Bray Jazz Festival 2019

Ian Patterson By

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How powerful it is when people come together and think about the same sort of thing. A room full of people where everyone is actually listening to the same thing. There is great power in that also. There’s huge power in that. —Dan Nettles, Kenosha Kid
Bray Jazz Festival
Various venues
Bray, Ireland
May 3-5, 2019

The May Bank Holiday weekend is always a festive occasion in Bray, but this year was of particular note as the Bray Jazz Festival celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Founded by Dorothy and George Jacob in response to a government call for projects to commemorate the new millennium, Bray Jazz Festival has earned a reputation in its first two decades as one of the finest boutique jazz festivals in Europe.

Bray Jazz Festival's success lies chiefly in the quality of its programming, which, as BJF's directors Dorothy and George Jacob acknowledged in an interview with All About Jazz, has been steered artistically since the beginning by Improvised Music Company—foremost in the field of jazz/improvised music promotion in Ireland.

Many of the most important jazz musicians from both sides of the Atlantic have graced BJF over the years and this year was no exception, with headliners representing traditions from straight-ahead jazz, soul and blues to ECM chamber intimacy. Fittingly too, the twentieth BJF featured one gig that simply wouldn't have been possible—or perhaps even imaginable— two decades ago.

Yes, just as the passing away of artists who have illuminated previous editions of BJF, such as Andrew Hill and Tomasz Stanko, or the arrival of fresh new talent such as Marius Neset or Laura Jurd, have marked the passage of time, so too have technological advancements in instrumentation, the manipulation of sound and an ever-wider sonic vocabulary at musicians' disposal.

BJF 2019 was perhaps more stylistically diverse than ever before, more surprising and more provocative. It was, in many respects, a weekend to remember.

Day One

Indrė Jurgelevicuite & Kadialy Kouyate

It was on a sad note that BJF 2019 got underway, with ill health preventing Senegalese kora maestro Solo Cissokho from teaming up with Lithuanian kanklės player Indrė Jurgelevicuite. Their duo album Solo & Indrė (One Root, 2017) was a delightful affirmation of Afro- European musical affinities, and the intimacy of Bray Town Hall would have been the perfect setting for their musical dialogues. However, from problems arise opportunities, and replacement kora player Kadialy Kouyate did not disappoint. Unfamiliar with each other's compositions, the two musicians each played a forty-minute solo set.

The kanklės is a zither-like instrument dating from the sixteenth century, variants of which are common throughout the Baltic states. The name is believed by some linguists to mean 'singing tree.' Whether accurate or not, the poetry in such a derivation fitted nicely with the ethereal sounds—plucked, mediated and sung—by Jurgelevicuite in Bray Town Hall. She began by wishing Solo Cissokho a speedy recovery before launching into a programme of Lithuanian pre-Christian folk songs inspired by nature.

The spirits of flowers, stones and animals, and the connectivity between people and nature inherent to animism, Jurgelevicuite explained, lay at the heart of her songs. A fine voice, unadorned by vibrato, complimented her exquisite playing—gently lulling on one hand, subtly uplifting on the other. Aided by a tiny electric whisker on one number and two resonating devices on another, all of which widened the sonic possibilities of the kanklės' strings, Jurgelevicuite wedded modern technology to Medieval craftsmanship to beautiful effect.

A song about a garden in winter where rabbits' legs are too short to jump in the snow was followed by another describing two flowers competing for beauty stakes. On the latter, Jurgelevicuite's simple plucking and plaintively sung melody were not a million miles away from West African kora tradition. Resonator drone underscored a haunting vocal number where the kanklės was subdued, Jurgelevicuite intermittently releasing soft cries, bird-like then yearning, through cupped hands.

The recorded voice of one of Jurgelevicuite's vocal teachers—an elderly villager whom she described as a repository of traditional folk songs—introduced a lilting song of magic realism, whereby a beautiful young girl shapeshifts to escape the amorous intentions of an older man. For the encore, Jurgelevicuite sang of a shepherd hurrying his flock so he can return to his family, her yearning vocal and swirling arpeggios combining dreamily.

No sooner had the applause faded for Jurgelevicuite than Kadialy Kouyate took to the floor, there being no elevated stage in the Town Hall chamber. For the past decade Kouyate has taught kora at London's SOAS, and has gained a world-wide reputation as a virtuoso performer, even enjoying a taste of global chart success on Mumford and Sons/Baaba Maal's 2016 collaboration "There Will Be Time."



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