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Bray Jazz Festival 2017

Ian Patterson By

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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.

Pilgrim

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.
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