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Brilliant Corners 2018

Ian Patterson By

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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.
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