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Down With Jazz 2013

Down With Jazz 2013
Ian Patterson By

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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.

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