March 26-29, 2014
It's taken a while, but Belfast has finally joined the ranks of cities that play host to an international jazz festival. The first edition of Brilliant Corners was staged in the rejuvenated Cathedral Quarter
of the city in 2013 and such was the response of the public, musicans and media that Brian Carson, founder of Northern Ireland's premier music promotions company Moving On Music
decided to have another go around.
It's great news for Northern Irish jazz fans of course, but importantly it gives a major platform for the talent of the burgeoning local jazz scene to reach a wider audience, with radio, print and on-line media all showing an interest in Brilliant Cornersthe latest of numerous cultural initiatives that are putting Belfast on the international map once more, but for all the right reasons.
The birth of Brilliant Corners is further indication of the growth in jazz throughout Ireland. In the past ten years, the Bray Jazz Festival
, the Limerick Jazz Festival
, Sligo Jazz Project
, Down With Jazz
and 12 Points have all staged high caliber national and international jazz the length and breadth of the country. These young festivals have grown jazz's Irish profile in a festival panorama dominated by the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival
for thirty years. It's to be hoped that Brilliant Cornersand all the aforementioned festivals will enjoy equally long lives.
And if the quality of the music and the enthusiasm of the public at Brilliant Corners 2014 were anything to go by, then the festival, like the Thelonious Monk
album that inspired the name, will surely stand the test of time.
Day one of Brilliant Corners got underway at the Crescent Arts Centre
with a double bill of outstanding Northern Irish jazz talent. The Jeremy Lyons Dectet must have been thrilled with the full house and warm reception that greeted it, but likewise, the crowd was soon captured by the power and style of Lyon's original charts and the many-layered riches contained within. There was also some first rate soloing, but like the best large(ish) groups the ensemble sound carried the day.
"Upward List" was founded upon Rohan Armstrong's bass ostinato and drummer Steve Davis' insistent cymbals. Lyons' manipulation of the dectet's dynamics saw the rhythm section drop in and out as melody and rhythm clasped and unclasped hands. Belfast-based American tenor saxophonist Melaine Gillard took the first of several meaty solos. A regular on the local jazz scene, Gillard has raised the bar for aspiring saxophonists with her flowing lines full of the storyteller's powers of narrative.
Pianist Scott Flanigan's high register, crystalline intro set the tone of "These Cold, Crisp Mornings," a pretty composition whose cool impressionism evoked trumpeter Miles Davis
mid-sixties quintet. "Bit by Bit" swung hard, with Lyons and Davis taking brief solos that punctuated the dectet's melodic flow. It was no surprise to learn that this piece was originally written for a quartet; in fact the beauty of Lyons little-big band lay in its hybrid natureharboring the flexibility to switch between groove and swing modes and more orchestral soundscapes with ease.
The tempo came down on the shuffling, late-night blues of "Suwon," steered by Gillard. The saxophonist's hushed lyricism was every bit as compelling as some of her more robust playing during the set. She then melted back into the brass section, this time on flute, as the music grew from an intimate setting to the enveloping warmth of the full dectet sound. Riffing brass and a fine melody characterized "Disquiet," with trumpeter Mike Barkleyimpressive throughout the setand Lyons featuring prominently on a memorable number that concluded a stirring set.
The crowd must have looked familiar to trumpeter Linley Hamilton
, with many of them regulars at his residency gigs at Bert's Jazz Bar, and McHughes. A twenty-year veteran of the Northern Irish jazz scene, Hamilton is equally well known as an educator and as a broadcaster on BBC Radio Ulster, where his Friday night jazz program has become something of an institution.
The concert had extra significance as it was the album launch for In Transition
(Lyte Records, 2014) Hamilton's follow-up CD to Taylor Made
(Lyte Records, 2011). Of that line-up, pianist Johnny Taylor and drummer Dominic Mullan
remain but bassist Damien Evans has replaced Dan Bodwell. The most notable change, however, is the addition of Italian guitarist Julien Colarossi
, whose debut as leader Note to Self
(Self Produced, 2013) introduced not only a fine guitarist, but a notable songwriter to a wider audience than that of his adopted Dublin.
From the first notes of "Our Tune" the quintet was buzzing with a collective energy that translated into vital interpretations of essentially highly melodic material. Following a delightful piano intro Hamilton and Colarossi plied the melody in tandemthe guitarist shadowing the leader's lines with just enough embellishment to create an edge. First Hamilton then Colarossi shook free the collective harness, soloing with passion and control over the solid rhythmic foundation. Saxophonist Joe Henderson
's hard-bop classic "The Kicker" followed a similar pattern. Taylor soloed accompanied by Evans and with the quintet reunited over a fast-walking bass line Mullan tore around his kit in an exciting finale.
The tempo eased on the ballad "Song for Pav," with Hamilton and Taylor's economy of notes matched by the emotive power of their respective solos. Introducing "Anthem" by Australian trumpeter Paul Williamson, Hamilton remarked: "You never know how that goes down in a place like this but I'm sure we're all over it by now." Indeed, the brouhaha about flags and causes in the politically divided North is increasingly relegated to the margins of daily life in Belfast, where once upon a time it was all there was. Williamson's melodious composition didn't lack for intensity and Hamilton paid tribute to the trumpeter/arranger, acknowledging his "magnificent contribution to jazz in Ireland" during his two-year spell in Dublin from 2006-2008.
Two slower numbers, South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim
's "Joan-Capetown Flower" and American-Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainright's "Dinner at Eight" provided set highlights. Hamilton's burnished tone and lovely coloring from Colarossi graced the former, while Taylor shone on the latter. In introducing Wainright's song, Hamilton spoke of his appreciation for what he termed "the new American Songbook."
By the New American Songbook, Hamilton was referring to the Tom Waits
, Paul Simon
, Neil Young
and Joni Mitchell
tunesamongst othersthat are increasingly grist to the mill of numerous jazz musicians the world over. "You can't beat good music," Hamilton stated. "You certainly can't disqualify it. We're always looking for songs to play that connect people and give you a more enjoyable experience in concerts like this." The sentiment and the practise are no different to the adoption of popular showtunes by the likes of trumpeters Charlie Parker
, Miles Davis or pianist Bill Evans
in times past. It's inevitable that new tunes enter the standards repertoire; the only surprise has been the tenacity of the Great American Songbook to resist the changing tide.
Inevitably, the quintet followed that with a swinging version of "Without a Song"a standard that's so well traveled it's been to the moon and back. Hamilton's robust, blues-inflected lines led the way over Evans fast-walking bass and a playful give-and-take between Hamilton and Taylor paved the way for a fine extended improvisation from the pianist. The grooving and highly apt "Happy People" featured final flings from Hamilton and the impressive Colarossi, ending a marvelous set on a high.
Hamilton, without a doubt, has assembled one of Ireland's finest small jazz ensembles. With the quintet members hailing from both sides of thenow invisibleborder it might prove logistically challenging for this quintet to gig with any great frequency. On the other hand, it's arguably a wonderful excuse to encourage further North-South exchanges and nationwide touring, something that is still relatively poorly developed.
An all-Ireland music promotion agency might still be some way off in the future but it would surely be in the interests of the Arts Councils and the National Tourism Boards of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to pursue such a goal. The benefits for the musicians, the industries that surround them, and for the music-supporting public alike don't need spelling out.
Day two of Brilliant Corners featured drummer David Lyttle
and his band featuring alto saxophonist/rapper Soweto Kinch
and Belfast singer-songwriter/pianist Duke Special. The tireless Lyttle is something of an industry onto himself. It's hard to believe that the Waringstown musician is still in his twenties, given his recording history as a leader and sideman. Then there's his record label Lyte Records
, which has developed from a simple vehicle with which to release his own material into one of the most important music labels in Ireland.
A jazz drummer in the Art Blakey
mold, Lyttle is as much at ease playing hip-hop as straight-ahead jazz and this performance struck a wonderful balance between traditional roots and more contemporary, urbane rhythms. The quartet began with the lively "City Life." Lyttle, bassist Conor Chaplin
and pianist Kaidi Tatham swung the music as Kinch blew hard, soulful blues reminiscent of the trumpeter Nat Adderley
's grooves. Thatham and Lyttle responded in animated fashion. It was a stonking opener and it was with this contagious energy that the band set out its stall.
Tatham's delicate Bill Evans-esque intro to "After the Flood" soon developed into a reggae workout with Kinch raising an extraordinary head of steam on alto. Lyttle in turn soloed but his most arresting work was when driving the band, employing hands on "Happy Easter" to conjure African rhythms, using stick and shaker combined or brushes to vary the textures. His versatility was matched by that of his band.
Duke Special took over the piano on "The Greatest Escape Artist in the World," sharing vocals with Anne Lyttle on this wonderful pop vamp. A fairly straight interpretation of "Wichita Lineman" followed but it was Duke Special's own material---poetic and visualthat stood out; "Jesus and his blood don't mean so much anymore"went the opening line of a recently birthed song inspired by a changing Belfast. Anne Lyttle took lead vocals on the gently beguiling "Seek."
The sunny grooves of "Lullaby for the Lost" gained potency when Kinch launched into a labyrinthal rap. It was a warmer for "Raise Your Spirit," where Kinch's tempestuous alto solo was followed by an equally charged rap improvisation where his tumbling flow of consciousness was fed by word prompts from the crowd. Lyttle took it down several notches on the ballad "Pure Imagination," the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley tune from the film Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory
(1971). Listening to Kinch, Lyttle and Chaplin caress the haunting melody it was surprising to think that apart from pianist/keyboardist Bob James
1976 version this gem has all but been ignored by jazz musicians.
It was a nice touch to end a long but engaging set with a ballad, but the vociferous, foot-stomping crowd ensured an encorea loose-limbed blues jam with plenty of blowing from all concerned. With jazz and blues at the root of nearly everything he does, Lyttle nevertheless embraces myriad influences, which is what makes his concerts, like this one, so colorfully grooving, and so full of surprise.
The third day of Brilliant Corners featured two concerts whose overlapping times meant it was a choice between Spanish guitarist Eduardo Niebla at the Crescent Arts Centre or Irish tenor saxophonist Paul Dunmall
at The Black Box. Dunmall was joined by long-term collaborator drummer Tony Bianco
in a tribute to saxophonist John Coltrane
(and presumably drummer Rashied Ali
as well). Dunmall and Bianco have paid homage to Coltrane before, notably on the recordings Thank You John Coltrane
(Slam, 2012) and Tribute to Coltrane
(Slam, 2013). However, the Niebla concert started first...
In a career spanning four decades, Niebla has covered fairly wide stylistic terrain, from symphonic rock and a tenure in psychadelic space rockers Mother Gong in the late 1970s to the hugely successful acoustic partnership with Italian guitarist Antonio Forcione
in the 1980s and early 1990s. But it's for his flamenco guitar that he's perhaps best known. Flamenco, like jazz, has always absorbed influences from its neighbors. One need only think of the Afro-Peruvian cajónsuch an integral part of modern flamencointroduced to the genre by the late Paco de Lucia
in the mid 1970s. Niebla too, is nothing if not open-minded and has recorded with both Indian and Palestinian musicians. On 'Rosie,' 'Mirror of Life' and 'India' from My Gypsy Waltz
(LMR Records, 2011) Niebla's fleet, dazzling technique drew the flavors of the Middle East, Iberia and India from his strings in dense, evocative colors.
In a concert which had more the air of a recital than a descarga de barrio
Niebla eschewed percussive accompaniment in favor of rhythm guitarist Matthew Robinson, whose subtle accompanying role allowed Niebla to follow his melodic muse. That said, Niebla rapped the body of his guitar to great percussive effect on the lively rumba 'Calle de la Tina.' The dashing buleria rhythms of "Para James" and the Django Reinhardt-esque romp "H for Helen" were heavily influenced by the gypsy traditions of the Mediterranean.
There were more intimate excursions, particularly on the lovely "Para Marguerita," but the technically impressive Niebla concluded a breathless set with 'I Can't Wait Any Longer'another virtusoso tour de force.
The fourth and final day of Brilliant Corners pitted one of jazz/improvised music's more established trios together with an up-and-coming one that promises great things. Thankfully, there was no overlap in the timing of the two concerts, with pianist Matthew Bourne
, drummer Steve Davis and bassist Dave Kane
a.k.a. Bourne/Davis/Kanekicking off the evening at Belfast's newest brilliant corner of the arts, The MAC.
BDK has been around for a decade and although their largely improvised live sets have earned them the tag of avant-jazz, discipline and big ears are key to their three-way dialog. So too is tradition, though not in an obvious way. The spirit of intent of pianists Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor
playful, boldly searching and uniqueinforms BDK's approach to music making more than the jazz cannon or stylistic formulations. The more outré manifestations of jazz don't get a lot of gig space in Belfast and perhaps for this reason The MAC was less than full. Those who witnessed BDK's set, however, were rewarded with the most riveting performance of Brilliant Corners 2014one full of flowing dynamics and constantly evolving contours.
The trio's first set showcased several new compositions and 2014 should hopefully see the first BDK release since The Money Notes
(2010). "BKD Theme" combined brooding textures and skittery rhythms, with Bourne equally adept at plying lyrical melody as descending into the depths of dissonance. Davis' "Vanilla Lives" provided arresting contrast between minimalism and frenzied improvisation. "Dark Days" stemmed from Bourne's invernal piano intro and flitted between the sort of unselfconscious child-like creativity that delights in small gestures, and a passage of quasi-baroque elegance.
There were bags of energy on Kane's "Cold," yet all the while as Bourne and Davis rustled up a tempest the bassist maintained a grooving line. Another track that began with a percussive duet between drum kit and piano innards extended into a pulsating three-way dialog of punk-like intensityCharles Mingus
-esque by another name. On "Light," with Davis on brushes, the trio glided with chamber-intimacy before the almost inevitable sonic avalanche. Calm then returned. Humor is never far from the surface during a BDK gig and the first set closed with the comic-opera vamp "Fa La La," which corralled the audience in a light-hearted call and response.
The second half of BDK's performance was a world premiere of Belfast-based avant-garde composer Piers Hallawel's "Sound Carvings, Strange Tryst," as part of the inaugural UK-wide New Music Biennial. The collaboration married notation and improvisation, though the dual personality of the music was well disguised, as dissonance, melody, form and freedom engaged in a fascinating tug-of-war.
Conceived as two distinct movements, the episodic nature of the twenty-minute piece allowed for multiple dynamics; piano strings, toy xylophone, deep arco bass and bouncing rubber balls all played their roles. Furious trio cacophony ceded space to unaccompanied brooding arco, passages of twitchy abstraction rubbed shoulders with powerful grooves; the austere and the playful were two sides of the same coin. Compelling from start to finish, "Sound Carvings, Strange Tryst" was a triumph of bold invention, a celebration of the unconventional and a thrilling ride to boot.
The crowd gave its seal of approval in its loud demands for an encore, and the trio responded with an arresting case of the bluesBDK style.
The honor of closing Brilliant Corners fell to GoGo Penguin
, the Manchester trio, which has been widely praised as the hottest new thing on the UK jazz scene since its critically acclaimed debut Fanfares
(Gondwana Records, 2012). The set featured material drawn mostly from the trio's recently released CD V2.0
(Gondwana Records, 2014). With influences drawing from jazz, dance, electronica, rock and classical music, pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner delivered a heady, steaming brew.
Having been delayed by technical glitches, the trio wasted little energy on banter, launching into "Murmuration," which segued straight into "One Percent" followed by "Kamaloka." Piano shifting between elegiac and wrecking ball intensity, wailing arco sheets of sound and pounding drums created dense waves of sound. In general terms the music evoked the Esbjorn Svensson
Trio (e.s.t.) more than a little, though GoGo Penguin's greater intensity in short passages and its contemporary rhythmic influences place it closer to the Neil Cowley
Trio or Swiss trio Rusconi
A new number, "Break" began with a ruminative piano intro, sharply developing into a surging trio dynamic, punctuated by fleeting shifts of momentum and culminating in a bass and trip-hop drum break. "Fanfares" followed a similar patternthe initial hushed aesthetic suddenly exploding. The anthemic "I Drown in You" and short and breezy "Last Word" shared spacious melodies that contrasted with busy rhythms.
There was greater immediacy about "Garden Dog Barbecue," which bristled with energy from the get-go; Illingworth chipped and hammered at the keys, sculpting feverishly over a punchy bass-and-drums metronome. The sudden brick-wall ending was the logical resolution to such combustion. The encore, "Hopopono," a delightfully catchy poppish tune rounded out a vibrant, energizing set.
Brilliant Corners 2014 succeeded in providing a diverse, attractive program. In embracing tradition and modernity there was a little of something for everyone. The platform given to local artists underlined the Made in Belfast character of the festival, while international acts of renown helped ensure sell-out crowds. The world premiere of Piers Hallawel's "Sound Carvings, Strange Tryst" set a precedent that marks Brilliant Corners out as a young festival with progressive intentions, placing it alongside innovative jazz festivals such as Poland's Jazztopad
The informal, buoyant atmosphere and sold-out venues at most of the gigs attested to the local appetite for high-quality jazz/creative music. Moving On Music puts on these types of gigs throughout the year but there's an undeniable sense of civic celebration about a festivaland Belfast still needs a lot more of that medicine. Hopefully, with support, Brilliant Corners will dig its roots deep into Belfast's cultural soil and bloom for many more years to come. Photo Credit
Courtesy of Stuart Calvin/Moving on Music