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Bray Jazz Festival 2017

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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