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Bray Jazz Festival 2017

Ian Patterson By

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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.


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