was better appreciated on slower tracks like the ballad "Regret (No More)"—with spare piano for support—where the emotional weight of his voice was foregrounded. Another new tune cantered around a melodic bass line buoyed by brushes and minimal Rhodes. Akinmusire's arrival threatened briefly to alter the mood but he settled on a melodic refrain consistent with the atmosphere.

Due to the linear, improvisatory nature of the music the one or two vamp-heavy tunes of the set stood out as particularly dynamic. It was, however, impossible to escape the visceral energy of the quartet when all four musicians were locked into flowing paths with no obvious exit and reminiscent at times of Wadada Leo Smith's small ensembles.

For the encore, Akinmusire and Harris mesmerized the Mermaid audience with a gentle interpretation of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." In a way, it tied the band to an older jazz tradition that it's intense, often thrilling performance only occasionally hinted at.

Firm Roots/Havana 'Che

That wasn't the end of the music, however, as in a dozen venues across Bray the jazz went on until late into the night. At the Hibernia Inn, the trio Firm Roots played to what was probably one of the smallest audiences of the weekend. Regardless, bassist Cormac O'Brien, drummer Gerry Fehily and guitarist Mike Nielsen's impassioned standards set provided a highlight of Bray Jazz 2015, with Nielsen demonstrating the sort of chops that lead many to consider him as the best guitarist in Ireland.

As midnight came around the party moved onto The Martello where Havana 'Che—Ireland's leading Cuban band—made a welcome return to Bray Jazz after an absence of seven years. Until well into the wee hours the ten-piece, multi-national band led by timbalero Connor Guilfoyle ignited the dancers with the rhythms of timba, samba, rumba and guaguancó as the beer flowed.

Wrap-up

Bray Jazz is evidently doing something right; with a reduced budget and with less advertising than in previous years, the shows were nearly all sell-outs. After sixteen years, the festival has created a brand name that's synonymous with good music. Jazz was still very much at the heart of the festival though there was wiggle space for other rhythms of the world.

It was pleasing too, to see so many quality Irish bands and Ireland-based musicians on the program. Certainly a few of these bands are worthy of bigger arenas than the fringe stages, which nevertheless have become an essential part of the action of the weekend.

Come rain or come shine, Bray Jazz 2016 promises to offer more of the same—that's to say, arguably the best weekend of jazz in Ireland.

Photo Credit: Ambrose Akinmusire courtesy of Dublin Jazz Photography/John Cronin
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