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Brilliant Corners 2018

Ian Patterson By

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[Music] changes people. It changes societies. It makes people have hope, vision and inspiration–all those things that make you feel good about life and breathing. That’s why it’s so, so important that we don’t reduce the arts funding–we triple it. —Brian Irvine, composer, conductor
Brilliant Corners 2018
Black Box
Belfast, N. Ireland
March 3-10, 2018

Compared to Dublin or cities in the UK, Belfast is usually overlooked when jazz groups tour. When the likes of Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd, Ahmad Jamal, Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau come to Ireland it's usually a one-stop visit to Dublin and then away. Pat Metheny's November 2017 Dublin/Belfast gigs was the exception that proves the rule.

In recent times actual tours have seen Laura Jurd's Dinosuar and the Trish Clowes Quartet criss-cross Ireland, but, to the frustration of jazz fans here, without touching down in Belfast. It's not that there aren't suitable venues.

Belfast boasts a host of great small, medium and contemporary arena-sized venues of every imaginable character that over the years have hosted Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Pavarotti and, back in the day, even Laurel and Hardy. In wretched political times Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, U2, Elton John, Sting and David Bowie all played here. Since those times Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Kraftwork, for example, have all graced the city.

Jazz, on the other hand, at least outside the parameters of the long-running Belfast International Arts Festival, is not on most people's radars. That began to change in 2013 when Moving On Music, steered by veteran promoter Brian Carson, launched Belfast's one and only jazz festival—Brilliant Corners. Adventure and surprise have been the watchwords of the festival from its inception and the 6th edition was no exception.

In previous years Brilliant Corners has toggled between several venues but this year every concert bar one lunch-time free concert was held in Black Box, an outstanding seven-days-a-week venue in the heart of the city's vibrant Cathedral Quarter. This shift makes sense, for multiple venues only really appeal when a festival runs from morning to night, the journeying between them revealing different aspects of a city's character and adding to the festive experience.

There were day-time workshops, several jazz-related films shown in The Bean Bag cinema and one much-lauded solo concert by Kaja Draksler in SARC (Sonic Arts Research Centre), but by and large Black Box was the place to be during the seven days of Brilliant Corners 2018.

Day One

A.R.C./Blue Whale

With promoters Moving On Music there's often more bang for your bucks and Brilliant Corners 2018 began with the previously unannounced performance of A.R.C.—a Belfast improvisational trio fusing electronic and acoustic sounds. Double bassist Chris Allen bowed profundo drone, Barry Cullen conjured DIY electronic sounds and drummer Saul Rayson worked his kit in orthodox and less orthodox manner, moving from sticks to bowed snare, while employing a Eurorack synth to generate effects. Drone and siren calls formed a constant backdrop, though Rayson's shifting rhythmic pulses ensured the music never drifted into shoe-gazing ambient terrain. Some of the subtleties of his brushwork, however, were lost in the power of the collective voice.

Occasionally, bass ostinato emerged, with Allen orchestrating his pedals to effect what seemed like real-time sampling, creating layers of overlapping sound. Not content to rest on a groove or fixed pattern, the trio forayed into a an extended passage of electronic improvisations—an abstract sci-fi adventure that, between those transfixed to the spot and those in close proximity to the bar, left no-one in Black Box sitting on the fence.

Blue Whale

Blue Whale was billed as a jazz-punk band and there was certainly plenty of bullish energy and fiery improvisation about the Belfast quartet. The dual guitars of Michael O'Halloran and Ben Behzadafshar wove angular, mathy lines over bassist Andrew Melville and drummer John Macormac's punchy grooves. At its most complex the heady brew evoked Discipline-era King Crimson on speed, punctuated by explosions of punkish anarchy. Solos were rationed, with Blue Whale's compositions rarely stretching the three-minute mark. Surprisingly, despite the concert lasting barely fifty minutes, it felt very much like less was more. After all, how many pulsating two or three-minute instrumentals can a person absorb before they all blur into one? A festival band if ever there was one.

In bygone days, flutists, pipers and drummers would lead armies into battle; if Blue Whale spear-headed the attack, then all foes would surely fall away, or else fall under the spell. Potent stuff.

Day Two

Ronnie Greer Organ Trio featuring Jim Mullen

The Saturday and Sunday afternoon gigs have proved highly popular in recent editions of Brilliant Corners and there was nothing that The Beast From the East—the colourfully titled Siberian weather front whose snow and ice brought large parts of the country to a standstill—could do to stop the faithful turning up for Ronnie Greer's searing blues sermon.

Greer, the doyen of Irish blues guitar, was joined by special guest Jim Mullen. Glaswegian Mullen, a five-times-winner of 'Best Guitarist' in the British Jazz Awards, made his name alongside Dick Morrissey, with whom he recorded half a dozen albums in the 1970s and 1980s, and has also collaborated with Jimmy Witherspoon, Gary Husband, Claire Martin, Stan Sulzman and Mose Allison, amongst many others. The quartet was rounded out by two of Ireland's finest -Scott Flanigan on organ and Dominic Mullan on drums

Greer and Mullen's respective blues and jazz idioms dovetailed beautifully on a set that ran from easy swing (Toots Thielmans's "For My Lady") and caressing ballads (Don't Go to Strangers") to samba-laced grooves (Bruno Martino's "Estate") and intimate duets ("Stompin' at the Savoy"). The two guitarists traded solos liberally, Mullen's jaw-dropping fluidity referencing his primary influences—Wes Montgomery and George Benson. Mullen's thumb in lieu of a plectrum echoed Montgomery's technique, while his scatting on a refreshingly swinging version of "Summertime" was straight out of the Benson school. Greer's forays were more rooted in the Chicago blues tradition, although he revealed his jazz chops on a visceral interpretation of Charles Mingus's "Nostalgia in Times Square" from his album The Jazz Project (2016). Central to both guitarist's respective idioms, however, was the primacy of soulfulness over virtuosity.

No less impressive was Flanigan. Fresh from his Take 5 residency—a project run by Serious to help stimulate the careers of promising jazz talent—the organist proved a first rate accompanist and an impassioned soloist, notably on the Gershwins' "Summertime," where his fiery Hammond organ-esque improvisation stirred memories of Brian Auger—with whom Mullen played in the early 1970s—in his heyday.

Original takes on Earth Wind and Fire's "After the Love Has Gone" and Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" added to a varied set. A rousing version of Sonny Rollins' "Tenor Madness" saw closing salvos from all, including a fine trumpet solo from special guest Linley Hamilton. Serious fun.

Day Three: Irish Showcase

The Irish showcases coincided with a visit from members of the Jazz Promotions Network, a body representing eighty organisations from across the UK and Ireland. The JPN aims to build audiences for jazz, provide opportunities for musicians and promoters, co-commission projects and tours, and in general, to advocate for jazz—and related music—nationally and internationally.

Joseph Leighton Trio

Derry guitarist Joseph Leighton, currently studying at Trinity College of Music in London, was championed by Moving On Music as part of its inaugural Emerging Artists programme in 2017. That meant an appearance at Brilliant Corners 2017 leading a trio with double bassist Conor Murray and drummer James Anderson. This time around Jack Kelly held the upright bass, with Anderson once more on the drum stool. The short set comprised Leighton's original compositions, "Planet 9," the ballad "Mirror Lake" and the more up-tempo "Caspar," plus the jazz standard "I'll Be Seeing You." Leighton's writing, as you might expect from a jazz student, followed the jazz standards roadmap, and it was his lyrical expression as a soloist that most impressed. The trio performed admirably to an appreciative audience and was just beginning to hit its stride on the delightfully cheery last number. Another half an hour would likely have seen a looser, more flowing trio sound emerge but there will be plenty more opportunities for these young, rising stars of Irish jazz to strut their stuff.

Sue Rynhart

Though Sue Rynhart has played a number of jazz festivals, including a memorable performance at Bray Jazz Festival 2016, the fact is that it's no easy task trying to stick her music in a box. As this performance demonstrated jazz is indeed one part of the mix, but there are so many more colors to Rynhart's palette. Bassist Dan Bodwell has been the rhythmic motor in what has mostly been a duo until quite recently, providing vibrant ostinatos and lithe accompaniment to Rynhart's singular singing style. Part traditional folk, part avant-garde pop, Rynhart swung between the brooding poetry of "Little Red Fox" and the lulling balladry of "Penny for your Thoughts" to the infectious idiosyncrasy of "Viper," her seductive vocals buoyed by Bodwell's earthy bass lines. Francesco Turrisi, who guested on Rynhart's second album Signals (Mrsuesue Records, 2017), brought additional timbres on frame drum and organ. On "Silliest Game" his intro on a hybrid, custom built lute-cum-oud was spellbinding. The Italian multi-instrumentalist's timeless folkloric and church-like nuances brought out the emotional depth of Rynhart's compositions, suggesting that as a trio, the singer can take her hypnotic, inimitable music in entirely new directions.

The Paul Dunlea Group

Cork trombonist Paul Dunlea can be found in a wide variety of settings, although it's as a jazz musician/arranger that he's best known, having played/recorded with the likes of Marshall Gilkes, Taylor Eigsti, Cassandra Wilson, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash and Billy Drummond. Here, backed by his quintet of seven years standing, Dunlea demonstrated his skills as a soloist, composer and arranger, leading his group through fairly complex charts notable for their melodic character.

Drummer Alyn Cosker, bassist Barry Donohue and pianist Leopoldo Osio proved a lithe and dynamic rhythm section, with Venezuelan Osio's solo excursions raising the temperature a notch or two. Much of the music's charm resided in the rich harmonic lines woven by tenor saxophonist Ben Castle and Dunlea, though there was individual fire aplenty, notably from Castle and Dunlea on "Heads or Tails," an episodic number that concluded on a quieter note with Donohue's beguiling, unaccompanied bass meditation.

At its most intimate Dunlea's music swayed between achingly lyrical and melodically uplifting, with the transitions to more robust ensemble passages building gradually but surely, like day following night. The final tune, a post-bop burner of sure rhythmic compass and stirring solos—no less so than from the continually inventive Cosker—set the seal on an impressive set. Dunlea is undoubtedly an assured trombonist, but perhaps his greatest strength lies in his composing, while his main instrument is arguably the ensemble he writes for—which in this case was most persuasive.

Day Three

Thunderblender

Thunderblender is a Belgian-based trio led by Dubliner Sam Comerford, who can also be found in a number of other excellent projects, including Ingo Hipp's Aerie, Chris Guilfoyle 's Umbra and Insufficient Funs—the latter a duo with drummer Matthew Jacobson. Thunderblender's debut release, Last Minute Panic (Honolulu Records, 2017) announced the trio's blend of studied composure and thrill-seeking , but in concert, as those in the Black Box gig witnessed, the music took on an added dimension.

Flanked by pianist Hendrik Lasure and drummer Jens Bouttery , Comerford switched back and forth between tenor and bass saxophones on an untitled opening number. The bass saxophone is a beast of an instrument, but Comerford handled it with the same dexterity and fluidity as he did the tenor as the trio flitted between composed and improvised channels, surfing rising-falling waves of dynamics—spacious and tender at one extreme, flowing and tumultouos at the other.

The energized "Bozza" fairly catapulted out of the blocks, with bass-synth, mini shakers and electronic soundscaping adding subtle contemporary textures. Stabbing piano chords and fractured drum rhythms framed Comerford's tenor excursion, which grew from meandering and melodious to searing. Comerford's bass saxophone riffed its way through the body of "Last Minute Panic," the spare compositional framework inviting spiky free improvisation, with piano and drums to the fore; a slower, hazily lyrical passage stretched out into a trance-inducing, lulling coda.

"Toetje" swayed between mellifluous balladry and slow-burning funk while the set-closer "Kwakzalver" saw the trio embrace a more angular, punchy symmetry. With signature evasion of the predictable, Thunderblender changed down and then up gears with alluring logic. This was a compelling performance from an original trio whose sense of adventure should take it far.

Elliot Galvin Trio

With the albums Dreamland (Chaos Collective, 2014) and Punch (Edition Records, 2016) Elliot Galvin has built a reputation as one of the most progressively minded artists on the UK jazz scene. With bassist/guitarist Tom McCredie and drummer Corrie Dick—with whom Galvin also plays in Dinosaur—this concert showcased Galvin's third album, The Influencing Machine (Edition Records, 2018), an ambitious concept album inspired by James Tilly-Matthews—a larger-than-life 18th century character of multiple talents (from tea broker to peace broker) who ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

The facility with which the opening brace of "New Model Army" and "Lobster Cracking" morphed from classically influenced realms to electro-pop and knotty jazz—often fusing elements of all—was impressive. Rhythmically fractured then charging, what might have seemed disjointed on first impression revealed itself over time as a fascinating mosaic of ideas—reflecting perhaps the eccentricity, paranoid schizophrenia and manic drive of Tilly-Matthews. From the beautifully elegiac, baroque-influenced "Bees, Dogs and Flies" to the psychedelia-cum-high-life fantasy of "Planet Ping Pong" the trio rode a rollercoaster of thrilling virtuosity, off-beat humor and atmospheric soundscaping.

By contrast, the slow-burning gravitas of "Society of Universal Harmony" provided a more profoundly meditative mood before Galvin seized the bull by the horns, embarking on a highly charged improvisation of breathless scope before unlashing a thumping vamp. A strong performance concluded with "Boys Club," where re-wired toys and electronica combined with electric guitar in a motley fusion of skewed classical and alt-rock experimentation, petering out in a soundscape of gentle sci-fi bleeps and pips.

Galvin, at the head of a trio that sounds like no other, is rapidly developing into one of the most adventurous pianists/composers on the wonderfully fertile UK jazz scene. It's to Brilliant Corners credit that it consistently programmes such forward-thinking artists, challenging and rewarding its audiences in equal measure with the sound of surprise.

Day Four

Brian Irvine Ensemble

Roman Mints (violin); Kate Ellis (cello); James Allsopp (saxophones/clarinets); Richard Mawhinney (saxophone); Kevin Lawless (saxophone); David Liddell (trombone); Alex Bonney (trumpet); Matthew Bourne (piano); Phil Smyth (electric bass); Bill Campbell (electric guitar); Stephen Davis (percussion); Andrew Lavery (percussion); Brian Irvine (conductor, composer).

Multi-faceted composer extraordinaire Brian Irvine had the crowd in its pocket from the moment he led his thirteen-piece ensemble through the crowd to the stage, wordlessly singing Wayne Hill's glorious tune "Left Bank Two"-much loved by British TV audiences from the 1960s-1980s. Playing its first gig in almost a decade, Irvine conducted fiendishly complex charts that tested the ensemble's metal—not to mention the audience's capacity to follow the thread.

At the end of 2017 Moving On Music hosted the Instant Composer's Pool at The MAC, and echoes of its blend of jazz precision and comedic anarchy were present in the Brian Irvine Ensemble's performance. So too, raucous Captain Beefheart-esque blues and the contemporary classical weave evocative of Frank Zappa that Tom Waits memorably called "perfect madness and mastery." Bruising and delicate, melodious and abstractly cacophonic in turn, this was virtuoso-drenched music yet playful enough for children—had there been any present—to dance to. Vertiginous ensemble leaps between the page and completely improvised passages made for an experience as thrilling as it was unexpected.

Off-kilter tango and New Orleans-tinged country-and-western parody rubbed shoulders with orchestral jazz passages of, in turn, great lyricism, meaty grooves, and iconoclasm of the most celebratory nature—steered by Irvine's exuberant, unorthodox conducting. With wicked mischief in his eyes, Irvine invited the audience to write out graphic music notations on sheets of A4, which he displayed with barely disguised glee to the audience before unleashing them on the unsuspecting ensemble. A series of squiggly lines, random dots, symbols, equations and pictures that made Wadada Leo Smith or Anthony Braxton's notations look like alphabetti spaghetti rendered pleasingly imaginative spontaneous responses from the ever-alert musicians, with Irvine then turning a hundred and eighty degrees to rope in the audience with some asylum/farmyard noise.

Mid-gig Irvine made an impassioned defence of music and the arts in general at a time when funding cuts are the norm. "Music is way of communicating, it's a way of sharing what it's like to be a human being. It changes people. It changes societies. It makes people have hope, vision and inspiration—all those things that make you feel good about life and breathing. That's why it's so, so important that we don't reduce the arts funding—we triple it."

The madcap caper that was "Melon Head" sounded a helter-skelter warning to those who watch too many cartoons, while the episodic avant-garde circus romp "Oyster Boy" drew the curtain—with extended theatricality—on a splendidly animated concert from a sensational contemporary ensemble bursting with color, imagination, humor and passion. A standing ovation rightly ensued that accompanied the musicians on the return journey back through the audience from whence they came. Hopefully this appearance at Brilliant Corners will be the catalyst for more sustained activity from the Brian Irvine Ensemble—a fearless group that would enliven any festival, club or concert hall.

Day Six

Jack Kelly Trio

With a few notable exceptions Northern Ireland hasn't produced an abundance of talented jazz musicians in recent decades. However, thanks to schemes by leading Belfast arts venue The MAC and promoters Moving On Music a number of promising musicians have been given a boost in the last couple of years and mentorship schemes have set the wheels in motion to give a leg up to more hopefuls in the years to come. Bassist Jack Kelly, pianist Caolan Hutchinson and drummer Jake Holmes are three such young, rising stars, so it was satisfying to see this trio—making its debut—on the Black Box stage in front of an attentive and appreciative audience.

A set of standards was perhaps to be expected, but there was much to admire in the trio's delivery. There was bluesy soul in Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell," the trio's space and touch reminiscent of Oscar Peterson or Ahmad Jamal's early trios. Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein's "My Favourite Things" veered from the standard John Coltrane blueprint, the trio signing off before the expected return to the head. An elegant, swinging version of Gigi Gryce's "Minority"—with fine solos from Hutchinson and Holmes—and Hampton Hawes's "Blues the Most," played with real panache, rounded out an impressive performance. The trio took its bow to sustained and merited applause. This was a fine debut, with all three musicians soloing well and gelling intuitively. It's a safe bet that, given the right kind of support, we'll be hearing more from Kelly, Hutchinson and Holmes.

David Lyttle Trio

Drummer, composer, record label owner, educator and podcaster, David Lyttle is a remarkably busy individual, so much in fact that gigs at home, like the recent duo outing with guitarist Andreas Varady in Derry, are not all that common. Multiple trips to China, as well as tours in the United States, the UK and Canada—plus an autumn residency in New York—will keep Lyttle fully occupied for 2018, though one calendar date for Irish jazz fans not to be missed is Lyttle's 4th May gig with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Michael Janisch at the City of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival 2018.

For this Black Box gig Janisch and pianist Steve Hamilton joined Lyttle on a pulsating set of the leader's originals—contemporary jazz rooted in the straight-ahead tradition. The mid-tempo swinger "City Life" saw tremendous opening solos from Hamilton and Janisch, with Lyttle keeping time inconspicuously. "Lullaby for the Lost" underlined Lyttle's subtlety as an accompanist as much it did as his penchant for balladry. In contrast to the original recording from Lyttle's Faces (Lyte Records, 2016), which featured Joe Lovano and rappers Illspokinn and Homecut, this much slower rendition by the trio invited particularly soulful play from all.

Lyttle's hands worked his kit on the introduction to "After the Flood," reverting to sticks to effect a samba-tinged rhythm as Hamilton's sweeping melodicism held sway. Lyttle's solo spot, with elbows, hands and sticks skilfully balanced gutsy attack and melodic finesse. American-born, Carrickfergus-based Meilana Gillard brought her habitual guile and passion to Lyttle's suave post-bop burner "Perpetual Scenario." After an extended hiatus from the recording studio, Gillard's second as leader, Dream Within A Dream (Lyte Records, 2017), served as a potent reminder of an exceptional talent, reaching Best of Year lists in Jazzwise, All About Jazz and Marlbank. A tenor saxophonist of the old school, Gillard's full-blooded, melodically inventive solo proved the highlight of a memorable tune.

Janisch featured on another impressive Lyttle tune, "Summer Always Passes," and though his unaccompanied, highly melodious intro held the audience rapt, it was the trio's dialogue when fully locked on that was most captivating. A fine set wound up with "The Pensioner," an elegant piano-driven number punctuated by a drum feature, Lyttle working his kit with power and precision. How often this trio will get together remains to be seen but the association is definitely one worth pursuing.

Sons of Kemet

Brilliant Corners 2018 finished off in properly celebratory style, with a booty-shaking powerhouse of a concert by the much-lauded Sons of Kemet. The multiple-award-winning quartet has been a festival favourite since Shabaka Hutchings formed the band in 2011, though perhaps an intimate, standing-room-only venue such as Black Box is the best environment in which to experience its bristling 21st-century jazz-funk.

Sons of Kemet hasn't stood still since its debut Burn (Naim Jazz Records, 2013) , as this set, drawn largely from the band's third release, the cheekily titled Your Queen Is a Reptile (Impulse!, 2018), showed. The dual drum set-up of Eddie Hick and Tom Skinner cooked up a pulsating rhythmic stew, while tubaist Theon Cross ploughed ferocious grooves, occasionally falling into melodic unison with Hutchings, who riffed and probed tirelessly. As tightly knit as the unit surely was, there was freedom aplenty to take the music this way and that, with Cross every bit as compelling as Hutchings in the improvisation stakes.

The crowd, pressed close to the stage, moved to the hypnotic beats from the outset, with more and more drawn to dance as the concert progressed. Caribbean roots music, heavy dub, futuristic funk, New Orleans second-line and free-jazz fused in a wildly euphoric fusion that was trance-like in its unrelenting intensity. At an hour and fifteen minutes this was, relatively speaking, a short headlining set, but trying to sustain music this potent, this explosive, or trying to dance to it for that long, rendered it something of a marathon experience—and an unforgettable one at that. Unlikely to be the party band at England's upcoming royal wedding, but highly recommended for all other festive occasions.

Wrap-up

The best edition of Brilliant Corners so far? Such things are subjective but promoter Moving On Music does seem to keep on raising the bar. For the stylistic range and quality of music on offer, and for the adventurous nature of the programming, which often seems to say 'let's see what they think of this,' Brilliant Corners is arguably more progressive than many bigger and more illustrious jazz festivals. Still with the potential to grow its audience, there will be many, no doubt, who feel that the one main venue—with the odd satellite concert—and the intimate nature of Brilliant Corners is precisely its forte. An essential event in Ireland/Belfast's packed festival calendar.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marcin Wilkowski

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