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Down With Jazz 2014


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There's a lot of really exceptional music going on in Dublin right now, and the media should be telling people about it in an informed way.
—Lauren Kinsella
Down With Jazz
Meeting House Square
Dublin, Ireland
May 31-June 1, 2014

There's nothing quite like a Bank Holiday weekend, sunshine and music. Having moved from 2013's September slot with its unpredictable autumn weather to the last weekend in May with its unpredictable spring weather, Down With Jazz 2014 passed off dryly, which raised the spirits and surely contributed to the dancing that broke out sporadically.

It was the combination of spirits—of the alcoholic kind—and jazzy dancing that incited the ire of the Catholic Church in 1930s Ireland. The threat to the old ways and to the authority of the Church was really the issue and lead to street demonstrations in 1934, demonstrations whose slogans inspired Down With Jazz's name eighty years later. Father Conefrey, who was at the head of the anti-jazz rally in Leitrim on New Year's Day 1934, equated jazz—and more specifically the unsupervised dancing it inspired—with paganism and lustful desire. Down with that sort of thing!

"Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire," playwright George Bernard Shaw was credited as saying, a good dozen years after he died. That quotation has also been attributed variously to writer Oscar Wilde and poet Robert Frost, but perhaps one of them nicked it from Father Conefrey when he wasn't looking. Had Cloone's most famous parish priest been present in Meeting House Square for the third edition of DWJ he would have struggled to equate the rather diverse music on offer with that which so upset the Irish Church in 1934. He would, however, no doubt have been delighted to learn that dancing has practically no part in modern jazz culture. These days, jazz may move heads and toes, but bums are usually firmly rooted to quite comfy chairs.

Reduced from three evenings to two, DWJ may have downsized in terms of the number of bands showcased but organizer Gerry Godley and his Improvised Music Company's commitment to showcasing the best of Dublin's vibrant jazz/creative music scene remains intact. And the crowd has grown, with attendance visibly up from last year—an encouraging sign that there's arguably a growing appetite for this sort of music.

First up on Saturday evening was the Tommy Halferty Trio. Derry guitarist Halferty, a veteran of the Irish jazz scene since the late 1970s studied with Irish guitar legend Louis Stewart and over the years has performed with singer Norma Winstone, saxophonist Lee Konitz, guitarist John Abercrombie and pianist Martial Solal, in addition to leading his own groups. Halferty, with bassist Dave Redmond and drummer Kevin Brady was showcasing tunes from his new album, Burkina (2014), recently launched at BelloBar .

On the bop-inflected "D42" and "Airflight," the trio played with the sort of tight-but-loose intensity of drummer Ginger Baker's 1990s trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden. "Algiers De Blanche" was an elegant, slower-paced number with a lovely, meandering solo from Halferty. Redmond, whose recent Roots (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2013) was one of the outstanding Irish releases of last year, followed suit with an equally lyrical solo.

Halferty's lyricism and melodic soloing belongs to the school of Stewart or Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine, but there's greater fire in his playing reminiscent at times of guitarist John Scofield and Sco's catchy "Everybody's Party" was indeed a perfect fit for Halferty's more aggressive playing. An older tune, whose titled was lost in translation, revolved around Redmond's fast-walking bass and saw another great solo from Halferty. Hopefully, Halferty's trio will find the means to take this music around Ireland, for there surely aren't many better jazz guitar trios in the country.

After the Tommy Halferty Trio the jazz element of DWJ was served up in various guises. OKO, the electro-acoustic quartet of guitarist Shane Latimer is a fairly new band, but its debut recording I Love You Computer Mountain (Diatribe Records, 2014) already points to a creative unit brimming with ideas.

"Shoehorns and Axelgrease" opened the set with drummer Shane O'Donovan on mallets and minimalist touches from turntabalist/sampler DJackulate's and keyboardist Darragh O'Kelly creating a dreamy soundscape. Spoken word tapes filtered through the mix as a dub beat took over. Sci-fi sounds and busy drums became more prominent as the music swelled, providing the backdrop for O'Kelly's mazy solo.

It's pointless trying to stick a name on music that rides in the slipstream of so many stylistic influences; ambient chill-out, hip-hop, dub, electronica, funk, psychadelia and jazz-fusion are all there. On the final number, with DJackulate on saxophone and O'Kelly stretching out on guitar-synthesizer the heady musical brew conjured the very best prog-cum-space rock fantasy.

The first vocal music of DWJ came with DFF, the new band of guitarist/vocalist Dave Flynn. Featuring cellist/co-vocalist Vivienne Long, Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, Aidan Dunphy on drums, Cion O'Callaghan on percussion and Dan Bodwell on double bass, DFF's sophisticated pop tunes were bursting with colors from around the world. DFF has created a a stir in its short lifespan, garnering glowing reviews from Hot Press and the Irish Times, not to mention an invitation from President Michael D.Higgins to perform at the Presidential Summer Garden Party.

Sunny tunes like "Mad for You" and "Phantom Blues" sounded like soundtracks for summer, with memorable melodies, Flynn and Long's close harmonies, toe-tapping/danceable grooves and Tsumbu's free-wheeling, celebratory soloing. Percolating percussion and laid-back strumming announced "Stonewalls," another tremendously catchy pop anthem, which grew to a rousing finale. "The Mad Magician" displayed the lyric guile and melodic charm of a Paul Simon tune.

A West-African vibe colored the final track, with Tsumbu's most expansive solo evidence of a truly exceptional guitarist—something they've known in Ireland for the past decade. At song's end a signal came telling the band they had two minutes left. Had the warning come earlier Tsumbu could have pushed out the boat even more, but as it was, Flynn introduced the musicians once more before they exited the stage.

Brass bands are all the rage these days—almost as much in fact as the banjo-and-beard-driven Appalachian bands that are taking over the planet. Leading the way from the States are New Orleans' Hot 8, Chicago's Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and the New York Brass Band, but Dublin's very own Booka Brass Band's energizing set at Meeting House Square proved that it can also blow hot and get a serious groove on.

With tuba carving tireless bass riffs, two trumpets, two saxophones, two trombones and a drummer played a lively, eclectic set that scored a hit with the crowd. Just as in the good old days when jazz was popular music, the Booka Brass Band's repertoire drew from contemporary pop culture, that's to say R&B and hip-hop. The crowd rose on cue to the Beyonce/Jay Z hit "Crazy in Love," sang to ska-colored version of Destiny Child's "Survivor" and, in a mis-en-scene that would have had Father Conefrey clutching his rosary beads in apoplectic fury, belted out as one voice the famous chorus to The Blood Hound Gang's "The Bad Touch" ("You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals...) In a way, it's little different to Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio giving the crowds a little of what they know. The knowing applause at any rate is the same.

With a slot at Glastonbury 2014 looming, The Booka Brass Band has come a long way in the short time since its inception in November 2012. No doubt, a hard work ethic explains a lot of its success as the band has gigged all over Dublin—and indeed Ireland—building a fan base, despite the fact that most of them are full-time students. The work has paid off, with the band's debut headline gig at the Button Factory a sold-out triumph. With the band's debut CD on the horizon things are looking good for the Booka Brass Band.

Closing the first night of Down With Jazz was the quartet Alarmist, whose precise rhythms and quasi-orchestral approach to music offered a cerebral alternative to the music that had gone before. Two drummers is a rarity in any genre of music but it's a fundamental element of Alarmist's sound. On the up-tempo "Aztec Dreams," hard groove rubbed shoulders with pop melody and a precision in the double keyboard/guitar orchestration reminiscent of King Crimson. Math-jazz? Even Alarmist might struggle---should they care enough—to hang a name on its music, but it can write a catchy tune as the delightful "PG Films" demonstrated. If instrumental music weren't all but banished from commercial radio this could be a summer hit.

"Pal Magnet," the title track of Alarmist's second EP combined prog-rock intricacy with less complicated rhythmic drive and a melodic pop sensibility. In Alarmist's multi-layered sound there were the roots of all kinds of influences, from electronica and synth-pop to alt-rock and tropicana. Yet as eclectic as the music was, it never failed to groove. Alarmist provided the biggest surprise of Down With Jazz, demonstrating that instrumental music can be challenging and accessible at one and the same time.

Day two of DWJ began with guitarist Chris Guilfoyle's sextet Umbra. With members scattered across Europe and America, Umbra was playing its first gig in almost a year but there were few signs of rust in a vibrant set of original tunes. With drummer Matt Jacobsen, bassist Barry O'Donoghue and keyboardist Darragh O'Kelly laying down wonderfully elastic grooves, the twin attack of soprano saxophonist Chris Engel and tenor saxophonist Sam Comerford—exciting players of contrasting styles—carved out meaty solos while Guilfoyle, for the most part, was content to comp and direct the music.

Rhythmically and harmonically, tunes like "Return Address" "Three Moths" and "Mathematicaster" belong very much in the realm of contemporary jazz, with the saxophones enjoying a freedom usually associated with more avant-garde forms of jazz. Guilfoyle impressed with a patient, yet fluid solo on "Mathematicaster" and again on the final number—which featured a thrilling back-and-forth between the two saxophonists—but even in the midst of the most exuberant solos a pronounced sense of collective groove held sway. Band members' respective sojourns in Switzerland, Belgium and America may prevent Umbra from gigging much in the short term but it would be a shame if this exciting sextet didn't engineer geography and time to document its original material on CD.

Ireland's loss was London's gain when Dublin singer Lauren Kinsella upped sticks and moved across the pond in 2010. In a short space of time Kinsella has won many admirers and earned rave reviews for her adventurous, captivating singing. Recently Kinsella won the Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize, awarded annually to a graduating student of the Royal Academy of Music. Panel judge Evan Parker remarked upon Kinsella's "range and depth of expression," and besides the recognition the prize included the recording of an album on the fast-rising Edition Records, due for autumn 2014 release. That album will be with Kinsella's quartet Blue Eyed Hawk and if its DWJ performance was any indication, then the forthcoming CD is really something to look forward to.

A unique rendition of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" opened the show. Guitarist Alex Roth's feedback and drummer Corrie Dick's shuffling rhythms created a restless, free-jazz ambiance that gradually morphed via a minimalist guitar ostinato into an ethereal groove with Kinsella's vocals at the centre. Kinsella's vocal improvisation charted refreshingly unpredictable terrain but was highly musical in essence —gobbledygook turned poetry. Trumpeter Laura Jurd's delicate trumpet provided the perfect foil for Kinsella and, switching trumpet for whistling, joined with Kinsella at song's end, the singer faithfully reproducing Edgar Harburg's closing lyrics to Harold Arlen's melody. It was a stunning opening number.

On the up-tempo "Spider's Ton" (?) Kinsella wove the lyrics with a storyteller's charm and on the powerful, W.B. Yeats-inspired song "O Do Not Love Too Long" Kinsella soared in parallel with Jurd. On another track, Jurd and Roth conjured a dreamy lyricism reminiscent of Bill Frisell's Blues Dream (Nonesuch Records, 2001) band, beneath Kinsella's half sung-half-spoken improvisation. Poetry's rhythms and cadences, its images and spaces for the imagination form a central part of Kinsella's craft, as seen on albums like All This Talk About (WideEarRecords, 2012)—a striking duo project with drummer Alex Huber—and the quintet recording Thought Fox (Diatribe Records, 2012).

One of the strengths of Blue Eyed Hawk was the easing from whispery minimalism to epic cry. The quartet also impressed on more conventional pop-structured material, like Roth's "Reflections on the Spiral"—with a sparkling solo from Jurd—and the set closer "Living in the Fast Lane," which rippled with punkish energy. Melodic yet edgy, this was a fine performance that struck a balance between form and free-form; Blue Eyed Hawk is clearly a name to watch out for.

Another name making waves in Irish traditional circles is seven-piece band Ensemble Eriu, whose original take on an old art form places it among the surging ranks of modernists like The Gloaming, This Is How We Fly, Moxie and the trans-Atlantic group The Olllam. All highly distinctive, what nevertheless binds these groups is a love of traditional Irish folk music and the desire to take it into new territories.

With double bassist Neil O'Loghlen and drummer Matthew Jacobson providing the fulcrum, box accordionist Jack Talty and fiddler Jeremy Spenser dominated the melodic lines. Marimba player Maeve O'Hara was significant too, in defining the ensemble sound. With Sam Comerford—deputizing for Matthew Berrill—on reeds and Paddy Greonland on an often African-flavored acoustic guitar the Ensemble Eriu's sound was many-layered.

Visiting rearrangements of traditional Irish tunes, the band mixed minimalism with improvisation, repeating figures typical of minimalism with straight grooves, and lilting melody enlivened by percussive waves. At slow and faster tempos alike, Ensemble Eriu wove a hypnotic narrative. Along with the above-mentioned bands, Eriu Ensemble is helping to redefine the possibilities of traditional Irish music and building a bridge—that will surely invite traffic in both directions—between traditionalist and modernist camps.

Two rollicking bands of quite distinct stripes rounded out Down With Jazz for 2014. First up was Toot Sweet, an eight-piece band that dealt in New Orleans-inspired funk. Toot Sweet boasts some of Ireland's finest jazz talent: pianist/arranger Cian Boylan, bassist Dan Bodwell and drummer John Wilde formed a grooving rhythm section; saxophonist Brendan Doyle, trumpeter Mark Adams and trombonist Karl Ronan created rich front-line harmonies, while guitarist Conor Brady cut some terrific solos. Vocalist Cormac Kenevey's Harry Connick Junior-esque vocals on several numbers brought an extra dimension to the instrumental funk, soul and groove repertoire and he weighed in on percussive duties to boot.

An invigorating set finished on a high with the MarchFourth Marching Band's anthem "Gospel"; handclaps and obligatory chants of "rise up, rise up, rise up, rise up to the sky" reverberated around Meeting House Square," with the best harmonies coming from a pocket of well-fueled choristers camped close to the bar. Toot Sweet's first rate musicianship combined with a heavy dose of the feel-good factor made it the ideal festival band. The last word of DWJ 2014, however, went to Manden Express, yet another exciting new band on the burgeoning Dublin music scene.

Formed in 2012, Manden Express is fronted by Paul McElhatton, who has ventured many times to Africa to learn the harp-like kamele ngoni. The name "Manden..." represents a large family of ethnic groups from a dozen or so African countries who speak related languages. Manden Express is pretty multi-cultural itself, with electric guitarist Jose Dominguez and electric bassist Manuel Sanz from Spain, singer Emma Garnett from Sierra Leone, acoustic guitarist Paddy Groenland and percussionist Brian Lynch both from Ireland, and drummer Cote Calmet from Peru.

The music drew inspiration in large part from West African musical traditions, though Santana-esque jazz-fusion surfaced when the band was in full swing. That's when the ..."Express" part of the name became clear, for when Calmet was thrashing his kit with furious industry and bass and percussion were grooving hard, when Dominguez' guitar was tearing free and Garnett was chanting like Oumou Sangaré over McElhatton's infectious ngoni vibes, when all these parts came together as one voice, then the septet roared like a train. The crowd loved it and from start to finish—which arrived all too soon—and the area in front of the stage was a mass of vertically inclined, horizontally thinking groovers.

In just three editions Down With Jazz has done as much as any festival to highlight and promote the diversity of highly talented, Dublin-based bands that play week in week out in the numerous venues dotting the city. As Gerry Godley remarked at one point—in reference to the genre-mashing music on offer—jazz lives alongside "music from neighboring constellations..." It was a thought-provoking comment, for jazz that refuses to evolve or stay fresh atrophies, gets stuck in a time warp and finds itself playing to shrinking, ageing crowds.

If jazz is, as many insist, more about an approach to music rather than a codified style, then the options for jazz musicans are limitless. One suspects that Godley's aim is to reimagine the mainstream by doing away with stylistic boundaries, thus bringing all the neighbors together for one hell of a good time. After all, who wants to be the only person at the party? Or the only planet in the galaxy? Down with that sort of thing!

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Dublin Jazz Photography


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