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Down With Jazz 2014

Ian Patterson By

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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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