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Brilliant Corners 2014

Ian Patterson By

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Brilliant Corners
Various Venues
Belfast
N. Ireland
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 Corners—the 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 Corners—and 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 nature—harboring 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 Barkley—impressive throughout the set—and 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 tandem—the 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 tunes—amongst others—that 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 the—now invisible—border 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 visual—that 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 encore—a 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.
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