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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
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 performancea potent advance messenger for the festival properand 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 talentan important part of Moving On Music's ethoswhile 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 schoolsan acknowledgment of the value of investing time, energy, enthusiasm and money in youth. Cuts in government funding to the arts in Northern Irelandhas 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.
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 UYJOguided by the indefatigable Ken Jordanhas 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.
As a songwriter and vocalist, I love jazz for the experience of being in the center of intense creativity. It is the most potent form of music for keeping the artist and the audience in the 'now. Being in the moment is essential for humans, and we need help in learning how to do that. As a songwriter, I need the depth of musicality that jazz voicings can give my stories. My songs seem light and whimsical, but the message is not.
I met my main collaborator, Mark Fitzgibbon, at one of his gigs. I needed to do my first original album, and his playing was masterful, robust, and beautiful. At the time, I didn't realize how suited we were as a team. We're onto our 4rth album together.
My advice to new listeners is to listen to a really clear and simple version of a song so you can then hear what the musicians are doing and enjoy their creativity and musicality. Also, you have to see jazz live to appreciate it fully. You'll never feel it the same way listening to a CD or online. You need the vibration to go through your body to really get it!
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