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Brilliant Corners 2019

Ian Patterson By

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Belfast should treasure Brilliant Corners. It’s an incubator for young musicians… a professional launching pad for the country’s especially talented musicians…and a window onto some of the most exciting and inspirational international music.
Brilliant Corners 2019
The Black Box/Sonic Lab
Belfast, N. Ireland
March 2-9, 2019

For many years the words brilliant, jazz and Belfast rarely appeared in the same sentence. That all changed in 2013 when music promoters Moving On Music launched Brilliant Corners, subtitled A Festival of Jazz in Belfast. Since then, and bridging the first and second weekends of March, Brilliant Corners has carved out a reputation as one of the city's essential cultural events.

With its broad-church approach to contemporary jazz/improvised music, Brilliant Corners has done much to shake up the lingering perception of jazz in this corner of Ireland as a museum-piece, a hermetic, 'outsider' culture for chin-stroking intellectuals. Craig Taborn's mind-boggling solo piano performance—a potent advance messenger for the festival proper—and The Comet Is Coming's cosmic rave on the festival's first evening, both served notice of the visceral and emotional power of this music. Music to take you out of your everyday world.

After experimenting with a multiple-venue format in previous editions Brilliant Corners' home is now firmly established in the Black Box, bang in the heart of Belfast's happening Cathedral Quarter. There, over six evenings, festival goers experienced everything from solo piano to big band jazz, and from straight-ahead trio to anarchic twelve-piece ensemble. As ever, the festival showcased up-and-coming local talent—an important part of Moving On Music's ethos—while Ireland's best jazz musicians shared the bill with some of the hottest bands on the European scene.

Outreach came in the form of workshops with local schools—an acknowledgment of the value of investing time, energy, enthusiasm and money in youth. Cuts in government funding to the arts in Northern Ireland—has anybody seen N.I.'s government since it downed tools in January 2017?—continue unabated, a reflection of the intellectual failure of policy makers to understand the contribution of the arts in general to the well-being of society.

For the first time at Brilliant Corners space was made for a photography exhibition. The walls of the Black Box were adorned with Belfast-based photographer Marcin Wilkowski's striking black-and-white photographs of Shabaka Hutchings, Idris Ackamoor and Sandra Poindexter, Cuban pianist David Virelles and a stunning close-up of the late Tomasz Stanko. More of this type of initiative would be welcome at future editions of Brilliant Corners.

Day One

Ulster Jazz Youth Orchestra

It was youth that got Brilliant Corners 2019 under way, with the twenty-eight-piece Ulster Jazz Youth Orchestra winning over a packed Black Box with a polished set of swinging jazz standards and imaginative reworkings of pop classics. Steered by founder, Ken Jordan, the UJYO captured the noirish atmosphere of Duke Ellington's "Harlem Nocturne," brought Michael Bubble-esque élan to the Stealer's Wheel hit "Stuck in the Middle with You," and rolled up their funk sleeves on punchy versions of "Uptown Funk" and Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious."

Aged between fifteen and twenty-one, the musicians typically stay for two or three years while at school or college, so the UYJO its constantly renewing its membership. Róise McHugh and Crystal Ashworth joined the UYJO at the end of 2018, but their lack of road miles hindered neither from turning in excellent performances. Taking the spotlight in turn, McHugh's pitch-perfect articulation on Bobby Troup's "Route 66," Henri Mancini/Johnny Mercer's samba-tinged "It Had Better be Tonight" and Burt Bacharach's "The Look of Love" was balanced by the earthier, bluesy overtones of Ashworth on Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn's "My Baby Just Cares For Me" and Joseph Myrow/Mack Gordon's "You Make Me Feel So Young."

Though some songs suited McHugh and Ashworth's respective voices better than others, both showed undeniable promise. A highlight of the show came with their duet, rendered in Portuguese, of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Águas de Março." The girls' hard work in rehearsals paid off handsomely as they nailed the great singer-songwriter's homage to Brazil's rainiest month.

The full power of the big-band was harnessed on a swinging version of Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't," Toto's "Rosanne" and Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke." Solos were generally short, with saxophonists Mathew Edgar and James McNish the pick of the bunch.

Having celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2018, the UYJO—guided by the indefatigable Ken Jordan—has inspired several generations of N. Irish musicians. Enthusiasm and dedication are the UYJO's pillars, but there's a high standard of musicianship too, not to mention a real feel for the music, as evidenced by this uplifting performance at Brilliant Corners.

The Comet Is Coming

If the late Professor Stephen Hawking was right, and planet Earth really will turn into a huge fireball by 2600, give or take a century, then the notion of bucket lists will take on a greater urgency for future generations of Earthlings. The Comet Is Coming won't be around then, so the London three-piece should be on everybody's bucket list in this lifetime.

Saxophonist King Shabaka, (Shabaka Hutchings), keyboardist Danalogue The Conqueror (Dan Leavers) and drummer Betamax Killer (Maxwell Hallett ) were returning to the Black Box following The Comet Is Coming's memorable gig during the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in 2017.

The Comet Is Coming's music draws in equal measure from '80s dance culture, the spacey Afro-Futurism of Sun Ra and the keening spiritualism of latter-day John Coltrane. Song titles like "Final Days of the Apocalypse," "Star Exploding in Slow Motion," "Star Furnace" and "End of Earth" attest to the cosmological philosophy behind the music, but the trio's psychedelic, sci-fi jazz mash-up in yet another intoxicating Belfast performance was rooted in essentially earthy rhythms -infectious and unrelenting in their intensity. Even the festival photographer, negotiating the scrum at the front of the stage, was moving to the beats as he snapped away.

The Comet Is Coming's Belfast gig was part of a mini-tour promoting Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery—unreleased at time of writing—the band's third LP and first on the legendary Impulse! Label! Lift-off in the Black Box was gradual, but there was no going back once the trio was in full flow. Against Betamax Killer's blistering beats, King Shabaka dealt coarse-edged, machine-gun riffs punctuated by soaring cries, while Danalogue The Conqueror's wiry energy and brooding intensity at the keys stoked the rave-like atmosphere. Think Fela Kuti meets Eat Static.

At the music's most intense Danalogue The Conqueror exhorted the crowd to make some noise, to lose itself in the heady waves of sound engulfing the room. Though the interlocking of fiercely rasping saxophone riffs, pummeling drums and stabbing, swirling keys was the norm, the occasional mellifluous passage filtered through, albeit tied to driving beats. Alluring too, the rhythmic layers embedded in music of such primal, post-punk energy. Circular riffs, industrial pulses, hip-hop accents, African talking drum—all merged in The Comet Is Coming's riotous carnival of the apocalypse.

The crowd went potty as the three sweat-drenched musicians took their bows and left the stage. The inevitable encore saw the trio whip up the storm once more, the fury of drums and saxophone carried on Danalogue The Conqueror's wave of ambient textures. The crowd would have lapped up more, but after giving their all for an hour and twenty minutes the three musicians must have been spent.

If it is a comet that eventually pulverizes planet Earth, then The Comet Is Coming would make a mighty soundtrack. A thumping start to Brilliant Corners 2019.

Day Two

Izumi Kimura

Japanese-born Izumi Kimura has spent the guts of two decades in Ireland, where she has been one of the key figures in contemporary music. Equally at home in the technical maze that is the prepared piano epic of John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes," shredding at vertiginous heights with guitarist Joe O'Callaghan, or locking horns with fearless improvising musicians of the caliber of Barry Guy, Kimura effortlessly straddles the divide between composed and improvised music.

It was this juxtaposition, between the formal and the imagined, that characterized Kimura's hour-long set at Brilliant Corners 2019. Her set began with a minimalist, blues- tinged meditation that morphed into a rumbling rhapsody punctuated by jagged percussive accents. Light and dark tones were in a more advanced state of flux on the second piece, Kimura's gently flowing lyricism dissolving into abstract terrain as quickly as cherry blossom blown from the branches of a tree. From newfound space the pianist immersed herself in stark minimalism, her spare vocabulary dark and brooding.

A succession of single notes sounded like soft chimes, soon gathering momentum on the back of a pronounced rhythmic vein. This too, was short-lived, as Kimura committed boldly to a series of tumbling glissandi. A brief pause, like a narrator turning a page, ushered in a robust two-handed dialogue, the left feeding a dark-hued rhythmic drive that countered the freewheeling spirit of her right. The tensions of this dense and dramatic passage found release in a rising glissando that terminated abruptly.

Kimura steered the music from austere impressionism one minute to gently aching lyricism the next, from spare to rapidly flowing. The Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" was the one nod to the jazz tradition, though Kimura's reading was about as radical a departure from the breezy original as was possible to imagine; her slow-circling left-hand motif providing the only clue to the song's identity as her right hand kicked up a jagged storm.

Following an intense through-composed piece, minimalist in detail but of surging intensity, Kimura visited an old Japanese tune, "Kono Michi." The melody, famous in Japan, was written by Kosaku Yamada and based on a 1927 poem by Hakushu Kitahara. This delicate ballad was vaguely evocative of "Danny Boy" and shared more than a little of the Irish tune's nostalgic yearning for the old country. Warm applause greeted Kimura, who offered up a short, sentimental tune by way of an encore.

Kimura's vocabulary may draw from classical, minimalism, jazz and free improvisation but her language, complex yet direct, refined yet dramatic, is very much her own.

Scott Flanigan Trio with Ant Law

Pianist Scott Flanigan has enjoyed an upwards trajectory since the release of his debut as leader, Point of Departure (Self-Produced, 2015). Collaborations with Larry Coryell, Jean Toussaint, Jim Mullen and Nigel Mooney and increased international exposure—including appearances at the EFG London Jazz Festival—have helped raise the profile of this talented Belfast pianist/keyboard player. Here, Flanigan was joined by two of Ireland's finest jazz musicians in Dave Redmond and Steve Davis, with rising English guitarist Ant Law swelling the ranks.

In what was one of the standout performances of Brilliant Corners 2019, Flanigan premiered a striking three-part suite, "Clouded Lines," commissioned by Moving On Music and the PRS Foundation. Against the backdrop of Davis' bustling stick and brushwork, Flanigan's propulsive comping and Redmond's steady compass, Law delivered a scintillating solo—at once fluid and biting. Flanigan responded with an equally attacking solo, and whilst the individual fireworks were undoubtedly compelling, it was the rhythmic urgency of the suite's first part that maintained the sense of drama.
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