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Live Review

Brilliant Corners 2022

Brilliant Corners 2022

Courtesy Tom Leentjes

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You might not realize this being in the room at jazz events but you are part of the music. We can feel you. Especially when we’re improvising…
—Heidi Heidelberg, Witch 'n' Monk
Brilliant Corners 2022
The Black Box
Belfast, N. Ireland
March 4-12, 2022

Brilliant Corners is ten. Belfast's onliest jazz festival celebrated the milestone by welcoming audiences back to The Black Box after 2021's virtual edition. When Brilliant Corners was last held here before a live audience, in March 2020, Covid had only just reared its head and didn't seem like a big deal to many folks. How things would change in the following months. And years.

As ever, promoters Moving On Music put on a deliciously eclectic program that took a roots-and-branches view of jazz. Not surprisingly, given the logistics of international travel in a world that is not yet post-Covid, no matter how much we may wish it otherwise, Irish and UK-based artists dominated the line-up. But given that the UK jazz scene has never been more vibrant, and that the much smaller Irish scene punches above its weight, that was no bad thing.

And who would have thought that a drunken man in Berlin, The Sugarbabes and a half-full pint of Guinness would all impact the music heard, in quite different ways, at Brilliant Corner's tenth anniversary bash.

Witch 'n' Monk

Witch 'n' Monk , aka Colombian flautist Mauricio Velasierra and English singer/guitarist Heidi Heidelberg opened Brilliant Corners with a vibrant set of newly minted material—'a world premiere,' said Heidelberg—that challenged notions of genre. Cerebral composed music met visceral improvisation head-on as organic sounds intertwined with samples and sonic manipulation.

With a couple of flutes strung around his neck, Velasierra opened the set with a short melody, met by pizzicato guitar and Heidelberg's soprano voice in a curious hybrid of avant-folk and contemporary classical. At times, Velasierra's flute suggested somber Olivier Messiaen-esque organ, at others, dancing panpipes of psychedelic Tropicália.

With a loop station each, Velasierra and Heidelberg built driving rhythmic motifs over which they superimposed darting melodies, vocal interludes and angular guitar lines. The melodic swirl of sonically altered instruments, vocals that veered between folksy whimsy and operatic flight, and grungy riffs brewed a heady concoction that was somehow alien yet seductive.

A fascinating guitarist, Heidelberg juggled spikey, economic runs, fine arpeggios—in a curious distillation of Marc Ribot and Robert Fripp—and drum-like rhythmic patterns. Pockets of bright flute melodies and mazy flute-cum-vocal union passages punctuated the rhythmic churn—these more organic exchanges contrasting with the overwhelmingly amorphous nature of Witch 'n' Monk's language.

A looped vocal chant and chugging guitar riff provided the springboard for the final number, where urgent flute motifs and stabbing guitar navigated shifts in tempo.

This was Witch 'n' Monk's first non-virtual gig since 2019; clearly it meant a lot to the two musicians to be back in their natural habitat. 'Playing for people after these crazy times that we have means a lot more for us,' said Velasierra. 'To play, to create something out of love...and for you to appreciate it... it is a mystical, very magical thing...' Sentiments no doubt shared by all.

Jazz Juniors/David Lyttle Trio

It was a welcome return to Belfast for David Lyttle, after a gap of almost two years. The MOBO-nominated Waringstown drummer played the very first edition of Brilliant Corners and has been a key figure in mentoring up-and-coming local jazz musicians. For this Saturday matinee gig, Lyttle was joined by pianist Gwilym Simcock and bassist Orlando le Fleming. The support act, before a capacity crowd, was Jazz Juniors.

An initiative of JazzLife Alliance, Jazz Juniors is dedicated to promoting exceptional young talent on these shores. The nine musicians, aged 10-16, are being mentored by Lyttle in monthly workshops in the MAC.

This was only Jazz Juniors second gig, but the youngsters handled what must have been a nerve-wracking experience with outward confidence. Vocalists Rose Deery (aged 10) and Marianne McBride (aged 12) are the real deal. Not only had they written great lyrics for Jackie McLean's somewhat obscure though winning "Couldn't It Be You?" but they also bravely launched into breezy vocal improvisations. McBride impressed on the McClean number, while Deery took the spotlight on "Summertime," the pair belting out the lyrics like old pros.

In between, a groovy improvised modal piece afforded solo space for all. Clarinettist Ben Falconer (aged 13), trumpeter Matteo Moore (aged 14) and guitarist Sárán Ó Machail can be proud of their performances. In the absence of a bass, organist Emma Doherty (aged 15) held down the bottom end, while drummer Nicholas Falconer (aged 15) kept immaculate time—so fundamental to the success of any ensemble.

Special mention too, for violinist Edythe Qua (aged 16), whose extra few years on her instrument told, and pianist Lochlan McBride (aged 11) who showed plenty of early promise.

Jazz Juniors admirable performance duly received the enthusiastic applause and cheers that it deserved. Plans are in place for Jazz Alliance to launch further groups of young jazz enthusiasts in the next few years, with the aim of mentoring forty musicians in total. It is a commendable scheme, and so necessary to help foster a viable local jazz scene. The support of Moving On Music in staging the Jazz Juniors gig at its showpiece annual event is also to be applauded. Anyone wondering how best to support this most worthwhile scheme should get in touch with JazzLife Alliance.

David Lyttle Trio

David Lyttle, Orlando Le Fleming and Gwilym Simcock have certainly been around the block a few times, having collaborated, individually, with Tim Garland, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny, Iain Ballamy, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jimmy Cobb, Jean Toussaint and Billy Cobham, to name just a handful of heavyweights. This, however, was their debut as a trio.

A set of mostly Lyttle originals began with the steadily swinging "Perpetual Scenario," the pretty head picked up and explored by Simcock and then Le Fleming in flowing solos of some panache. Lyttle's compositions are deliberatley spare in architecture, allowing and inviting expansive improvisations. In the company of two such outstanding musicians, his tunes were uplifted. A hands-on-skin solo by Lyttle introduced "Happy Easter," another melodically bright tune, this from the leader's debut album, True Story, (Lyte Records, 2007).

A seasoned globe-trotter, Lyttle's six-week sojourn in China in 2017—as the British Council's Musician-In-Residence—inspired "My Name is Charles," a feature for Simcock who revelled in the freedom granted him. The ballad "Lullaby for the Lost" from Lyttle's MOBO-nominated album Faces signalled a change of mood, the trio taking collectively longer breaths in a performance of nuance and emotional depth. "Lullaby..." segued into the gently loping, impressionistic "Camels," punctuated by a trademark Lyttle solo—bustling and explosive at one pole, sotto voce and caressing at the other.

The mid-tempo "Truly Yours (For No-one in Particular)"— commissioned by Moving On Music for the festival—saw fine solos from Le Fleming and Simcock and underlined Lyttle's penchant for fresh-sounding melodies rendered in a straight-ahead frame. The Antonio Carlos Jobim/Vinicius de Moraes standard "No More Blues" was taken at a good clip, with Le Fleming's fast-walking bass and Lyttle's feisty rhythms pushing Simcock to his most thrilling solo of the set.

Lyttle has been a regular at Brilliant Corners over the festival's first decade, playing in a variety of settings both as leader and sideman, but this swinging performance with Simcock and Le Fleming arguably ranks as his finest yet.

Wildflower

With three albums to its name, Wildflower is one of the most exciting of the current crop of UK trailblazers, sharing some of the ecstatic, spiritual jazz leanings of Shabaka Hutchings' groups and fearless in its embrace of improvised dialogues.

Hypnotic grooves and billowing saxophone solos of soulful, and in turn, raging character, were the bedrock of Wildflower's brilliant set on day two of Brilliant Corners. "Where the Earth Meets the Sky" set the bar high from the get-go, with bassist Leon Brichard's cool ostinato and drummer Yusuf Ahmed's dubstep beats guiding tenor saxophonist Idris Rahman on a course that swayed between mellifluous meditation and bruising incantation.

Rahman cut a hypnotic figure, gyrating to his breathless improvisations, the first of which lasted fully thirty minutes. Sustained notes of piercing yet ethereal quality dissolved into punchy lines where gnarly riffs spawned bursts of melodic release. Building in waves towards soaring exclamations, then gliding slowly back down to earthier ruminations, Rahman was a captivating force.

Rahman switched to flute on "Flute Song," proving equally expansive on this shamanistic blues number before reverting to tenor. In the final, lengthy stretch, and over a relentlessly infectious groove, Rahman dispensed with the reverb and echo effects to deliver a slightly meandering solo characterized as much by lyricism as by raw energy. The Black Box crowd gave up some love to Wildflower with a loud and prolonged ovation.

Black Top

Black Top is the name that London multi-instrumentalists Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas have gone by since 2011, drawing inspiration from the African diaspora, as so much of the most exciting jazz-related music in the UK seems to these days.

As often as not, Black Top plays with a revolving door of improvisers, including Jason Yarde, Corey Mwamba, Shabaka Hutchings, Byron Wallen, Steve Williamson, Caroline Krabbel, and on the brilliant live recording #Free 3 (Babel, 2017), William Parker and Hamid Drake.

Improvising vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, returning to Ireland following his appearance at the Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival 2019, is another member of the Black Top family. For this ninety-minute performance he brought his idiosyncratic musical personality to bear with spoken word, non-syllabic voicings, raps and dub reggae riffs. Either side of Watkiss, Robinson switched between vibraphone, xylosynth and laptop, while Thomas toggled between piano, keys and laptop.

Two extended suites lasting forty-plus minutes saw composed form and free improvisation happily coexist. The music spanned an impressive range of vocabulary, from free-jazz and hard-bop to Jamaican dub, from blues and Afro-Cuban son to Sun Ra-esque synth adventures, Qawwali and konnokol. Not everything worked so well. At times the music seemed a little static, particularly the more ambient sections that suffered from a lack of dynamic development.

The most intoxicating passages, however, were those dominated by Robinson and Thomas's exchanges on vibraphone and piano, particularly during the second suite. An electrifying presence on the piano, Thomas's lengthiest improvisation was a cathedral of dense harmonics, splashy chordal clusters of thundering percussive intensity, and thrilling runs whose vocabulary seemed to draw equally from stride, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor.

Judging by the crowd's enthusiastic response to the set, it is a fairly safe bet that Black Top will be welcomed back with open arms.

Potsa Lotsa

On the subject of welcome returns, multi-faceted German saxophonist Silke Eberhard was making her second appearance at Brilliant Corners following her memorable Charles Mingus tribute with the trio I Am Three in 2017. With Potsa Lotsa, Eberhard paid strikingly original tribute to another jazz icon, Eric Dolphy.

Potsa Lotsa, which started life in 2017, performs in ever-shifting configurations, small and large. For this one-off Irish gig Potsa Lotsa appeared as a quartet, with Patrick Braun on tenor saxophone, Nikolaus Neuer on trumpet and Gerhard Gschlößl on trombone.

Dolphy is best known for his associations with John Coltrane—on whom he had a significant influence—and Mingus. Given that he died aged just thirty-six, it is hardly surprising that Dolphy's own discography as leader is rather slim. Nevertheless, he was a composer of highly original design, avant-garde yet rooted in tradition, bluesy yet given to dissonance. On the heady cacophony of "Burning Spear" and "Out There" Potsa Lotsa captured the complexity and tensions within Dolphy's music with some swagger.

At the outset, Eberhard was struggling with her reed, which had been damaged by a drunken man falling on her bag while traveling on Berlin's S-Bahn. Fortunately, she was able to work around the problem without detriment to the music. And if nothing else, the 'drunken-man-incident' underlined the interconnectedness of people—like it or not...

Braun wove a blues vein through the slower "245," the tenor negotiating the dense polyphony and evolving rhythms with muscular precision. Braun featured once again on "Strength With Unity," plying a mazy course of burrowing intensity. At times, the sensation was that everyone was soloing, and no-one was soloing.

Dolphy was a more prolific composer than the small handful of studio albums he recorded in his lifetime might suggest, and it was his lesser-known work that Potsa mined, in the main. "Strength With Unity," for example, which Dolphy arranged for eight French horns, was recorded exclusively for a French Radio broadcast. Potsa Lotsa's first set concluded with "The Prophet," which veered from sober introspection to dancing release.

Potsa Lotsa tore out of the blocks after the intermission with "GW;" Eberhard's arrangement of Dolphy's tribute to Gerald Wilson steered an impressive course between intricate composed interplay and individual expression, with Braun in particular really letting rip. The quartet seduced at the slower tempi of "Something Sweet, Something Tender"— from Dolphy's posthumously released album Out To Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964)—and the fascinatingly knotty "Mandrake."

"Triple Mix" segued into the curio that is "Springtime" in a twenty-minute finale that captured the depth and raw beauty of Dolphy's singular music. Here, the quartet traded in Duke Ellington-esque harmonies and muted jungle sounds, bluesy slurs and smears, Mingus-esque ostinatos and ecstatic exclamations. Potsa Lotsa's adventurous approach to Dolphy's music—and not without a streak of humor—was the best form of tribute to one of modern jazz's most progressive figures.

Aoife Doyle/The RBG Trio

Whether the programming was intentional or not, International Women's Day saw two female leaders share the double bill on Tuesday night. Singer-songwriter Aoife Doyle presented songs from her third album, Infinitely Clear (2022), sympathetically supported by three of Ireland's best jazz musicians: Dave Redmond on double bass; Dominic Mullan on drums; and Greg Fenton on piano.

Possessing a fine voice, Doyle's crystalline diction and soulful delivery conjured the '60s folk-pop of Joni Mitchell on "Play Safe," the country-blues of Norah Jones on "Awakening" and the feel-good "Bring You Back to Me." Brady's brushes set the tone on "I Wish You Well," delivered by Doyle in a gospel-blues tone. Felton basked in the spotlight on "Clouds," the title track of Doyle's 2017 album, while Brady whipped up a storm on "Sure Look It," a Peggy Lee-esque hybrid of swinging jazz and folksy humour.

All Doyle's compositions were distinctive, her melodies predominantly bright and catchy; it would be a surprise if well-crafted songs like "Strength to be Strong," "Infinitely Clear" and "Bring it Back to Me," to mention just a few, didn't enjoy considerable radio exposure.

It has been almost five years since Ohio-raised, Ireland-based tenor saxophonist Meilana Gillard's last release, Dream Within A Dream (Lyte Records, 2017)—a little too long a wait for a musician of her calibre. Happily, this performance was effectively a pre-launch gig for her upcoming album.

A tenor saxophonist of old school charms, Gillard's playing is also informed by more contemporary colors, as was witnessed on burning interpretations of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." Bassist Dave Redmond and drummer Kevin Brady both contributed tunes; Redmond's grooving "Drip Dry" and Brady's more linear "The Dude Rides" both brought smoking solos from Gillard.

A bustling bass ostinato and lively drumming coursed through "To Remain Nameless," one of several energized post-bop tunes by the leader. A relatively short but vibrant set concluded with Gillard's "identity," whose handsome head was the gateway to terrific trio dialog, crowned by the saxophonist's searching improvisation.

Jas & Chums

The name might sound like that of the house band for a toddler's TV show, but the quintet led by the effervescent drummer Jas Kayser rocked the Black Box crowd with its infectious grooves. Kayser announced her love of Fela Kuti's Afrobeat in the dancing "Fela's Words," and throughout the two sets her rhythms displayed as big a debt to Fela Kuti and his Africa '70 drummer Tony Allen as they did to modern jazz.

Facing Taylor across the stage, percussionist Richie Sweet brought infectious Afro-Caribbean and Latin rhythms to the mix. Despite it being just his second gig with the quintet, Sweet was right on Taylor's wavelength from the get-go, their trading back and forth providing some exhilarating passages of play.

Guitarist Jamie Leeming toggled deceptively between rhythmic and lead lines, catching the ear with a harmonically arresting solo on "Skylark," acknowledging its debt to Lionel Loueke's version. Clearly delineated solos were rationed, with Leeming instead constantly building with chordal progressions and arpeggios, linked by mazy runs. Perhaps the star of the show, however, was bassist Daisy George, whose technical facility, surely impressive, was completely in service of her deep, swinging grooves that drove the music just as much as Taylor's polyrhythms.

The leader indulged in one sensational solo on "Darkness In the Light," but her obvious musical charisma never strayed into flashy pyrotechnics. Instead, her steadily shifting grooves and accents guided and propelled the music through often thrilling blues-tinged, Afrobeat and Latin-jazz jam-band terrain. Jas & Chums' infectious rhythms and energized performance earned the musicians a standing ovation.

The Long Game

Hanging in there for riches and fame? Whatever Liam Noble's long game is, the pianist has been a key figure on the UK jazz scene for the past thirty years, with a foot in both fairly straight-ahead and more experimental camps. The Long Game, with Tom Herbert on six-string electric bass and Will Glaser on drums, leans more towards the contemporary, experimental brand of jazz, though in the leader's language there was more than a hint of Thelonious Monk's mischief.

From the free-flowing pianism of "Song for a Future You" which bled into "Rain On Our Birthday," to the Eric Satie-esque minimalism of "Between You and Me," Noble's compositions—the guts of which from the trio's eponymous debut— balanced distinctive form and collective freedom in some style. A slow, bass ostinato set the tone for the jazz-funk of "Head of Marketing," where Noble's bluesy 'n' woozy electric keys staggered in strangely skewed yet compelling manner. "Unmemorried Man" was cut from a similar cloth, morphing from fractured rhythms and melodic abstraction into wonderfully weird, left-of-Weather Report jazz-fusion.

Processed keys conferred a dreamily psychedelic ambiance on "Head Over Heels," with Noble's exploratory solo accompanied by spare bass and fluttering brushes. Herbet and Glaser plied a steady groove on "Pink Mice," the backdrop to a playful Noble solo of quasi-Afro-Cuban rhythmic bounce and dynamic improvisational flow. Frisellian loops and rumbling mallets shaped the intro to "Flesh and Blood," a slow-burning epic of insinuating grooves, teasing pianism—spare, jagged, then tumbling—heady electro- jazz-fusion and the mother of all drum solos.

"Matcha Mind" placed the most delicate of seals on a memorable set, with Herbert gently drawing ethereal sounds from his strings using a half-full pint of Guiness as a slide. For Noble and co, fame will likely come before riches, but either way the recognition will be merited.

Adjunct Ensemble

A revolving door-collective of musicians, Adjunct Ensemble is the brainchild of Jamie Thompson, better known as one half of avant-pop duo Ex-Isles. Conducting a septet especially assembled for Brilliant Corners, Thompson steered the ensemble through an episodic suite of some ambition. Citing Matana Roberts as an influence, Thompson's broad-church approach married complex, big-band-type charts and, courtesy of Nigerian-Irish poet and performance artist, Felicia Olusanya, spoken word dynamics.

Sam Comerford on tenor saxophone and flute, Kevin Lawless on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet and trumpeter Mike Soper formed a potent combo within the ensemble, alternating between interwoven and solo parts. Drummer Stephen Davis, bassist John Pope and keyboardist Elliot Galvin kept the sonic stew simmering, with Dinosaur-keysman Galvin in particular coloring the ensemble's predominantly experimental aesthetic with his warped, synthesizer manipulations.

Four extended pieces of between fifteen and thirty minutes ebbed and flowed, with some excellent individual cameos, not the least from the hypnotic Olusanya. Despite the fact that the meaning of her poetry was not easy to decipher, her rhythmic riffs and cadences carried seductive gravitas. But this was, above all, a collective effort. At times , the music was reminiscent of Frank Zappa at his most progressive— with just a hint of Belfast composer Brian Irvine's influence— in Thompson's idiosyncratic conduction as much as in the dramaturgy of the music itself. An impressive feat of arranging, brilliantly executed by this all-star ensemble.

SlapBang

The final day of Brilliant Corners 2022 kicked off with a Saturday afternoon performance in the more intimate surroundings of The Green Room. The small but attentive crowd was spellbound by SlapBang, the duo of flautist Lina Andonovska and drummer Matthew Jacobson. Blurring the boundaries between composed, classical, contemporary and improvised music, the duo began with two premieres of commissioned work.

The first piece, written by Colm O'Hara, was initially dominated by Andonovska, whose breathy exclamations provided explosive drama and her striking body movements some unexpected theatre. Jacobson's interjections were all the more effective for their rationing, the two uniting in a charged dash for the line. A second commissioned piece, "Deuce," by Rachel Lavelle, took as its inspiration tennis. A recording of an umpire scoring a match, with occasional vociferous shouts of 'out!; from a lineswoman provided the backdrop and impetus to the musicians' dialogue. In keeping with the subject matter, there was an immediacy in the duo's cut and thrust, with Jacobson's neat rolls seeming to evoke scampering feet and Andonovska's breathy rushes the whizzing of balls.

Barry O'Halpin's composition "Hox" rounded out the set with both musicians adopting a more purely percussive role. The clack of the flute's keys and the rickety-tik of sticks on drum rims developing rhythmic momentum. Just a small leap of the imagination could have taken the listener from The Green Room, Belfast, to the first music ever performed between two people on a hollowed wooden stick and a taught animal skin. Primeval funk indeed.

To date, this duo has recorded just two tracks, which appeared on Andonovska's album A Way A Lone A Last (Diatribe Records, 2020). Hopefully, there is a lot more to come from SlapBang.

Robocobroa Quartet/Ishmael Ensemble

A thumping double bill crowned the final night of Brilliant Corners 2022. The tables and chairs were unceremoniously shoved to the margins and the open floor space soon filled with pint-drinking punters. Was this a jazz show? Apparently not for Robocobra's Chris Ryan who invited the reticent to come closer: 'I believe this is a rock show...'

Robocobra Quartet is certainly closer to alt-rock or punk than it is to jazz, as its short, five-song set made clear. Ryan's lyrics, spoken, sung or shouted touch upon themes such as suicide ("We'll Find It"), cults ("Heaven"), ownership, and social influencers ("Wellness"). Ryan's killing, deep-grooves partnership with bassist Nathan Rodgers drove the songs, while soprano saxophonist Tom Tabori and Ryan Burrowes on sampler and keys wove in and out of the mix with judicious doses of melodic sculpting. With the band's first album since 2018's Plays Hard To Get (Abbreviated Records) due around summer and a headline Belfast gig in June, local fans will get plenty more of one of Ireland's most brilliantly genre-bending bands.

No easier to pin down was the music of Bristol collective Ishmael Ensemble. Synth pop, ambient soul, electronica and astral jazz came together in a frequently stunning collage. Holysseus Fly's ethereally beautiful vocals and Pete Cunningham's ecstatic, keening tenor saxophone made for a powerful contrast. Most of the set came from the band's two full-length albums, though new material also got an airing. Highlights included the powerful ambient groover "Soma Centre" a terrific version of The Sugarbabes uber-catchy "Overload" and the epic "Lapwing," which closed the set on an upbeat, dance groove. A big hit with The Black Box faithful.

Multi-instrumentlaist Kaidi Tatham and DJ Kwame Daniels led the late night after-party, entertaining those with the stamina to a hefty dose of jazz, afrobeat, funk, soul and dance grooves.

Wrap-up

Though Brilliant Corners is a jazz festival in name and, for the most part, in deed, it's hard to think of another music festival in Belfast that programs such an eclectic range of music and with appeal to audiences of similarly broad demographics.

Old jazz heads rubbed shoulders with students, families rocked up for Jazz Juniors, while late-night revelers held the high ground at the end. Many gigs had such an odd mixture of punters that it had to be the festival's pull, rather than that of any individual band that explained the diversity, the inclusion.

The Black Box is that kind of venue, welcoming to one and all. Moving On Music is that kind of catalyst—bringing together people of all stripes, with music as the magic glue. Here's to the next ten years of Brilliant Corners.

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