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Brilliant Corners Jazz Festival 2015

Ian Patterson By

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The whole premise is demonstrating how far-reaching jazz is and how many things it touches on —Michael Bonner, Moving On Music
Brilliant Corners Jazz Festival
Belfast, Ireland
March 25-28 , 2015

Brilliant Corners may not be the biggest jazz festival in Northern Ireland—that accolade belongs to the City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival—but in just three editions it can already lay claim to being the best.

Eschewing the populist acts that characterize Derry's sprawling jazz festival, promoter Moving On Music has quickly established Brilliant Corners as the home of new and cutting edge jazz/improvised music acts in the Northern Irish capital.

It's a bold move given the limited audience and lack of dedicated venues for such music in Belfast, but for the past twenty years Moving On Music has been all about promoting contemporary music of multiple hues and developing audiences in Northern Ireland.

In the last twelve months alone Moving On Music has promoted tours by new Irish trad band Moxie, pianist Joanna MacGregor, contemporary string ensemble JACK Quartet, flamenco guitarist Eduardo Niebla, improvising duo Paul Stapleton & Simon Rose, fiddlers Caoimhin O Raghallaigh & Dan Trueman, Sidsel Endresen & Jan Bang and The Necks.

Jazz fans have also been well catered for, with Bourne/Davis/Kane, Tony Malaby Trio, Phronesis, Louis Moholo Moholo & Alexander Hawkins, David Lyttle Sextet, Neil Cowley Trio, and Linley Hamilton Quintet all touring thanks to the efforts of Moving On Music.

This year's Brilliant Corners festival served up a multi-genre musical banquet that ran from traditional big band and straight-ahead small ensembles to the avant-garde. "It's as broad a mix as possible," says Michael Bonner, Marketing Officer and right hand man to Moving On Music's CEO, Brian Carson. "The whole premise is demonstrating how far-reaching jazz is and how many things it touches on."

Day One

Dublin City Jazz Orchestra

The opening concert by the Dublin City Jazz Orchestra was a reminder that even the predominantly pre-World War II jazz that made up its set drew inspiration from myriad sources including blues, soul, gospel, work-songs and Broadway show tunes.

Whilst the 17-piece band's repertoire was undoubtedly conservative, its joyous swing and swagger delighted the audience at the Crescent Arts Centre.

The orchestras of Count Basie and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis provided the blueprint, with trombonist/vocalist Paul Frost in Joe Williams's shoes on "Every Day I Have the blues"—the pick of several vocal tunes. The soloists throughout were uniformly excellent, spicing up the arrangements nicely.

Steered by alto saxophonist Ciaran Wilde, the DCJO paid homage to Duke Ellington ("In a Mellow Tone"), John Coltrane ("Impressions"), Thelonious Monk ("Well You Needn't"), and Oliver Nelson ("Hoe-Down"). On a raucous version of Ray Charles's "Let's Go Get Stoned" Frost's shuddering baritone veered into Screamin' Jay Hawkins territory. A tender rendition of "God Bless the Child" provided a set highlight.

Guitarist Hugh Buckely's "When Wes Was,"—a tribute to Wes Montgomery—allowed him to finally step away from rhythmic duties and cut loose. It was the only original tune of the set, but then the DCJO is a flame-keeping repertoire band—and a damned good one—whose audience demographic leans heavily towards the familiar jazz of a bygone era. The DCJO preaches to the converted and it was a happy congregation and an enjoyable, feel-good start to Brilliant Corners 2015.

Day Two

Scott Flanigan Trio

With two gigs clashing across town it was a toss-up between local talent and one of the hot London bands of recent years, Troyka.

Though his debut CD as leader is due for release later this year, pianist Scott Flanigan is already one Northern Ireland's most respected pianist/keyboardists, having worked with Van Morrison, Jean Toussaint and regularly with Linley Hamilton, not to mention the Ulster Orchestra.

Flanigan's classical training was evident in his outstanding two-handed technique though his melodic and rhythmic sensibilities, notably on "The Masterplan," owed more to the Brad Mehldau school of modern piano. There was nothing to suggest this was in fact Flanigan's first gig with drummer Steve Davis and bassist Neil O'Loghlen, as the trio's interplay was never less than dynamic.

In a set balanced between originals and standards Frank Perkins/Mitchell Parish' 1934 song "Stars Fell on Alabama" and Glen Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" highlighted Flanigan's refinement as a balladeer and underlined his inventive improvisations—always melodic—at slower tempos. On the Richard Rogers/Lorenz Hart standard You Took Advantage of Me" the trio's strolling-cat rhythm and Flanigan's lightly cascading runs cast a spell evocative of early Ahmad Jamal.

In the end though, it was Flanigan's own material that was most striking. On an as yet untitled tune and "Elevate," the pianist revealed a wealth of ideas, flashes of thrilling technique and a constant melodic flow that whetted the appetite for his forthcoming debut CD.

Meilana Gillard Quartet

Northern Ireland has adopted American saxophonist Meilana Gillard as one of its own since her relocation here in 2012. She quickly established herself as a key player on the local scene and played the first two editions of Brilliant Corners; the first time out leading a trio and last year as part of Jeremey Lyons' Dectet. Tonight, leading a quartet of David Lyttle, bassist Conor Chaplin and pianist Jamil Sheriff, Gillard stormed through a set comprised of all originals.

The quartet shot out of the blocks with a freshly minted, swinging hard bop tune inspired by Art Blakey. Gillard's bristling tenor idiom owed a debt to John Coltrane but of modern saxophonists she's perhaps closest in style to another Coltrane disciple, the great Ernie Watts. The mid-tempo "Connections" was a vehicle for fine individual solos from Gillard on alto, Sherrif and finally Chaplin.

Suitably warmed up, Gillard's quartet launched into a four-part suite specially commissioned by Brilliant Corners: "Vanishing Point"'s brooding blues grooves—with Gillard a smoldering presence on alto—was followed by the fast-walking bass and tenor-driven bopper "Guess Who?," which featured, improbably, a triangle solo from Lyttle; the third section, a ruminative, introspective ballad—though with wings—provided a timely change of mood, while the closing piece "Chyrsalis"—another delightful swinger—saw Gillard revert to tenor saxophone and the kind of authorative, fluid improvising that has made her the yardstick by which local tenor players measure themselves.

The infectious swing-based tune "Identity," from Gillard's debut CD Day One (Inner Circle, 2009), saw final hurrahs from Sherrif and the ever impressive Gillard and concluded a highly satisfying straight-ahead set on an energetic note.

Gillard's commission by Moving On Music and Brilliant Corners was a first for the festival and marks a significant new chapter in its short history. Its good news for local jazz musicians and a boon to the wider jazz scene. "It's a really important to invest in local talent and make sure new music is coming through," said Moving On Music's Bonner. "There's lots of great music happening throughout the year here but maybe not so much new music, so commissioning is definitely something we want on focus on in years to come. We're very happy to do it."

Day Three

Steve Davis' Human

Drummer Steve Davis is probably best known as one third of long-standing improvising trio Bourne, Davis, Kane. The trio's concert at Brilliant Corners 2014, where it delivered the world premiere of Belfast-based avant-garde composer Piers Hallawel's "Sound Carvings, Strange Tryst," was a festival highlight. This time Davis was accompanied by pianist Alexander Hawkins, trumpeter Alex Bonney and violinist Dylan Bates—the quartet otherwise known as Steve Davis' Human.

Davis led his anarchic little orchestra through fairly arch terrain characterized by stark contrasts in dynamics and sheer unpredictability. Bates's pizzicato motif launched "Wrong Car," with drums and piano sliding into the groove. With the compass set, heady collective improvisation unfolded Dissonant, angular yet undeniably powerful, the intensity of the dialog ebbed and flowed continuousy.

Hawkins and Davis shared bass duties to varying degrees, anchoring the quartet while Bates and Bonney roamed between closely synchronized lines and free improvisation. On "Frozen Goat" Hawkins hands were a veritable blur during a frenetic solo. His sweeping and wildly percussive attack pulled Davis along for a stormy ride. Even at its most tumultuous however, subtle shifts in comping roles were a constant feature of the music. From the dying embers of "Frozen Goat" the quartet eased into the comparatively mellow—though equally exploratory—"My Imaginary Friend Bink," with Bates' plucked strings evoking a folksy, quasi Chinese motif.

A melodic exchange between Bonney and Bates at the outset of "House of Seeds," was brief but effective, contrasting with the organically brewed, steamy quartet stew that ensued. The boldly expansive interplay gradually dissipated, giving way to a more meditative ambiance that culminated in Hawkins' ethereal, high-register finale.

The pianist's pounding metronomic figure laid the foundation for another rollicking quartet holler on the aptly titled "Flying Pots." Minimal gestures provided the nuts and bolts of "Little Particles," serene by comparison. The undulating high-sea waves returned on "Cartagena"; inspired by the beauty of the Spanish city, the underlying tensions, anxious rhythms and explosive exclamations were more in tune with the drama of the Pamplona bull-run. Not for the faint-hearted.

Sixes

The proximity of The MAC to Black Box meant that it was possible to catch most of the performance of Sixes, the guitar collective fronted by Hornby, guitarist in Belfast bands Continuous Battle of Order and We Are Knives.

Inspired by the epic guitar collectives of Rhys Chatham—guitarist/multi-instrumentalist and former member of minimalist pioneer La Mont Young's group in the early 1970s—Hornby's original compositions for eight electric guitarists were based on a mathematical score that translated into interconnecting rhythmic mantras that wielded a hypnotic, jagged drone-like effect.

After an extended period of retuning, Hornby led the ensemble into Rhys' "Guitar is My Life" from 1977. Originally written for three guitars, Rhys' score allows for up to ten guitarist and Hornby took full, ear-splitting advantage. When all the guitarists were locked in their respective riff zones the sound engulfed the room. It's quite likely that Belfast hasn't experienced such a powerful and sustained sonic blast since Motorhead burst ear drums in the Maysfield Leisure Centre in 1981. Stone Deaf Forever indeed.

Yet the sixteen-minute wall of sound held all kinds of sonic dynamics and Hornby's advice to move around the room to tap into the different channels rewarded the few folk in the audience who heeded him. The final number—also by Chatham—stemmed from Hornsby's Hawkwind-esque riff, and with bass and pummelling drums adding texture as well as rhythmic muscle, the ensemble rocked out into a heady sonic headspace.

The obvious question that arises is just where does this ensemble rehearse?

Day Four

Dave Stockard & Edward Lucas

The final day of Brilliant Corners 2015 served up even more genre-bending, experimental and downright original music.

The first part of the double-header in The MAC featured the improvising duo of percussionist David Stockard and trombonist Edward Lucas. In a thirty-minute improvisation the duo's dialog was chiefly concerned with the exploration of sounds.

Stockard—Moving On Music's Musician in Residence for 2015 —was highly animated throughout, whether drawing minimalist cries and subtle plosive vibrations from his single drum-head skin or waking the dead with shamanistic clatter. Likewise, Lucas mined the percussive possibilities of his instrument, his whinnying, gurgling and rasping playing just as important a role as his dissonant clusters of notes.

Stockard and Lucas have been playing together for less than a year but already they have developed a quite personal idiom. This sort of seat-of-the-pants improvisation rarely gets a foot in the door of most venues, so Moving On Music's initiative in also promoting their obviously niche end of the creative music spectrum is to be applauded.

Fred Frith

There was a bit of a pre-concert buzz about Fred Frith's solo gig, as there has been for over four decades since the release of his ground-breaking album Guitar Solos (Caroline, 1974). Admittedly, his prepared guitar improvisations aren't for everyone but it would be a harsh judge who denied his innovative talent in manipulating the guitar's timbre and its emotional impact.

The majority who attend Frith's solo gigs are either dyed-in-the-wool fans or the plain open-minded. A minority, who perhaps get dragged along by well-meaning friends, may come away scratching their heads or mumbling something about monkeys being able to make the same racket. Each to their own.

For forty-five minutes Frith busied himself like the provervial mad scientist in his sound laboratory. Employing any number of found objects on his guitar strings and filtering their vibrations through a sound resonator and various pedals, Frith crafted a curious symphony that revelled in minute details and crushing waves of sound alike.

A clothes brush, a chain, a pestle, a roll of tape and a bow were just some of the tools of his peculiar trade. A wall of intense sound was followed by a pocket of near-monastic silence, where the guitarist's delicate gong-like punctuation had a meditative quality. Soon enough though, the vibrations accelerated and intensified. So subtle were the undulations that the music, even at its most febrile, was never jarring.

An extended quieter section sounded like a psychedelic alap, with Frith's bending, shimmering strings sounding over an almost subliminal drone. The transition from the meditative to a ferocious sonic lift-off of industrial intensity was almost surreptitious. A protracted storm raged for a while but eventually the thunder abated and minimalist sounds at short intervals echoed until silence once more reined.

Frith remains the great innovator, the orchestral anarchist par excellence.

Robocobra Quartet

Belfast's Robocoba Quartet was founded in 2013 when Chris Ryan (drums/vocals), Nathan Rodgers (bass), Jamie MacKenzie (tenor saxophone) and Tom Tabori (soprano saxophone) met at the Sonic Arts Research Centre. The quartet, unlike anything to have come out of Belfast previously, is a sonic laboratory unto itself, with eclectic influences shaping its core sound. Built around punk-poet Ryan's spoken/screamed left-field narratives, elements of hardcore, indie-rock, hip-hop and jazz informed its music.

Rodgers bass ostinato formed the backbone of "Witch Hunt," a song loosely inspired by the Wayne Shorter tune of the same name. Snaking tenor lines rode over a soprano motif and a fat back beat. Ryan left his kit to preach his punk gospel close up in the faces of crowd, evoking the simple truths-cum-primal ranting of former Frank Zappa collaborator Wild Man Fischer.

Head-banging grunge bookended an extended island of sax reverb and shouted lyric on one of several new tracks from the band's forthcoming EP, Bomber. Honking saxophones, heavy grooves and Ryan's blistering drumming colored the final number. The cacophony subsided, with a gentle, dual-saxophone motif having the final say.

Robocobra Quartet's pulsating set was a highlight of Brilliant Corners 2015. Watch out for this band. It could yet take the world by storm.

It was an unnecessarily long forty five minutes before Get The Blessing took to the stage. But the sharp-suited, jazz-rock quartet gave a stonking performance that spanned its five-album, fifteen year career, with the bonus of new material to boot. Ornette Coleman may have been the spark that fired the quartet's imagination in the beginning but its music has moved on from its free-jazz roots to embrace a more streamlined sound that reflects a myriad of influences.

Jake McMurchie's saxophone and Pete Judge's trumpet fired up the driving Gong-esque riff of "Low Earth Orbit"; a heady space-rocker that got the show off to a flyer. Tight harmonic interplay and a steady groove underpinned snaking solos from Barr and Judge on muted trumpet on "Antilope." Shimmering saxophone and another killer bass ostinato provided the canvas for Judge to roam freely on "Torque."

In a varied set that encompassed zooty funk, screeching horns, driving indie rock and more moody ambiance music, the highlights were many; the infectious clap-along "OCDC"—boasting one of the all-time great bass riffs—and the epic, shifting soundscapes of "Einstein Action Figure" being standouts. The encore was the premiere of a new track, "Monkfish," whose punchy riff, soaring trumpet and blistering drum solo provided a stirring finale to the concert and the festival as a whole.

Moving On Music has successfully attracted quite diverse audiences to Brilliant Corners, reflecting perhaps the different expectations of what a jazz festival means in the twenty first century. Mainstream jazz, experimental fare and contemporary bands co-existed on a billing that likely enticed at least some fans across the various divides. "The festival is built on jazz and jazz-influenced music," explains Bonner, "so there's scope there to attract an audience who may not think they like jazz as such. We leave it open that wee bit."

Brilliant Corners clearly strives to welcome all-comers, though the mainstream media seems a little slow to realize that there is an audience for this type of music in Belfast.

"When we started it was sort of unchartered territory," says Bonner. "There was some reluctance from the media to pick up on anything really. It's still difficult to get the newspapers on board, maybe because it's a wee bit left field but on-line publications and younger media outlets like The Thin Air and Culture Northern Ireland have been really supportive."

The audience, however, has really taken to Brilliant Corners. Saturday's program in particular saw an audience of all ages and musical backgrounds—and importantly, of all social backgrounds too. "Under the banner of a festival people seem to be that bit braver and willing to try something new," says Bonner.

Moving On Music's ambition is to grow Brilliant Corners, something that is has done successfully in its first three editions. Bigger names may come in the years ahead and with them bigger venues. For the time being though, the basic formula is just about spot on.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Martin Devek
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