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 festivalBrilliant 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 improvisationsan 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 Eastthe colourfully titled Siberian weather front whose snow and ice brought large parts of the country to a standstillcould 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
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 influencesWes 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.