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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."

Micheal concurs, adding: "I think another thing that jazz and trad music share is a big aural tradition -the whole thing of learning music by ear. Growing up with that puts you in a certain kind of mind-set, so you're not so fixated on reading. They share that spontaneity."

Unlike their trad and classical music studies, the Murray brothers' route into jazz was less guided and more instinctive -finding artists on YouTube and scouring the record shops of Letterkenny. "I think we both got into jazz quite independently from a young age," says Micheal.

The Murrays first came onto All About Jazz' radar at the Sligo Jazz Project 2013, a week-long, summer jazz camp that combines tuition from top, international jazz artists with an evening jazz festival. Just sixteen then, Micheal and Conor already commanded attention for their musical maturity. "That first Sligo Jazz Project was really a turning point," says Conor. "I remember seeing Mike Stern playing with Victor Wooten. It really lit a fire for me. It made me realize that this was what I wanted to do."

One of the regular tutors at SJP who has had a big impact on Conor's approach to the bass is John Goldsby. "It's the part of Sligo Jazz Project that I look forward to most -getting to hang out with John Goldsby and learning from him. He's amazing," enthuses Conor. "He epitomizes everything that I love about bass and about jazz -just his walking and the feeling he transmits when he's paying. I think almost every year that I've been to Sligo [Jazz Project] we've had an hour's lesson together where he gives me some advice. I always come away learning something from John. He's one of the most inspiring figures down there for me."

The Sligo Jazz Project, co-founded and directed by Eddie Lee, has proven to be inspiring for the Murrays in more ways than one. "Sligo Jazz Project is definitely an inspiration for trying to do something like the Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival," says Micheal. "It shows you can set something up in your rural community and make a success of it. It can make a lot of impact on people and on the community."

Another figure the Murrays met at the SJP 2013 who has proven to be enduringly influential is MOBO-nominated drummer from Waringstown, David Lyttle. Earlier the morning of this interview Lyttle had been filming the Murray brothers in and around Falcarragh for a documentary called The Jazz Life Alliance, which highlights young jazz talent in Northern Ireland. Lyttle has been a mentor to a promising crop of emerging jazz musicians, including the Murrays.

"David has been a central figure for us since we met him and over the years he has become more and more important," acknowledges Micheal. "He's a great guy. We're continually gaining knowledge and support from him. You always feel he is pushing you musically to the next level and wanting you to get better. It's fantastic to be around someone like that."

Lyttle's entrepreneurial ingenuity has also spurred the Murrays on. Specifically, Lyttle's extended tours of off-the-beaten-track locations in the USA, playing to UFO tourists and bikers, and more recently in Ireland on small islands and in remote towns, has encouraged the Murrays to believe that a jazz festival in a small, rural Irish town could have wings.

Lyttle will headline the second night of Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival with a quartet gig featuring the Murrays and Joseph Leighton. Earlier on the Saturday, however, Lyttle presents a rather special drum-and-tape show based on language, storytelling and improvisation -a model that he has successfully toured in China.

"For our festival we wanted to commission David to do a drum-and-tape show that was based on the Irish language and one that had a really strong link to the local community," explains Micheal. "He'll be talking to all kinds of people in the community about Falcarragh and what it means to them, their hopes and aspirations. The students in the school are going to write poems in Irish and that will be a big part of this tapes and drums thing. A lot of people around here do speak Irish. It's a big part of the community."

Lyttle's drum-and-tape performance will take place in An Tsean Bhearraic Visitor Centre and is free to the public. The Murrays are understandably excited about what should prove to be a memorable gig. "It's a crossover between Irish language and improvised music -bringing them together in a way that I don't think has really been done before," says Conor.

Lyttle's ability to create work for himself, to engineer gigs, tours and special projects is a source of ongoing inspiration for the Murrays. "It's been really important to see David do all these unique things," adds Conor. It makes us think about how we're going to approach a career in music."

The approach the Murrays have adopted is to keep more than one iron in the fire. Students in their fourth and final year at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the Murrays have also found the time to promote jazz concerts under their Twin People Promotions banner. "We noticed in Glasgow that there aren't a lot of international musicians coming to play in the city," says Micheal. "There's an amazing local scene and there's the Glasgow Jazz Festival but jazz musicians touring the UK generally skip Glasgow, so we saw the potential there."

A logical first step was to bring David Lyttle's trio to Glasgow when the drummer was touring the UK in 2016 with Tom Harrison and Conor Chaplin. Since then the Murrays have promoted gigs by Michael Janisch's Paradigm Shift and, in March of 2018, the trio of Kurt Rosenwinkel. Once again, Lyttle's encouragement and connections have motivated the Murrays. "It's great to be around a guy who is really going for things," says Conor of Lyttle. "It inspires you to get on the phone and ring up venues and we've learned not to be afraid of someone saying no. You just keep trying. David's been really inspiring in that way."

Despite the high-profile names the Murrays don't see promoting jazz gigs as a money spinner just yet. "It's not like it's a business," explains Micheal. "We're not trying to put on loads of gigs every week. It's more about trying to get something really special -a really high quality gig rather than crunching numbers. It's more about choosing the right things."
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