Bray Jazz Festival 2015

Ian Patterson By

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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.


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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