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Brilliant Corners 2016

Ian Patterson By

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What it has will surely last but is that jazz? —Gil-Scott Heron
Brilliant Corners 2016
Various venues
Belfast, N. Ireland
March 5-12, 2016

Another Brilliant Corners, a few more brilliant corners. Belfast's fledgling international jazz festival may only be in its fourth year but already it feels like an established part of the city's vibrant cultural landscape, a date in the calendar to look forward to, rather than an event that takes people by surprise.

The original three-day festival has grown steadily year on year and the 2016 edition spanned a meaty eight days, reaching into new corners of Belfast, the storied city that built The Titanic. In addition to the festival's traditional venues, bean bags and a barge made for quirky new environments for the record numbers that turned out to enjoy jazz in all its colors.

Film Documentaries in The Bean Bag

This year Brilliant Corners paid homage to the late, great Ornette Coleman with a film documentary and a tribute concert. In fact, the first three days of this year's festival saw a trio of documentary films throw light on Coleman, Gil Scott-Heron and Jaco Pastorius. The venue was the Bean Bag, a cosy art-house cinema tucked away in an alley of the Cathedral Quarter, where bean bags suck you into a comfort zone that induces attentive viewing, or snoozing, depending on the individual.

The pick of the films was arguably Black Wax, Robert Mugge's 1982 portrayal of Gil-Scott Heron -self-confessed bluesologist, jazz poet and soul singer. Concert footage interspersed with Heron's scripted monologue provided a potent reminder of Heron's captivating live performances and of a socio-political commentator—devoid of all posturing—whose sharp wit and facility with language has rarely been matched in urban protest song to this day. Albums such as Small Talk at 125th and Lennox (1970), Pieces of a Man (1971) and Free Will (1972)—all on Flying Dutchman Records—remain classics that have influenced successive waves of hip-hop, rap and neo-soul artists.

Paul Marchand's Jaco: Jaco Pastorius is a warts-and-all portrayal of the influential fretless bassist best known for his years in Weather Report and for his collaborations with Joni Mitchell and Pat Metheny. There are perhaps rather too many superficial interviews with musicians who collaborated with or who were inspired by Pastorius, but the biopic succeeds in capturing both the musical power and the mental fragility of arguably the most influential of all electric bassists, who died aged just thirty five, following an altercation with a bouncer in a bar.

Independent film-maker Shirley Clarke's Ornette: Made in America (1984) explores the music and philosophy of the ever-influential Ornette Coleman. Fragmentary, non-linear and more than a little dated at times, insightful interviews with the subject and snapshots of his musical trajectory in New York, Nigeria, Morocco, and with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, are intercut with low-budget fantasy sequences that add little if anything to the narrative. The definitive biopic of this giant of modern music remains to be delivered.

The inclusion of jazz-related films in Brilliant Corners 2016 was a welcome addition to the program and hopefully sets a precedent for future editions. With jazz still to a large degree beholden/shackled (delete to taste) to its past, a showing of Icons Among Us: Jazz In The Present Tense (2009) might be a timely reminder of the depth of living, breathing jazz talent that operates today; it would certainly be in keeping with Brilliant Corner's progressive outlook and commitment to youth development.

Tony Kofi/Byron Wallen/Ed Youngs/Alan Niblock: A Tribute to Ornette Coleman

More satisfying by way of a tribute to Coleman, however, was the opening concert of Brilliant Corners in the Black Box, which featured Tony Kofi, Byron Wallen, Rod Youngs and Alan Niblock. Former member of the Jazz Warriors, multi-instrumentalist Kofi is a dedicated student of Coleman's music; he leads his own Colman tribute band, the Sphinx Trio and recorded with Coleman on Jamaaladeen Tacuma's For The Love of Ornette (Jazzwerkstatt, 2010), one of Coleman's final recorded ventures.

An unapologetically nostalgic set paid homage to Coleman's ground-breaking early albums, but if the tunes were perhaps overly familiar to the cognoscenti in the Black Box audience there was no escaping the verve in the quartet's delivery or the brilliance of its virtuosity. Kofi and Wallen were mesmeric as they switched between seamless unison lines and extended individual solos on mostly up-tempo Coleman classics such as "Turnaround," "Jayne" and "Face of The Bass." "Beauty Is a Rare Thing" signalled a change in tempo and intensity, this rumbling, edgy blues casting an undeniable spell.

The quartet fire of "Humpty Dumpty" and "Blues Connotation" and "Congeniality was balanced with the soulful, New Orleans-tinged "Una Muy Bonita." The gentler side of Coleman was explored in a lyrical Niblock and Kofi duet that evoked Coleman's chemistry with the late Charlie Haden. In the main, though, the quartet roared its way through Coleman's early songbook, with Kofi and Wallen grabbing the headlines. Special mention, however, should be made of Niblock, who excelled despite playing with these musicians for the very first time.

Anyone in the audience coming to this music for the first time would likely have been impressed by the vitality of the compositions and the strong melodic and harmonic structures. At the distance of sixty years from the release of Something Else!!!! (Contemporary, 1958) it's difficult to understand the threat Coleman's music posed, in its day, to a generation of bebop acolytes, and the sometimes mocking or even abusive response he suffered. Coleman, however, chartered a very personal musical course that has arguably stood the test of time better than the highly codified language of bebop.

Growing the Next Generation of Jazz Musicians

The launch of Brilliant Corners 2016 took place back in January, when David Lyttle, Moving on Music's Musician-In-Residence at The MAC—Belfast's flagship arts centre—performed in a trio with Melaina Gillard and Neil O'Loghlen in a very curious corner of The MAC. Since then, Lyttle has been mentoring a group of local jazz musicians and they opened for VEIN Trio in The Crescent Arts Centre.

Though Lyttle was merely fulfilling one of his roles as Musician-Residence, his commitment to nurturing young jazz talent on these shores runs deep. "I'm always looking for new talent," said Lyttle, "to try and bring the new generation forward. It's great for the jazz scene in Belfast to have a group of young people who are actually really interested in the music," Lyttle expanded. "I've been working as a jazz musician for about ten years and whenever I was starting out there was really nobody who had the same kind of drive and all these guys are really passionate about the music, which is a pretty cool thing"

Aged between eighteen and nineteen, bassist Jack Kelly, pianist Caolan Hutchinson, flutist Lewis Hanlon, guitarist Joseph Leighton and drummers Jake Holmes and Ben Flavelle-Cobain gave an impressive thirty-minute performance that pleasingly featured original compositions in Leighton's "Planet Nine" and Hutchinson's "Days," in addition to a couple of jazz standards. Even Juan Tizol's "Caravan," however, was given a refreshing makeover with a delightfully loping reggae vibe.

Lyttle's guiding hand was felt in a breezy rendition of "Pure Imagination," on his self-penned composition "Perpetual Scenario"—which Kelly and Flavelle-Cobain swung mightily—and in the New Orleans Second Line arrangement accorded Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce." Individually and collectively the six musicians impressed with their skills and musical maturity.

Afterwards, the musicians spoke of the experience playing at Brilliant Corners. "It's a great honor to play in front of an audience that are all jazz fans," said Leighton. "It's brilliant." Working with Lyttle has also clearly been inspiring. "It's been amazing working with Dave," acknowledged Kelly, "because he has so much knowledge about the genre." Hanlon concurred: "We've got a brilliant insight into this tradition that we're all very interested in."

This initiative from Moving On Music to promote up-and-coming jazz talent in Northern Ireland is to be applauded and will no doubt play an important role in growing the new generation of jazz musicians. The talent is there, but making it, as Lyttle noted, will come down to the personal levels of drive and motivation that propel these promising young musicians.

VEIN Trio

Swiss trio VEIN Trio has been around for a decade and has released nine CDs in that time, most notably Jazz Talks (Unit Records, 2014) featuring Dave Liebman, which got a four-star review from The Guardian's John Fordham. In an era when there seem to be almost as many modern piano trios as there are pianos in the world, creating a personal identity is no small challenge. The opener "Under Construction" and several tunes that followed, were characterized by pianist Florian Arbenz' feathery, classically-influenced approach and the distinctly grooving rhythms of bassist Thomas Lahns and drummer Michael Arbenz.

Duke Ellington's rarely performed ballad "Reflections in D" —dedicated to the late Paul Bley—sat snugly with an arrangement of a Swiss folk tune. Gradually yet surely—like a cleverly spun plot—VEIN Trio seduced as the dynamic range of the music increased, with Florian Arbenz digging deeper to match the intensity of brother Michael's consistently energetic stick-work. Almost imperceptibly, the music swelled from the etude-like elegance of the concert's beginning to grander, more visceral terrain of the pulsating finale. The encore served up a playful boppish number, sizzling and quirky, like Thelonious Monk at 78rpm.

That Liebman and Greg Osby have repeatedly collaborated with Vein Trio is a hefty endorsement, but the key to the trio's success lies not with its star guests but in its originality. Not only does this Swiss trio not evoke the Esbjorn Svensson Trio —a rare enough feat in European piano trios—but it sounds, resoundingly, like nobody but itself.

Cacao

The Belfast Barge, moored on the River Lagon and just minutes from Belfast's commercial centre, became the latest venue to host a concert at Brilliant Corners. A maritime museum by day, it serves as a reminder—along with the iconic Harland and Wolf Cranes nearby—that in the not too distant past Belfast was the world's largest shipbuilding city. A few tables and chairs soon converted the 600-ton barge into a funky live venue for the debut of Cacao, a Belfast-based group specializing in Brazilian music.

Vocalist/guitarist Gnanam Samuel steered the quartet through a selection of classics from the vast Brazilian songbook, with Phil Smyth on electric bass adding vocal harmonies and trumpeter Linley Hamilton providing his trademark tasteful embellishment. Drummer Marty McClosky was much more than a solid time-keeper, animating the songs with the sort of rhythmic panache more usually associated with straight-ahead jazz.

Samuel's arrangements lent lustre and vitality to rather familiar fare such as "So Danca Samba," "Corcovado," "Aguas de Marzo," "The Girl from Ipanema" and "Mas Que Nada," with McClosky in particular given ample space to strut his stuff. Less familiar, though equally satisfying given the crowd's response, were Samuel and Smyth's original compositions and arrangements of tunes by Airto Moreira, Lionel Loueke and Gretchen Parlato. Ary Barroso's 1939 song "Aquarela do Brazil" concluded an enjoyable set in upbeat style. Melodic yet rhythmically charged, lyrical and virtuosic to boot, Cacao seems set to build a lasting local legacy.

OKO with Tim Berne

A year is a long time in the life-span of any truly progressive music outfit. Dublin quartet OKO's debut recording I Love You Computer Mountain (Diatribe Records, 2014) announced the arrival of a boldly experimental instrumental group seeking to synthesize multiple influences, from free-jazz to electronica with numerous trippy touchstones in between. A supporting slot for The Bad Plus in Dublin's National Concert Hall during April Jazz 2015 introduced OKO to Tim Berne—guesting with the American trio—and a plan was hatched to collaborate at some future point.

One year on and OKO's performance on at Brilliant Corners revealed a band that has forged a determined path after much explorative searching. All the signature ingredients were there but the overall sound seemed more cohesive and more potent than before, with Berne raising a storm at the head. The saxophonist's unaccompanied intro suggested a gradual build-up was in the offing; Shane O'Donovan's brushes, Darragh O'Kelly's pulsing keys, DJacukate's scratching/sampling and guitarist Shane Latimer's pedal-driven atmospherics eased their way in and in no time at all O'Donovan's pounding stick-work was propelling the ensemble into highly-charged terrain.

The roar was punctuated by Latimer's grungy riffing, but if a jam seemed imminent the prospect was soon dispelled by an extended abstract passage, with Berne sustaining a high-pitched squeal—a sort of tortured drone. OKO then jumped from first gear to fifth, unleashing a heady barrage of free-improvisation/noise which would have made a great soundtrack to a modern gothic horror film. It was not for the faint-hearted.

In waves the music charged in and receded almost gracefully, with high-decibel passages giving way to O'Donovan's tinkling bells and chimes, Latimer's dreamy guitar soundscapes and keyboard drone. Berne's snaking lyricism rubbed shoulders with noodling sci-fi effects—like R2D2 on speed—and just when it seemed silence would intervene the music took off again, with dark funk grooves, searing saxophone and sampled voices giving the Black Box's sound-proofing a proper test.

The second set followed a broadly similar course. The low-key initial stirrings of sampled voice and fractured rhythms quickly ceded ground to powerful sonic waves, with keyboards and drums aligning provocatively. A loose passage more rooted in effects than obvious narrative direction preceded Berne's braying monologue—with the faintest electronic rustlings for company—and the ensuing meditative, sci-fi ruminations gradually morphed into another all-enveloping ensemble roar. Similar patterns ensued, with an unaccompanied spot from Berne the palette cleanser to collective rhythms of industrial design.

OKO's combination of hammering intensity and carefully sculpted sounds provided an unforgettable sonic experience—a unique band that is slowly but surely making its mark.

Tommy Smith/Brian Kellock

The final day of Brilliant Corners 2016 kicked off with an afternoon gig. David Lyttle's young, local musicians served up the same set as they had a few nights before, playing with notable confidence. The rousing ovation that greeted their half-hour set from a packed Black Box was fully deserved. The main event, however, was the duo of Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock -two of Scotland/UK's finest jazz musicians of the last thirty years.

Though both musicians have led colorful and diverse careers, their paths have repeatedly crossed over the years, resulting in several duet recording on the Spartacus Records labels: Bezique (2002); Symbiosis (2004), and most recently, Whispering of the Stars (2014); an absorbing set drew largely from these collaborations.

The duo cast a mesmerizing spell from the first softly voiced notes of Michel Legrand's "You Must Believe in Spring" and whilst ballads dominated the set a smattering of blues and bebop stirred things up, with Kellock in particular drawing from a well of ragtime, stride and boogie-woogie on the more animated numbers. On a tender version of Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" Smith played into the lid of the piano, the notes reverberating round the room.

Flowing improvisations on Don Raye/Gene De Paul's "Star Eyes" gave way to the aching lyricism of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," with Smith's haunting tenor evoking the spirit of Lester Young. Equally delicate was the duo's faithful recital of "The Summer Knows," where embellishment was kept to a minimum in deference to the wistful Legrand melody. A blast of rousing bebop ended the set and the encore, a "Single Petal of a Rose" from Ellington's "Queen's Suite" returned the duo to the caressing balladry that this delightful concert will most likely be remembered for.

Dinosaur

Formerly known as the Laura Jurd Quartet, the four members of Dinosaur have been playing together since 2010. Jurd's stock has risen steadily on the UK jazz scene since her acclaimed debut Landing Ground (Chaos Collective, 2012) and Human Spirit (Chaos Collective, 2015) provided further confirmation of a star in the making. Jurd has played Dublin gigs with art-rock combo Blue Eyed Hawk at Down With Jazz 2014 and at 12 Points the following year with her own quartet but this was Dinosaur's first performance in Belfast.

With a new album due out in the autumn, Jurd's first on the fast-growing Edition Records label, the Black Box crowd was treated to a preview of the forthcoming music. Jurd has long attracted plaudits for her playing but she is also an accomplished composer who apparently doesn't like to repeat herself. The slow-burning "Awakening" with its subtle drone thread gave an early sample of Jurd's thrilling virtuosity, but melody, groove and mood were the common denominators during the set.

The jaunty "Robin," built around a peculiarly English-sounding horn melody, juxtaposed spacious interludes with fine soloing from electric bassist Connor Chaplin and Jurd. Keyboardist Elliot Galvin brought insistent pulses and myriad textures to the mix; his repeating motif underpinned languid unison lines with Jurd on the energetic "Living, Breathing," before he unleashed a wildly psychedelic solo that couldn't but evoke memories of ELP's Keith Emerson, who had sadly taken his life a couple of days before.

"Steadily Sinking," a piece Jurd was commissioned to write for Hampshire County Youth Orchestra fused dark, church organ textures, Chaplin and drummer Corrie Dick' brooding rhythmic pulse and Jurd's rubato phrasing, but the real excitement came as Galvin's gothic organ solo lifted the ensemble to a powerful collective surge. A dynamic set concluded with the upbeat "House Plants," whose straight-ahead blueprint accommodated lively closing statements from Jurd, Galvin and Dick, as well as more contemporary sonorities. In the end, Jurd repeated a circular keyboard motif, lowering the volume until it faded to nothing. With its bravura virtuosity and striking compositions Dinosaur—and Jurd—look set for a very bright future. Based on this performance, Dinosaur's Editions release later in the year should be one of the recordings of the year.

Alarmist

The final act of Brilliant Corners 2016 was another Dublin instrumental act, Alarmist. The last time all About Jazz caught Alarmist was at Down with Jazz 2014 where the two-drummer, two-guitarist/keys quartet won over the Meeting House square crowd with its unnameable brand of math-meets-prog-meets—indie pop. The quartet became a trio when drummer Neil Crowley absconded to Australia, but the loss, shifting the bulk of the rhythmic duties onto the limbs of Osgar Dukes, has if anything resulted in a more organic sound—one arguably closer to jazz. Nomenclature cast well and truly aside, Alarmist's barnstorming set closed the eight-day festival on a high note.

Gently overlapping guitar melodies over a fast metronomic pulse created a subtly hypnotic opening; a three-way Morse exchange gathered force, with Elis Czerniak and Barry O'Halpin switching repeatedly between guitar and keyboards with speed and precision. The breeze became a gale as drums and sinewy guitar lines kicked in. Gradually, the music's force dissolved and the simple Morse returned, ushering in the perfect, groove-driven electronic art-pop of "Petrichor." Much of the music played out with a through-composed precision, the pretty, sharply defined melodies and artful orchestration leaving seemingly little room for improvisation. There was, however, no denying the music's power.

On the penultimate number shifting rhythmic patterns—from punchy, staccato urgency to fat backbeat—underpinned airy, anthemic melodies in striking juxtaposition. The infectious "Cordillera" harnessed contemporary beats and synth-pop lyricism and drew a line under a potent, uplifting set. Alarmist has adapted well to its enforced transformation to a trio and is still every bit as unique a musical proposition as before.

Wrap-up

Brilliant Corners is going from strength to strength. Working to a limited budget, the festival's imaginative programing showcases the best of Irish and UK talent with a platform for emerging local musicians. Marquee names may be few and far between as yet, but Tim Berne's presence alongside OKO is a sure sign that the festival refuses to play it safe. And besides, this is festival that's still in its infancy, that's still building an audience and that's gradually expanding its horizons and the expectations of its public. Moving On Music, the festival organizer, has laid solid foundations for the years to come. Onwards and upwards.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Moving On Music

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