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Conor Murray & Micheal Murray: Putting Falcarragh On The Jazz Map

Ian Patterson By

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It’s mainly about doing something for the local community and trying to give back to the community in a different way —Micheal Murray, saxophonist, Co-Artistic Director, Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival
It's just gone half past midday and yet double bassist Conor Murray and twin brother, saxophonist Micheal Murray, are gearing up for their second media engagement of the day. If this were New York or London such hustle and bustle mightn't be unusual for two seasoned jazz musicians with a CD to launch, except the Murrays have yet to record in their short career to date. And this isn't New York -it's Falcarragh, a small town hugging the Atlantic in the north-west of Ireland.

What is news worthy about the twin brothers is that they are launching a jazz festival -the Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival, on 7-8 December, featuring the trio of guitarist Jesse van Ruller, the first non-American to win the Thelonious Monk Competition. Also of note is the fact that at just twenty one years of age, the Murrays may well be the youngest Artistic Directors of a jazz festival in the world.

Falcarragh lies on the western edge of County Donegal, in the highly picturesque corner of North West Ireland. Nestled between the Derryveagh mountains and sandy beaches that give onto the Atlantic Ocean, it's a tranquil yet quietly awe-inspiring spot. With just over two thousand inhabitants, this small Gaeltacht—Gaelic-speaking—town is perhaps an unlikely host for a jazz festival. There's no resident jazz band in any of the town's pubs, and if the locals aren't playing traditional Irish music they are usually enjoying—depending on age—country and western or pop music. So why a jazz festival in Falcarragh? And in winter to boot.

The Murrays, who are final year students in the jazz programme at The Glasgow Conservatoire, were born and bred in Falcarragh. For them it's a case of there's no place like home. "Usually jazz is played in big cities and in jazz clubs," says Micheal. "Here is a kind of unspoiled landscape and there aren't really a lot of tourists around here. It's a really interesting and beautiful place to bring a festival to."

There are few more beautiful parts of Ireland than this part of Donegal, that's for sure, but there's more to the Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival than its seductive location. "It's definitely about putting something on for the local people and creating a unique experience for them," Michael expands. "Yes, it's about bringing people in and introducing them to Falcarragh for the weekend, but it's mainly about doing something for the local community and trying to give back to the community in a different way."

It might seem easier to bring people in if the two-day festival were in summer but the Murrays have another take on it altogether. "We wanted it to be at a time that's off-peak," explains Micheal. "The summer is so saturated with things going on and all the neighbouring villages have their own festivals, as does Falcarragh, so there's already so much happening that in a way having something in December creates something unique because no-one is doing very much around that time."

Chatting to Conor and Micheal in the back bar of The Shamrock, it's clear that they have thought carefully about every detail of the staging of the Falcarragh Jazz Festival, with the aim of presenting a boutique, one-of-a-kind experience. What also comes across is their deep-rooted connection to the small, Donegal town of Falcarragh and their sense of indebtedness to the place where they were taught music as children.

Like most young musicians in this Irish-speaking community the music they first encountered was traditional Irish music-or 'trad' in local parlance.

"We both started off on the tin whistle," says Michael. "I played trad but I also played really old blues music. My first proper instrument was the harmonica. From there it was a really natural progression into jazz music and the saxophone." Likewise, Conor, who played guitar and bass in the local ceili band and also studied classical music, was also drawn to the blues at an early age.

It's not such a leap from Irish folk music to the blues, as centuries of oppression, disenfranchisement and poverty as a result of English colonization—culminating in Ireland's 1922-23 Civil War and the subsequent partition of the island—created conditions that have some parallels with the slavery/cotton trade in Southern USA.

Nor, as the brothers in turn explain, was the transition from Irish trad to jazz a difficult one. "What I've learned about jazz music and trad is that there is such a similarity of rhythm in the two musics," says Conor. "A jig is such a similar rhythmic styling to swing music in a way. It's based off triplets so there's the same kind of dancing feeling going on. Trying to get that feeling in the music kind of helped me to naturally progress in and understand jazz. I think there's a very strong link between them in that way."

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