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Down With Jazz 2013

Down With Jazz 2013

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Fr. Conefrey then got up to speak. He declared that jazz was a greater danger to the Irish people than drunkenness and landlordism and concerted action by church and state was required.
—Leitrim Observer, 1934
Down With Jazz
Meeting House Square
Dublin, Ireland
September 6-8, 2013

Father Conefrey must be turning in his grave. He's surely cursing the cruel fates, for jazz you see, is alive and kicking in Dublin. On New Year's Day 1934 Father Conefrey led a 3,000-strong protest on the streets of Mohill in County Leitrim denouncing the evils of this syncopated music. 'Down with Jazz,' 'Out With Paganism' proclaimed the banners. Jazz, Fr. Conefrey ranted, emanated from "the savages of Africa" and had been brought to Ireland by "the anti-God society, with the object of destroying morals and religion."

The anti-jazz rallies were part of a wider program of cultural nationalism prevalent in Ireland between the World Wars but three quarters of a century later the tables have turned. Today, it's the ordinary folk who are denouncing the moral corruption of the Catholic Church, horrified by the culture of sexual abuse seemingly endemic in this once revered institution. The Catholic Church ain't what it used to be.

The same could be said for jazz, but whereas the Catholic Church—at least in Ireland—has atrophied, jazz continues to evolve. Jazz is not without its schisms and conservatism but on the whole the music displays a healthy capacity to change with the times and embrace diversity. The music has come a long way since Father Conefrey's day and diversity was the order of the day at Down With Jazz.

Down with Jazz—the second annual installment of the Improvised Music Company's ongoing mission to bring jazz to the heathens—assembled 15 Irish bands in a thumping three-day celebration of jazz's rude health. The location was Meeting House Square, a refurbished space in the heart of the vibrant Temple Bar district, bordered by the 18th century Presbyterian Meeting House and the 19th Century Quaker Meeting House.

The Presbyterian Meeting House fell into rack and ruin before being converted in 1995 to house The Ark, a contemporary and innovative children's theater—part of the architectural and cultural transformation of this corner of Dublin. The outer doors designed by Santiago Calatrava open up the theater stage onto the square. A retractable roof consisting of four large canopies mounted on 21-meter columns above the square floor glowed in purples, yellows, greens and blues from spotlights, creating an aesthetically stunning ambiance. It also kept the rain off the 500-strong crowd who warmed themselves on hot stew and beer.

Hotels were fully booked over the weekend as hoards descended on the Dub for the World Cup qualifier between the Republic of Ireland and Sweden on the Friday, and for the All-Ireland Hurling final between Cork and Kilkenny on the Sunday. Father Conefrey would no doubt do yet another 360 degrees in his resting place to know that today's sports stadiums and music halls are the real cathedrals of the masses.

Day one of Down With Jazz got under way with the Chris Engel Quintet. The saxophonist is one of the busiest musicians in Dublin and at the recent Workin II: Irish Jazz Showcase all-dayer he appeared in no fewer than five different ensembles. That stage-hopping role certainly showcased his notable chops in a series of exuberant solos, but here as leader his songwriting and arranging abilities were more to the fore.

When visiting jazz standards such as keyboardist Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and Sammy Fain/Bob Hilliard's "Alice in Wonderland" Engel occupied the mid-ground between grooving hard-bop and the sound of saxophonist John Coltrane's classic quartet. South African guest trumpeter Lee Thompson and Engel forged strongly melodic unison lines on the heads before peeling off in extended solos that never overstayed their welcome. The rhythm section of drummer Matthew Jacobson, bassist Cormac O'Brien and pianist Johnny Taylor fired on all cylinders, with Jacobson's ever-evolving accents adding fizz to standard jazz fare.

The standout track was Engel's own composition, "Coyle's Jig," a subtly Irish folk-influenced tune that maintained a tension throughout, with the saxophonist never quite giving in to the free jazz urge that seemed to simmer within his engaging solo. A lively set concluded with another dose of hard-bop. Engel is one of the most arresting instrumentalists on the Irish jazz scene. His songwriting signals an individual voice emerging and hints at greater things to come.

Friday served up two of Ireland's great guitarists in Mike Nielsen and Nigel Mooney, both of whom shone at the recent Sligo Jazz Project. At SJP Nilesen showed his versatility performing in various projects but at Down With Jazz he was leading his own ensemble, Ripe for Rebels. In a career spanning thirty years, Nielsen has performed with saxophonists Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and guitarist Larry Coryell, yet his performance drew as much from world roots music as it did modern jazz.

"African Trip" showcased Nielsen's highly rhythmic approach to acoustic guitar—chugging chords dovetailed with flamenco-esque rasgeuos and improvisational flurries. "Rigby Sketches," from Nielson's CD Acoustic Sound Recipes (Self Produced, 2011), featured an extended guitar passage that illustrated the guitarist's capacity to captivate through shifting dynamics that didn't rely on a constant cascade of notes—space was an important component of Nielsen's sonic fabric.

Jazz standards such as Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and Coltrane's "Giant Steps" were remolded to Nielsen's design, with kernels of the original melodies riding on waves of the guitarist's imagination. The former tune featured an exciting exchange between guitarist and pianist Greg Fenten while the latter saw Nielsen switch to electric. Drummer James Mackin was a subtly dynamic presence throughout. Even when plugged in and in experimental mode Nielsen's improvisation was more about texture—stretching notes out and steering feedback like a sonic sculptor.

In contrast, Mooney's set drew on Chicago blues and vocal jazz/R&B of an older vintage. Highlighting songs from his album The Bohemian Mooney (LYTE Records, 2013) Mooney's band of pianist Johnny Taylor, bassist Dan Bodwell and drummer Shane O'Donnovan provided energetic support in a highly polished collective performance.

Mooney's clean, singing guitar lines and his vocal delivery to boot owed a debt to B.B. King and the band drew from the blues legend's repertoire with a rocking version of "Baby Don't You Want a Man like Me." The highlight of the set was "Poinciana"; Taylor's lightly dancing piano lines and O'Donnovan's crisp drumming paid homage to pianist Ahmad Jamal's trio, for whom the tune has become a signature piece over the past fifty years.

Bodwell's fast-walking bass propelled the group through a swinging take on Cole Porter's "I'm in Love" and a tune evocative of Georgie Fame rounded off a polished set with Mooney and company paying brief tribute to Weather Report via a rendition of "Birdland"'s closing theme.

Rain and a drop in temperature dashed any temporarily-held illusions that Meeting House Square was like a piazza in the Mediterranean, but closing act Yurodny 's vibrant Balkan rhythms raised spirits and stirred the blood. Alto saxophonist Nick Roth's multi-national nine-piece little-big band featured cello, three violinists, bass, drums, accordion and pan flute. Violinists Oleg Pomomarev and Cora Venus Luny, accordionist/percussionist Francesco Turrisi and Iulian Pusca on pan flute stood out as soloists, though the strength of Yurodny lay in the pulsating collective voice.

A good portion of the crowd was soon on its feet pogoing and spinning to the heady rhythms. A can-can snaked its way around the square as others own-thinged with varying degrees of style and co-ordination in front of the stage. They were just the sort of shenanigans that brought Father Conefrey sand his righteous followers onto the streets of Mohill in a fit or moral outrage all those decades ago. Tut tut.

The man behind Down With Jazz and emcee for the three days, the Improvised Music Company's Gerry Godley, turned his hand to weather forecasting: "Things are looking better tomorrow," he told the crowd. We should have thirty degrees. That's fifteen in the morning and fifteen in the afternoon." By the time Day 2 of Down With Jazz got under way at 7:30 in the evening it was a lot less than fifteen degrees and cold rain slid off the retractable canopy roof over Meeting House Square.

Given the good summer that Ireland has enjoyed it seemed odd to say the least that Down With Jazz wasn't held two or three weeks earlier in decent weather. Considerable money was invested in creating one of Dublin's iconic recreational spaces and it would be time equally well spent if the Temple Bar Trustees had a rethink on events scheduling where the interests of the paying public come first.

The chill, damp air however, didn't dissuade the punters and another full house turned out for day two of Down With Jazz. Singer Cormac Kenevey turned back the clock with a swinging set of jazz standards from the Great American Songbook in a stylish performance that underlined just why critics and audiences have been so enthusiastic about the young Irish singer.

Kenevey' suave delivery owed much to Mel Torme and Harry Connick Junior but it was his technical ability that wowed the crowd. Short, bop-inflected scats and sustained notes peppered original arrangements of "This is It" and old favorites like Cole Porter's "Get out of Town," Rogers & Hart's "This Can't Be Love" and John Hendricks's "Cloudburst." On the latter, taken at breakneck speed, Kenevey's articulation and phrasing was impressive.

Pianist Johnny Taylor, bassist Damien Evans and drummer Kevin Brady lent Kenevey buoyant support and enjoyed plenty of solo spotlight. Only on singer/songwriter Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance" did Kenevey veer away from the standards songbook and the diversion provided a set highlight. One of Simon's lines seemed particularly appropriate for Kenevey, who gave up a career as a software consultant to follow his dream of becoming a jazz singer: "The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains."

No jazz festival is complete without a taste of the blues. Veteran guitarist Ed Deane duly obliged with a lively set that drew from several decades of the blues, mixed up with a little rock 'n' roll and R&B. Keyboardist Joe Zawinul' "Mercy Mercy Mercy"—a Billboard number one hit in 1967—opened the show, with Deane carving out a soulful solo.

An up-tempo version of "The Blues Ain't Nothin'" bristled with energy and may have been inspired by guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. Saxophonist Richard Buckley's sinewy solo tied the blues knot with jazz. Deane certainly didn't hide his influences and paid homage to The Rolling Stones on a grinding R&B version of "The Last Time," with drummer Noel Bridgeman and bassist John Quearney laying down an infectious groove.

Deane switched to slide on Mississippi Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move" and on a slow-burning version of pianist Buddy Johnson's 1945 composition "Since I Fell for You." Deane's slide fairly howled on singer Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues" and cried like a train whistle on a refreshingly original take on singer Van Morrison's "Baby Please Don't Go." Unlike McDowell, Deane never picked cotton, nor did he have to use a beef rib bone to play slide, but he's been playing this music with passion for forty five years, which surely counts as dues well and truly paid.

A short musical interlude of sorts took place in the middle of the audience—a mini happening if you will. The duo Bebop and Rock Steady—multi-instrumentalist Tom Walsh and drummer Shane Latimer—gave a mini improvisational performance that was short on cohesion but high on energy and laughs. The duo provided a genuine festival moment to savor, interacting with the crowd in a beautifully madcap vignette that was bizarrely entertaining.

Three bands that had featured at the heady all-dayer Workin II: Jazz Irish Showcase in Dublin in May followed. Butter, fronted by vocalist Georgia Cusack, played a grooving New Soul set that drew on repertoire old and new alike. Saxophonist Chris Engel and trumpeter Lee Thompson lent harmonic depth and Johnny Taylor's sensitive Rhodes keyboard work underpinned everything.

The Multiverse, led by Niwel Tsumbu, gave an intense demonstration of guitar trio dynamics. Congolese guitarist Tsumbu's unique style drew from his African roots and a jazz-rock aesthetic all of his own design. Bassist Peter Erdei and drummer Shane O'Donovan made for a powerful rhythm section and one completely in tune with Tsumbu's explorations. Extended compositions "Myth" and "Space Junk" lay somewhere between jam and through-composed discipline.

Whatever the degree of improvisation, there was no escaping the energy and excitement generated by this outstanding trio. There was just a hint of Jimi Hendrix's hybrid musical sensibility in Tsumbu's riveting playing, appropriate enough perhaps on the 43rd anniversary of Hendrix's last gig. The trio's debut recording is due for release in 2014 and, with a bit of luck, will introduce The Multiverse to audiences beyond Irish shores.

Electronic/jazz techno closed the second day of Down With Jazz. DJ/electronics improviser Daniel Jacobson's laid ZoiD down thumping dance-floor rhythms while saxophonist Engel and trumpeter Bill Blackmore played stirring unison lines. A good crowd got down in front of the stage with one dancer going for it with an arm-flailing, leg-jerking style that evoked the thrashing around of Bladerunner's replicant Pris upon being 'retired' by Deckard. All good fun.

Day three of Down With Jazz began at 2pm with a weak sun casting its rays on UCD Gamelan. This is the third gamelan orchestra in Ireland but the first in Dublin. Given that the 12-piece orchestra has only been together since October 2012, the performance of traditional compositions from central Java alongside original pieces was all the more impressive. Xylophones, drums and gongs combined in hypnotic interlocking melodies, with the musicians rotating roles after each piece.

UCD Gamelan leader Peter Moran announced that a set of gamelan instruments has generously been donated to the National Concert Hall by the Sultan of Yogyakarta. The gamelan instruments will be arriving in January 2014 and will need musicians to play them. Experience, Moran was quick to point out, is not necessary: "It doesn't matter if you don't know what to do. No-one here does. We're all learning from scratch." It sounds like the perfect opportunity for anyone who would like to be a musician but has doubted their ability.

Fresh from the success of the Sligo Jazz Project 2013, bassist Eddie Lee and No Crows braved the GAA hurling traffic to grace Down With Jazz with a delightful brand of folk that mixed Irish, Balkan, South American and Mediterranean airs seamlessly.

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra's "Music for a Found Harmonium" was given an Eastern European twist by Russian violinist Oleg Ponomarev. He gave a virtuoso performance on the traditional tune from Siberia that followed and on Lee's swinging "Troy." Opening their strings to South American influences, mandolinist Anna Houston's pretty Venezuelan folk melody waltzed merrily along before a sudden injection of pace quickened the collective pulse.

Spanish guitarist Felip Carbonell sang in Mallorcan on a lovely slower tune accompanied by Houston on cello and Ray Coen on guitar. "Magpie," the title track of No Crows critically acclaimed second CD was a beautifully lilting slice of Irish folk while Ponomarev's vibrant Russian wedding dance "The Crow Hora" and an equally energetic Greek fling brought down the curtain on a wonderful set.

The most straight-ahead jazz gig of Down With Jazz was by trombonist Paul Dunlea's group. The Cork-based musician showcased tunes from his debut CD, bi-polAr (Self Produced, 2012), which featured some of Ireland's top jazz musicians including saxophonists Nick Roth and Michael Buckley. The septet has been playing these compositions for well over a year and the resulting tightness in the playing produced a vibrant dynamic that was a little lacking in the studio effort.

The lyrical "The Honeymoon is Over" opened the set with Dunlea, saxophonist Karl Rooney and trumpeter Danny Healey blending nicely over Owen Walsh's walking bass. Melody and harmonic layers were central to the group sound, though on "Bi-polAr" bassist Owen Walsh and drummer Davie Ryan's funk groove paved the way for some sparks from guitarist Joe O'Callagahan. "Twists and Turns" plotted similarly funky territory, with Dunlea executing a fine solo.

The closing number stemmed from extended saxophone/trumpet/trombone harmonies of some charm before ceding the ground to Rooney, who stretched out on another notable improvisation. Dunlea's deft arrangements and colorful layering of sounds in this septet probably owes much to his big band experience. It may well be, however, that he makes his name leading smaller ensembles, for within the seeds of this performance lie the promise of greater things to come.

Dublin Guitar Night served up four notable guitarists, each of whom displayed quite different styles. John Walsh gave a remarkable flamenco performance that demonstrated not only his phenomenal technique but his evident feel for the idiom. Darragh O'Neil's highly melodic, contemporary style blended classical tradition with folkloric flavors. "Rory," his tribute to legendary Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher evoked the country blues of Lead Belly's "Out on the Western Plain"—a staple of Gallagher concerts.

By happy coincidence one of the two main entrances to Meeting House Square was named Rory's Corner in honor of the guitarist, though as one person observed, had Gallagher been born in Dublin it would have been named Rory's Street. There was more blues from Pat Farrell and Hugh Buckley, who gave a duo recital, trading lines on John Mayall's "Don't Turn Your Back." All four guitarists then combined on a pretty Latin-tinged number, followed by O'Neil's gorgeous composition "Clouds." A highly engaging quadruple bill finished off with a blues workout on a Farrell composition.

Without a doubt, one of the most eagerly anticipated concerts of Down With Jazz was the performance of Khanda's suite Five Cities. Bassist Ronan Guilfoyle's project blending south Indian drumming, jazz and Irish traditional music was first released in 2003 on the Improvised Music Company label and toured India to great critical acclaim. Down With Jazz director Gerry Godley was only slightly out when he said: "This band plays with the frequency of Halley's Comet passing earth," for indeed ten years had passed since the group's previous performance.

For nearly forty minutes, the various musical threads entwined as one. Accordionist Peter Brown's harmonium-like drone and singer Sara Beuchi's haunting vocals were joined by Martin Nolan's uilleann pipes as idioms joined seamlessly. Drummer Connor Guilfoyle and Ramesh Shotham's double-headed drum layered insistent rhythms, inviting Guilfoyle's bass and Tommy Hafferty's guitar to join the steadily building groove.

Beuchi—who spent two years in India studying Karnatic music—combined beautifully with flutist Ellen Cranitch, but the most striking passages of a totally absorbing suite came when everybody was on board singing a common tongue. Lyrical, rootsy and exhilarating, the standing ovation that greeted the final note spoke volumes about the power of the performance.

An encore seemed like a pointless ask, but in fact a tongue-in-cheek vocal duet between Shotham and Nolan blended Irish diddle-dee-dee and konnakol—surely distant cousins—in a delightful exchange entitled "Jibberish." Given its track record it's unlikely that Khanda will perform Five Cities with any great frequency in the future, so such a performance is to be cherished. On the other hand, it would seem a shame not to rekindle the flame every once in a while.

The honor of closing Down With Jazz for another year—and no small task following Khanda—fell to Outerspaceways Inc., the riotous Sun Ra tribute band led by multi-instrumentalist Tom Walsh. A honking baritone saxophone invaded the evening air, and it took most people a little while to work out that it was coming from above. On the balcony of the Ark building, almost at roof level, Chris Engel, with red and green lights flashing on his saxophone, drew exclamative cries from his instrument in a kind of cosmic reveille. It signaled to the musicians down on Earth to file through the audience and onto the stage.

Thirty or so musicians crowded the stage, attired in gold and orange glittery robes and an assortment of wigs and sunglasses. Flashcards signaled to both band and audience various musical commands, such as 'louder,' 'quieter,' 'crescendo,' 'free noise,' 'quiet' and 'stop.' This was never an altogether serious endeavor and a kind of shambolic enthusiasm reigned during renditions of "We Travel the Spaceways," the ever-joyous "Face the Music" and "Space is the Place."

Sun Ra would have been horrified at the bum notes, sloppy syncopation and general anarchy of the performance and would probably have sacked everybody. But then again, Ra never did comedy.

Perhaps Father Conefrey, were he looking down on the shenanigans, would have identified with the myth and legend, the cult of Sun Ra—the self-styled prophet of peace. No doubt had they met, Ra would have told the good Father: "You have to face the music; you have to listen to the cosmic sound." To which Father Conefrey would likely have replied: "Down with this sort of thing!"

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of Dublin Jazz Photography

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