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Bray Jazz Festival 2017

Ian Patterson By

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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.

Wrap-up

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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