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Brilliant Corners Jazz Festival 2015

Ian Patterson By

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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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