Dublin Jazz Book Launch at BelloBar

Ian Patterson By

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Dublin Jazz Book Launch
Dublin, Ireland
May 11, 2014

They came out in good numbers to celebrate the launch of the Dublin Jazz Book at the BelloBar in the funky Portobello neighborhood of Dublin. The success of the evening went beyond numbers though, for the publishing of the DJB—essentially a Real Book of compositions by Dublin-based musicians—marks a potentially new chapter in the history of Dublin jazz, jazz in Ireland, and—whisper it quietly—jazz in a global context.

Jazz musicians, many of them contributors to the DJB, turned out in force to participate in a lengthy celebratory jam in the BelloBar that provided evidence of the depth of jazz talent that Dublin currently boasts. The BelloBar is located beneath The Lower Deck pub near the Grand Canal and just around the corner from Synge Street, birthplace of playwright George Bernard Shaw. A relatively new live music venue, the BelloBar was the perfect spot for the DJB launch, with its underground chic, unpretentious furnishing and just the right amount of kookiness.

The DJB was the brainchild of saxophonist Sam Kavanagh, who produced the DJB in collaboration with designer Steven McNamara. Shortly before the doors opened, Kavanagh and McNamara spoke about the DJB , the idea behind it and it and how it became a reality: "It came about from realizing that a lot of the gigs around Ireland are either jazz standard gigs where you can hear music that was written in the 1940s or '50s or even earlier, or where there were a lot of original compositions but always whoever composed the music generally would put together a band, rehearse it a lot for one gig and play a whole gig of just their music," explained Kavanagh.

It was through reading jazz history that a light came on in Kavanagh's mind: "It occurred to me that people used to play each other's compositions all the time because they knew them. They were able to jam on each other's music, on each other's compositions. The standards were modern. I thought to myself, how could they do that? It wasn't just that they gathered together for one gig. They played the tunes a lot, so it occurred to me that it would be really handy if we could look at all these [Dublin] composers' tunes whenever we wanted to learn one and then if we happen to bump into them we can say 'Let's play your tune. That was great. I learnt it last year.'"

The DJB has become a reality in fairly quick time, though for Kavanagh the time scale is relative: "I've never done it before so I'm not sure how quickly it should have been," he says laughing, "but it took a year from sitting with a cup of tea thinking about it to now." There was a belief in the project from the outset and a determination to bring the idea to fruition, as McNamara relates: "We've worked on a lot of projects together already and we work well at actually implementing things. The idea of the Dublin Jazz Book didn't just pop up out of nowhere," he says. "We've talked about jazz and promoting different things a lot. It was the logical progression of how do we make Dublin jazz more accessible, internationally as well? How do we tell people about it and promote it?"

The fifty three tunes by twenty eight musicians represent just a sample of the Dublin jazz scene as of May 2014. Yet in the mixture of compositions by youth and veterans, students and professionals, Dubliners and foreign residents, the DJB nevertheless provides a fairly representative cross-section of the Dublin jazz community: "I guess I was thinking pragmatically in that these are people who are in the local scene that you can see," Kavanagh explains.

The criterion for tune selection was, admits Kavanagh, fairly straightforward: "It was just 'send me a tune,'" he says laughing. "It was simply that. Some people sent more than one tune, in which case we didn't use all of them, but everyone who did send at least one tune is represented."

When pressed, Kavanagh and McNamara admit that the DJB was a big job to realize: "It was a lot of work," says Kavanagh, "but no more than I was expecting and certainly no more than I was happy to do because the end product was in my mind from the beginning."

Reaction to the DJB so far has pleased Kavanagh and McNamara: "It's been great so far," says McNamara. "I think the musicians have been a little bit blown away by the level of professionalism and the quality of the book. Often projects like this are talked about but not implemented to the standard they should be but I think the musicians feel proud that they're in this book, which means that they're proud of their music, which can only be good for the whole jazz scene. I think that's the most important thing."

"One of the things I've noticed," adds Kavanagh, "is that a lot of musicians that are in the book live abroad and they seem very excited to introduce the material from this book into the music scenes where they are. The reaction is to share it." In fact, at the time of writing, Kavanagh related that drummer/vocalist Bonnie Stewart is in Australia, guitarist Chris Guilfoyle is in Switzerland, double bassist Dan Callaghan is in China, singer-guitarist Danny Forde is in Berklee, Boston, John O'Flynn is in France, singer Lauren Kinsella is in London, singer Sarah Beuchi is in Scandanavia and guitarist Stephen McHale is in Valencia, Spain. "The book has a dual benefit," says McNamara, "to create standards for the local musicians so that they can play each other's music readily and for people to share it internationally, which is exciting."

What is perhaps significant, though maybe not intentional on the creators' part, is that the DJB seems to mark a step away from the Great American Songbook towards original material and modern jazz standards. As Tony Whyton, Director of the Salford Music Research Centre at the University of Salford pointed out in a 2013 interview with All About Jazz, almost every country where jazz is played has a national jazz agency and many people are interested in writing their own jazz histories of their respective nations. Arguably too, it follows that as jazz finds a more singular identity in many countries throughout the world many musicians are less beholden to the Great American Songbook.

Interestingly, the DJB comes just over a year after the publication of the Australian Jazz Real Book, an ambitious work with over 400 compositions covering 70 years of Australian jazz. If these two jazz Real Books do signify an international trend away from the long-established American jazz standard—and that's not a given by any means— then it was neither the intention of the DJB's creators, nor a cause they particularly care to champion.

"I'm certainly nor bored of jazz standards and this is not an aggressive reaction to the jazz standards," says Kavanagh. "This is not a replacement to the jazz standards, it's a supplement. I think every discipline has this conversation about tradition versus new stuff. My personal answer is to do both. I've never had a problem one day doing something stylistically traditional and the next day doing something stylistically innovative. I don't feel the need to pick one side."

Maybe Kavanagh is right and it's not about choosing sides, for after all, jazz is nothing if not inclusive. In fact, one of the primary reasons that jazz has become increasingly difficult to clearly define is that at any point in its history it has been possible to witness the jazz of almost every preceding decade up to the present.

Another point that binds Australian and Irish jazz—particularly Northern Irish—is the preservation of trad jazz. Though perhaps not common knowledge, the Australian Jazz Convention is the world's oldest and longest-running jazz festival, having celebrated trad jazz in a different town or city every year since 1946. Tradition for most folk is important. It's about roots. Yet one of the major paradoxes of jazz is that its adherents lionize and idolize those figures who have thought outside the box and challenged the norms. As George Bernard Shaw stated: "Progress is impossible without change..."

The DJB signals change, or at least the intent for change. For from the first notes of "My Shining Hour" (the Harold Arlen tune turned bebop standard by John Coltrane), with drummer Cote Calmet, bassist Cormac O'Brien, pianist Johnny Taylor, guitarist Julien Colarossi, and saxophonists Sam Cumberford and Chris Engel kicking up a storm, to the last note of the evening several of hours later, the only tunes played at The DJB launch were tried and tested jazz standards.

The irony that not one tune from the DJB was played the entire evening was not lost on many who were present. As one musician observed, it would have taken a long time to rehearse the tunes of the DJB but whatever the underlying reasons it seemed like an opportunity missed not to showcase at least some of the tunes. In fact, bebop standards held court pretty much all evening. It wasn't until singer Georgia Cussack's arresting interpretation of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" that the tempo and mood of the music significantly changed.

The Dublin jazz musicians who stepped up to the plate on the evening, it has to be said, played their butts off. Bassist Damien Evans, guitarists Max Zaska and Peter Dobai, saxophonist Nick Roth and singer Sivan Arbel, amongst others, all impressed. Yet as one bebop standard followed another, the elephant in the room—that's to say the unplayed tunes of the DJB—grew larger.

In his introductory speech earlier in the evening Kavanagh said that the important thing in playing jazz is to "bring something of yourself to the table" and certainly Dublin's jazz musicians have bags of personality. Kavanagh also touched upon the image of jazz and it's probably true that for many people around the world jazz means the easy listening of "Summertime" or the helter skelter of bebop—associations that endure all these decades later. In a recent interview for Dublinjazz.ie saxophonist Ernie Watts—a veteran of the Buddy Rich Orchestra of the 1960s—gave his own opinion on the current state of jazz: "Over time I think jazz has got quite codified, and now rather than being a creative idiom it has become more of an interpretative idiom for some people. There are fewer people striving to come up with a different kind of vocabulary. That's where we are in the evolution of music right now."

A new vocabulary is arguably what jazz most needs if it is to attract the young audience that will help ensure a vibrant future for the music, one where there are gigs aplenty for the musicians and enthusiastic, attentive audiences. The Dublin Jazz Book is an encouraging step in that direction. Whether or not it has the desired effect, time will tell.

Photo Credit

Courtesy Des McMahon

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