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Bray Jazz Festival 2017

Bray Jazz Festival 2017

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Bray Jazz Festival
Various venues
Bray, Ireland
May 28-30, 2017

There are just so many cultural events going on in Ireland over the May Bank Holiday weekend that it can be a bit of a head-spin deciding what to opt for. Roots music gatherings, literature festivals, classical recitals, a chamber music festival, traditional Irish folk festivals, lighthouse visits, theatre festivals and gigs galore, all vie for the punters' hard-earned coin. Happily, The Irish Times always weighs in each year in with a comprehensive guide to the best of the cultural action. Its Pick of the Weekend for 2017 was the Bray Jazz Festival, with the paper's Cormac Larkin citing BJF's "consistently high quality, artistically credible line-ups."

The recognition is a real feather in the cap of BJF's George and Dorothy Jacob—who have been running BJF since 2000 through good times and challenging times—and will hopefully serve to shore up funding/sponsors for the foreseeable future, as well as act as a magnet to attract even more top class acts to this excellent festival.

Quality and artistic credibility were, as ever, hallmarks of eighteenth edition of the festival, which saw memorable headlining concerts from Lionel Loueke, Beats & Pieces Big Band and The Necks. The strong supporting cast included The Firebirds, Pilgrim and Malin Wättring Quartet.

Folk and roots music was well represented by the Carnatic music of the Shantala Subramanyam Trio, the Baltic folk colors of Estonian fiddler/singer Maarja Nuut and the irrepressible Norwegian accordionist Stian Carstensen.

Free gigs abounded too, with the best of Ireland's jazz, funk R&B bands packing out the bars along the Wicklow Wolf Jazz Trail, and contributing to a vibrant, fun-packed weekend of great music.

Day One

Bringing The Fire: Jazz Workshop

Stefan Pasborg is the driving force behind The Firebirds, a unique trio whose eponymous debut album took the music of Igor Stravinsky and Aram Khachaturian and injected voltage and serious grooves. To a small but engaged audience in The Well, keyboardist Anders Filipsen, saxophonist/clarinetist Anders Banke and Pasborg talked about their formative musical influences, the nuts and bolts of The Firebirds' chemistry and their approach to arranging such iconic classical music and weaving in improvisations.

The chat was punctuated by the trio's arrangement of Danish composer Carl Nielsen's "Oriental Festive March," a recorded excerpt from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring—you could imagine John Williams listening to this as he composed the ominous music to Jaws—and The Firebirds' own, highly personal arrangement of the same. "When you want to work with arranging other people's music," said Filipsen, "you have to find this really fragile balance between putting yourself in the music and respecting the original music."

The three musicians gave fascinating insight into the forces behind Stravinsky's ground-breaking music—the violence of the arrival of spring in Russia—and the primitive rhythmic functions that connect Stravinsky and The Firebirds. Explanations of Bach's harmonics—and the challenge of escaping his influence—playing with time, and the trio's approaches to improvisation would have appealed to musicians but were pitched at a level that was easily accessible to general music fans. The workshop also whetted the appetite for The Firebird's evening concert.

These workshops have been part of Bray Jazz for a number of years now and are an important part of the festival's fabric. More workshops on the other days, or Q&A sessions with some of the musicians, would be a welcome addition to future programs.

Stian Carstensen

Button accordionist Stian Carstensen was making a welcome return to Bray, three years after a memorable concert at The Mermaid Arts Centre with Iain Ballamy in the occasional duo The Little Radio. That Music Network-promoted concert was outside the Bray Jazz Festival, but wherever Carstensen pitches up, and in whatever guise, a festive air, bristling with virtuosity and left-field humour, permeates his performances; this solo show at Bray's Town Hall was no exception.

Carstensen opened with a church-inspired arrangement of 16th century piece by Henry VIII's composer of songs for pheasant hunting -"a narrow field," Carstensen observed. The accordionist's repertoire, by comparison, spanned the centuries and made no distinction between so-called art music and more popular themes. A swaggering version of Felix Arndt's 1915 novelty ragtime number "Nola," a breathless "Tea for Two" and heady Gypsy wedding music from Bulgaria and Romania were all grist to Carstensen mill.

Switching to banjo and attaching little pegs to the strings, Carstensen paid brief homage to John Cage's "Music for Prepared Piano," and as the pegs were removed one by one, the music gradually morphed into bluegrass stomp. A melancholy traditional Norwegian tune on accordion, a foot-stomping Bulgarian sheppard's tune played on kaval with the breathy virtuosity of Roland Kirk, a racy Transylvanian fiddle tune transported to accordion and a sung version of Fred Tillman's "I Love You So Much It Hurts Me" revealed the breadth of Carstensen's folkloric and popular roots.

Yet all the joking and vaudeville entertainment that were a part of Carstensen's stagecraft couldn't detract from a technique as rich in harmonic sophistication, rhythmic panache and contrapuntal dexterity as the very finest concert pianist, and an improvisatory flare to rival any jazz musician.

The final piece saw Carstensen entwine beauty and gravitas in a Bach-esque, church organ-inspired recital that was hypnotic and uplifting, much like the concert as a whole.

Lionel Loueke

A trio of equals, Lionel Loueke, bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth have been playing together for eighteen years, since studying together at Berklee College of Music and although they had plenty of material to draw from the set was largely taken from Gaïa (Blue Note Records, 2015).

The trio's intuitive interplay was in evidence from the first notes of the melodically and rhythmically African-colored "Dream." Loueke's embrace of jazz has gradually opened over the years to allow more space for his Benin roots to shine but this was a performance of even more expansive ambition.

Loueke's pedals-driven guitar improvisation on the spirited "Broken" conjured jazz-fusion evocative of Herbie Hancock—an early mentor for the guitarist. Homage to Carlos Santana came with a slow-burning take on (Peter Green's) "Black Magic Woman" and the (Babatunde Olatunji's) drum feature "Jingo." Loueke's measured blues-funk and the spacious groove on the former was more James Blood Ulmer, however, than Santana.

On the elegant "Aziza Dance" African melodicism and rhythmic compass, funk and blues-tinged jazz merged seamlessly. Loueke, like Bill Frisell, has a little of the musical alchemist about him in the way he blends colors and textures to create something new yet familiar. The up-tempo version of the Bee Gee's "How Deep is Your Love" that closed the set saw Louke at his most fluid and George Benson-esque. Without pausing for breath, the trio launched a danceable African groove, closing the concert on a feel-good note.

The Firebirds

Danish trio The Firebirds returned to The Well following their afternoon workshop to deliver a powerful set of classically-inspired compositions, compromised somewhat by the problems keyboardist Anders Filipsen experienced with the bass function on his keys.

By happy coincidence, the trio's new CD inspired by the music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen, Aladdin's Dream (ILK, 2017),was released that same day and it was with the progressive tonalities of Nielsen's "Little Suite For Strings" (1886) that the trio's adventure embarked. From a grooving chamber jazz opening evocative of The Doors, Stefan Pasborg's polyrhythmic bustle gradually steered the music into headier terrain, with Anders Banke's tenor saxophone soaring over Filipsen's reggae-tinged chords.

Bake switched between clarinet and saxophone during Pasborg's arrangement of three segments of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. The dreamy minimalism of "Introduction"—all washing cymbals and organ drone—gave way to the rhythmically complex, melodically striking "The Princesses' Game with the Golden Apples," which was followed by "Infernal Dance of All Kashchei's Subjects," a stonking passage characterized by expansive improvisatory excursions.

The centre-piece, excerpts from Stravinsky's iconic Rite of Spring, contained all the violence, beauty and gravitas of the original, with the trio's orchestral ambition matched by the originality of its execution. Three movements from Nielsen's Aladdin Suite passed from exotic Arabic sonorities—fired by Banke's tenor—through sombre, church-service reverie to fiery free-jazz. The encore, Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian's "Saber Dance," fused R&B bounce and Ellingtonian swing in irresistible fashion, with an exhilarating solo from Pasborg putting a personal seal on this most original and compelling of projects.

Day Two

Julian Colarossi Organ Trio

You need to arrive early at The Harbour Bar to grab a pew, and your view of the stage might not be great, but the venue—complete with new P.A. system—provides intimacy and atmosphere in spades, and for those reasons is one of the best venues of the BJF. The early afternoon gig on the second day of BJF saw Italian guitarist Julian Colarossi, flanked by drummer Connor Guilfoyle and organist Darragh Hennessy, give classy interpretations of pop, soul and jazz standards.

Note to Self (Self-Produced, 2013), Colarossi's debut as leader, was the elegant calling card of a refined guitarist, technically assured and oozing soul. Since then, Colarossi has gone on to record with Linley Hamilton's excellent quintet (In Transition Lyte Records, 2014) and in a duo with fellow guitarist John Keogh (Street Life, Self-Produced, 2016).

A gently grooving version of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" provided the perfect vehicle for Colarossi's melodic, beautifully articulated improvisation. A swinging arrangement of George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland"—featuring solos from all three musicians—was dedicated to the late Louis Stewart, a mentor and inspiration to countless jazz musicians in Ireland, including Colarossi.

Colarossi's self-penned "Field Day" provided a set highlight, each note of the guitarist's lyrical solo carrying emotional weight. Hennessy's response felt a little reserved, and in general, the trio's balance tipped towards the guitar, with the organ's role a subdued one. However, this trio is a new one and it'll no doubt take more gigs and a honing of repertoire for the group chemistry to really shine.

The Beatle's "And I Love Her" inspired Colarossi to some of his most impressive soloing, where economy was the key to his lyrical persuasion. There was more to come from the trio but another gig in the town proved too strong a magnet.


The magnet in question was Roamer. The quartet of vocalist Lauren Kinsella, drummer Matthew Jacobson, tenor saxophonist Matthew Halpin and bassist Simon Jermyn—some of Ireland's most innovative musicians—was presenting new material in collaboration with poet Cherry Smyth. The opening number, a compelling hybrid of groove and ethereal soundscapes, gradually took wings, with the restless stirrings of one-armed Jacobson—the other in a cast—and Jermyn taking rhythmic shape while Halpin's tenor fluttered in Kinsella's slipstream.

Vocalist and saxophonist created striking harmonic waves at the outset of "Geometry," bass ostinatos, drums, explorative saxophone and Kinsella's soaring wordless vocal soon claiming the spaces in dramatic style. Smyth then recited one of her poems with Kinsella singing the lines in a sensual, bone-chilling union. Equally affecting the harmonics woven by Kinsella and Halpin on a notable Jacobson composition inspired by Haiku poetry, which juxtaposed strong rhythmic pulse and dreamy melody.

Kinsella and Halpin's carved hauntingly lyrical flights on a slower number as inviting as slumber in warm sun. Smyth returned to the stage to recite-to sympathetic and powerful musical accompaniment—her poem "Transparency"—an enigmatic work based on the discovery of a Japanese scientist that water crystals changed shape when different words were spoken to them. Halpin's tenor burned brightly on the slow-grooving "Fairy-tale," his solo framed by Kinsella's beguiling vocal. Jermyn's rich bass lines were as central to the atmosphere of the ethereal closing number as Kinsella and Halpin's more dominant roles, but from start to finish this was a beautifully balanced ensemble effort.

The intense writing and rehearsals that resulted from this Arts Council-funded project have produced a collective work of art of undoubted beauty. Roamer's short Irish tour, however, seems like it should be just the beginning, rather than the end of the story.

Shantala Subramanyam Trio

There have been several memorable concerts of India classical music at BJF over the years and this edition served up yet another, with the Carnatic music trio of flautist and singer Shantala Subramanyam.

Superficially, Carnatic music—the classical music of Southern India—might seem to hail from a very different world to jazz, but there are more similarities than at first meets the eye. A codified language, the veneration of great virtuosos, the toggling between improvised and composed passages and the often thrilling dialogues between musicians—all are shared characteristics of the two musical forms.

In addition, the pantheon of venerated instrumentalists in Indian classical music, as in jazz, has been dominated historically by men. Bray Jazz, however, has also championed important female instrumentalists. In BJF 2014, the sitar player Joyeeta Sanyal gave an outstanding performance in the Town Hall, and three years on, flautist/vocalist Shantala Subramanyam cast a similar spell.

A performance of around an hour and twenty minutes featured three ragas, the first lasting five minutes and the second and third each clocking in at over thirty minutes. Shraddah Ravindran on violin and Anirudha Bhat on mridangam (double-headed hand drum) were equal partners in a compelling three-way dialog, which began with Subramanyam's phone setting down a continuous tanpura-style drone.

Flute and violin engaged in a gentle to and fro, like birds greeting each other from neighbouring trees, before the first mridangam beats invited melodic union. Spurred by Bhat's modulating rhythms, flute and violin, as one, gathered momentum towards the thrilling finale. Although Subramanyam declared the third and final raga the centrepiece of the evening, in fact, the second raga—more of a three-way communion—was arguably the more impressive.

Melodic improvisation, a warming-up call-and-response of sorts, paved the way for more expansive and quite lyrical melodic improvisations, first from the Ravindran and then from Subramanyam. Another playful bout of call-and-response, and the trio's course, was re-directed by an explosive entrance from Bhat, which signalled a brief unison passage between violin and Shantala on vocals. Though first and foremost a flutist, Subramanyam is also a trained Carnatic singer—heard to great effect on her CD Jhenkara (Indian Music Makers) but this short vocal excursion finished rather too soon.

Still, for the remaining twenty minutes the Bray Town Hall audience was treated to an exhibition of interplay as beautiful as it was often exhilarating. The music at its most impassioned obtained rasa -heightened emotional states something similar to flamenco's duende. In jazz parlance, the trio was well and truly in the zone.

Subramanyam was consistently impressive with her melodic and rhythmic agility. Ravindran no less so—with the flutist repeatedly voicing the word sabaash as the violinist soloed—a word of praise and encouragement akin to the cry of olé in flamenco. So too Bhat—sometimes anchor, sometimes sail—whose rhythmic elasticity encompassed tender and fiery narratives.

The final raga, played in a five-beat cycle, followed a more gently lilting melodic course, although one laced with scintillating rhythmic and melodic improvisations. Bhat's kunnokol (vocal improvisation) was jaw-dropping in its fluidity, but teasingly short. His highly-charged mridangam solo, with flute and violin joining in the final burst, took the trio over the finishing line at full tilt, crowning a wonderful concert in grand exclamation.

The Shantala Subramanyam Trio's performance of ragas in Bray Town Hall suggested that this quiet magician of the flute is worthy of inclusion in any discussion of contemporary Indian classical virtuosos.

Beats And Pieces Big Band

One of the hottest tickets of BJF 2017 was for Bits and Pieces Big Band, the Manchester fourteen-piece ensemble making a return to Ireland following its triumphant performance at 12 Points 2013. Conducted and directed by Ben Cottrell, BAPBB is celebrating ten years together in 2018, and has earned a deserved reputation as one of the most innovative and exciting large ensembles to emerge from the UK since Loose Tubes. With its members involved in too many other projects to mention, BAPBB has been something of an on-off project, with just two releases in a decade, its debut Big Ideas (Efpi Records, 2012), and All in All (Efpi Records, 2015).

The good news, as Cottrell informed the audience in the Mermaid Arts Centre, is that a new album is in the pipeline and more concerts are planned for the tenth anniversary celebrations.

The multi-layered rhythms and vibrant overlapping brass lines of "Rocky" got the show off to a cracking start, with Cottrell an animated conducting presence on a tune that sounded like the bastard child of Charles Mingus and Frank Zappa. Without drawing breath, the band continued with the melodious "Pop," an uplifting tune driven by Finlay Panter's punchy back beat and featuring a fine muted trumpet solo from Aaron Diaz.

Bassist Stewart Wilson's fast-walking rhythm guided "Jazzwalk," a number of Ellingtonian ambition featuring biting solos from saxophonist Ollie Dover and guitarist Anton Hunter, the latter who brought a rock-inspired edge to the mix. One of the strengths of BAPBB's sound lay in the individual voices that Cottrell's writing capitalized upon. Pianist Richard Jones delivered an achingly lyrical unaccompanied solo that segued into "Tone"—a roaring ensemble number that embraced traditions both old-school and modern.

Hunter's metal bow on strings fashioned the ethereal opening to "Havmann," an epic number that grew and receded in a collective show of tension and release. In the quietest passage, of jazz quartet intimacy, trumpeter Graham South carved out a measured, compelling solo, the ensemble voice gradually rising around and engulfing his solo in a powerful show of force. Another highlight came with a delightfully slow-grooving version of the late David Bowie's "Let's Dance," which initially couldn't but help sounding like a lament, even though it was recorded the year before Bowie's passing. Once the drums kicked in, however, it soon became a rousing celebration, finishing with the iconic motif sounded by the trumpets.

A dose of jazz-funk culminating in a riotous drum solo from Panter and more contemporary arrangements, equal parts rollicking collective voice and individual virtuosity, rounded out the set. For the encore, Cottrell's beautiful arrangements for brass on the poignant ballad "Fairytale" conjured the majesty of England's colliery brass bands. The concert finished on a more visceral note, Hunter's Jimi Hendrix-esque riff and subsequent blues-rock solo igniting the collective fuse one more time.

If BAPBB's stonking, full-blooded performance at BJF 2017 performance was anything to go by, then the new album and accompanying tour will be something to look forward to. Modern big band music has rarely sounded this vital.


It was a quick dash down Bray's high street to The Well to catch Swiss band Pilgrim. If the ethereal chamber jazz of the opening track "Falling" suggested a sedate, cerebral concert was in store then this notion was gradually dispelled as saxophonist Christopher Irniger, pianist Stefan Aeby, guitarist Dave Gisler bassist Raffaele Bossard and drummer Michi Stulz mounted an animated attack—with a telling solo from Gisler—which, whilst feeling tightly orchestrated, gave the impression that it could go anywhere.

Aeby's plucked piano strings and Gisler's deft pedal board manipulation created a spacey atmosphere on the epic "Big Wheel." Bass and percussive rustling underpinned Irniger's softly lilting melody, the contrasts between edgy and soothing growing as bass and drums gathered momentum. The dynamic shifts crept up almost surreptitiously, but the unfolding contrasts between collective charge, intimate piano trio segment, searching saxophone and guitar improvisations, and rhythmic and melodic mantra, were as compelling as they were unpredictable.

The concert concluded with two tracks from Italian Circus; ruminative piano, rumbling mallets and bass, melodious saxophone and shimmering guitar colored the first half of "Back in The Game," a slow groove developing in the second half dominated by Aeby's delicately forged solo. "Entering The Concert Hall," by way of contrast, was founded on more robust rhythms, with Stulz and Bossard integral to the elastic sense of time. There were free-spirited solos from Aabey and Irniger before the quintet united on the final stretch, finishing, appropriately, as one voice.

Pilgrim's fine performance worked a balance between artful construction and looser freedoms that clearly struck a chord with the audience. One of the highlights of Bray Jazz 2017.

Day Three

CEO Experiment

Day three of BJF 2017 coincided with International Jazz Day, so it was fitting that the day's program should begin with the pan-national, Dublin-based quartet CEO Experiment. What began three years ago as a trio comprised of Peruvian drummer Cote Calmet, Venezuelan pianist/keyboardist Leopoldo Osio and Hungarian electric bassist Peter Erdei, has become a quartet with the addition of Dublin saxophonist Michael Buckley.

Though the original trio had songwriting chops in abundance, it was clear from this energetic performance in the Harbour Bar how much Buckley brings to the table, not just in terms of his own playing but in the way he cajoles the other three to up their respective games. This was evident on the Osio-penned opener "Portrait," with the saxophonist's bustling improvisations firing pronounced rhythmic interplay. Osio was at the epicentre of "Transported," on acoustic piano in an elegant, laid back exchange with Erdei, and on synthesizer that interwove with Buckley's flowing lines in gutsy display.

The quartet's embrace of space and grooves allowed the melodies to breathe in a manner at times evocative of The Yellowjackets, notably on the sanguine intro to "Nostra Historia," which then grew in collective crescendo to a mighty plateau that launched Osio and Buckley on their individual yet parallel flights. Another fine, swirling electric piano solo from Osio and a spirited response from Buckley on "Something Else," buoyed by Calmet's polyrhythmic industry and Erdei's bubbling melodic lines, met with generous applause.

The set was comprised of songs from CEO Experiment's eponymous debut album as well as several striking new songs destined for the anticipated follow-up. Of the new tunes, the atmospheric "La Perla del Sur," featuring fire from Buckley and measured lyricism from Erdei, and Buckley's slow number "Tonic," which saw Erdei's captivating solo hush the bar, stood out. There was danceable jazz-funk in the shape of "CEO Experience," sophisticated mid-tempo balladry, and, on Calmet's infectious composition "Foli," feisty African rhythms that showcased the drummer's virtuosity.

Through focus, perseverance and hard gigging, CEO Experiment has arrived at a fully formed sound and a pretty irresistible one at that. If this stirring BJF gig—a highlight of BJF 2017—was anything to go by, the quartet stands on the brink of even greater successes.

Maarja Nuut

In a festival of rhythmically dynamic music, Estonian fiddler/singer Maarja Nuut represented an oasis of meditative calm and a beguiling alternative to so much virtuosity. That said, there was much to admire in meticulously crafted compositions that wed haunting song, rustic narratives recounted with arresting simplicity, and atmospheric looped vocals and fiddle motifs.

From the off, Nuut's use of loops to carry her whispered sound of the wind and layered vocal motifs cast a spell on the Bray Town Hall audience. Nuut's tale about a lonely bird looking for a place to make a nest, over a looped fiddle mantra, had the air of a fable for children, but it was hard not to be drawn in, especially once the layered fiddles and lilting singing entered to create folkloric chamber intimacy.

An Estonian polka morphed from simply stated fiddle melody and rhythmic pulse to giddy orchestral depth, as sawing riffs and soaring melodies fused. Clearly drawn to repetitive forms, Nuut imbued both songs and tales with varying degrees of soulful gravitas. A light dusting of salt on the stage's wooden floorboards lent a softly rasping sonority as Nuut spun round and round in hypnotic dance, plucking pizzicato melody from her fiddle strings—"a piece inspired by walls," Nuut told the audience.

Nostalgia, or perhaps longing, colored the impressionistic "Kargos," a multi-layered fiddle tune from Une Meeles (2016). The loop-heavy "Hobusemang" wed repetitive fiddle motif, urgent chant, percussive tongue clacking and strongly defined fiddle melody in a potent cocktail. As an encore, Nuut first presented a dreamy vocal of layered, circling parts that was part lullaby, part meditation, fiddle joining only towards the end, followed by a spare Estonian folk song of simple beauty.

Nuut's very singular music—rootsy yet modern, culturally rooted in her homeland yet universal in appeal—was charming, intoxicating and ultimately magical.

Malin Wattring 4

Over at the Mermaid Arts Centre, tenor saxophonist Malin Wättring steered her quartet through a set of her open-ended compositions with a primacy on improvisation. The intuitive interplay between Wattring, drummer Anna Lund, double bassist Donovon Von Martens and pianist Naoko Sakata, tender and mellifluous on the one hand, passionate and unbridled on the other.

The quartet set out its stall on the opening number, or rather three of them sewn seamlessly together over thirty plus minutes of undulating tempos and dynamics. Feeling its way almost gingerly at first, the quartet suddenly sparked into life, Wattring's untethered improvisation inviting animated collective response. Just as suddenly, the only voice heard was Von Marten's bass solo, with Lund biding her time to lend sympathetic support. The baton then passed to Sakata who delivered a solo of real delicacy, followed by a measured improvisation from Wattring.

If the music had simmered rather than boiled in the first half of the concert, all that was to change on " I Want Is the Truth," which despite pockets of ruminative introspection, burned with an intensity that had mostly been lacking before. Sakata rocked back and forth as though possessed as she worked her keys feverishly, paving the way for Wattring to rise to the high water mark, with Lund the whole time an effervescent provocateur.

The final piece, another extended workout clocking in at around the twenty-minute mark, was once again largely defined by Wattring and Sakata's respective improvisations, buoyed by Von Marten and Lund's highly charged rhythmic impetus. Bassist and drummer sat out an intimate piano and saxophone dialog, the quartet reuniting on the lyrical closing passage, guided by Wattring's emotive soloing—arguably her most heartfelt of the set.

The youthful and talented Malin Wattring 4 harbours wisdom beyond its years, but as impressive as the playing was, a little more sound of surprise wouldn't have gone amiss. Still, there were enough indictors here to suggest that this quartet can potentially carve out an important place for itself in the contemporary jazz panorama.

The Necks

The Necks, Australia's legendary improvising trio, was making a swift return to Ireland following its performance at The MAC in 2014. The show, a sell-out, was held in The Well, the old church proving a particularly atmospheric venue for the group's meditative improvisations.

Without fanfare or fuss, the trio gently slipped their respective toes into the improvisational waters that have been their domain for the past thirty years. Chris Abrahams modulating piano motif ignited rustling percussion from Tony Buck and constant bass thrum from Lloyd Swanton. Gradually, the spaces between the circling piano notes shortened to the point that melody and percussive vibration were inseparable. As Buck's percussive stirrings intensified and bowed bass drone swelled the collective sound, the effect was akin to a very powerful minimalist trance.

Rather than variations on a theme, it was a case of variations on variations, the trio revelling in microscopic shifts in motif, timbre, pitch, volume and intensity. Over short tracts of time, any given minute say, it seemed as if the trio was locked in a mantra-like jam, unable to exit a revolving door, but over the long course—forty minutes—the music moved in slowly rolling waves, carrying the listener on a journey of curiously interior logic. This was music that resonated with the pulses and rhythms of the body, freeing the mind in the process so that time became elastic. It was impossible to know how long the trio rode the crest of the wave for, although rather than crashing spectacularly the music simply dissipated, fading to nothing.

After the interval The Necks embarked on a second sonic adventure, this one slightly longer than the first. Swanton sounded long, intermittent bowed bass notes like a distant, foghorn, followed by tinkling piano in the high register and quietly singing metal percussion. Abrahams was first to stray, tentatively building an eerie motif from melodic fragments. Once the repeating phrase was solidly established, bowed bass drone ascended, and in time, so too metallic and wooden percussive sonorities. The impetus spurred Abrahams, who added a left-hand jangling motif, which blurred with the right-hand pattern—creating melodies that hovered in curiously undefinable emotional terrain—a little plaintive perhaps for some listeners, uplifting maybe for others.

Buck's hand-held cymbals created persistent chimes that vibrated in almost constant ringing, while Abrahams reverted to a one-handed swirling motif. The pianist, as though seduced by Buck's unrelenting cymbals, hammered the same notes over and over, and with bass drone once more in the ascendency, the music's intensity was almost industrial. Rhythm and melodic reference points were submerged in the enveloping wall of sound until Buck turned to mallets and, after an extended period, Abrahams loosened and slowed his piano mantras, ushering in a little space.

With the space came tunefulness, minimalist in design that was nevertheless quietly enchanting. Percussion and bass slowly surrendered to the melodies and eventually the music faded away to the silence from which it first sprang fifty minutes earlier.

The Necks remain, thirty years on, a singular and vital improvising unit. Its concert, which closed the main program of BJF 2017, was a privilege to experience.


The 18th edition of Bray Jazz Festival will be remembered for the quality and diversity of its program. In jazz's official centenary, it was worthwhile, in these politically fractious times to reflect on the international embrace of jazz/improvised music, with BJF 2017 musicians hailing from Benin, The Palestinian Territories, Australia, Venezuela, Peru, India and from the four corners of Europe.

Equally, it was interesting to reflect on the musical idioms that have been absorbed by jazz, from Igor Stravinsky, Broadway musicals and Al Green, to David Bowie, John Cage and contemporary poetry. Who can say how jazz's vocabulary will expand—as it surely must—in the next one hundred years? Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the Mermaid Arts Centre in 2117

The Irish Times' journalist and jazz critic Mr. Larkin was right. The only place for music lovers come the May Bank Holiday weekend is Bray.

Photo Credit: John Cronin, Dublin Jazz Photography

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