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Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival 2019

Ian Patterson By

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It’s the most underpaid, underrepresented, underappreciated music in the world. It takes a lot of work and a lot of passion. Whenever you see people playing this music you know they care about it one hundred percent. Why else would they be doing it? —David Lyttle, drummer, composer, founder of Lyte Records
Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival
Various venues
Falcarragh, Ireland
December 6-7, 2019

Two days, three venues and six gigs. Small but beautiful. After the success of its inaugural edition in 2018, Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival returned to the west-Donegal town with almost exactly the same format, and bar one eleventh hour switch, the same principal venues, that's to say, two of the town's cracking pubs. It could get noisy, but the musicians seemed to feed off the energy, which made for some exciting performances.

Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival was founded by local twins Micheal and Conor Murray and is based around a core of N. Ireland's top young jazz musicians. Alongside the Murrays, Derry guitarist Joseph Leighton, Belfast double bassist Jack Charles Kelly and Waringstown drummer David Lyttle formed the backbone of the programme. With the exception of Lyttle, who is thirty-five and a seasoned globe trotter, all are in their early twenties and starting out on the road to international careers.

Double bassist Conor Murray is not long back from a tour of Russia with Lyttle, while Micheal Murray is playing with Tommy Smith's Youth Jazz Orchestra in Scotland. Leighton, who has completed a short Middle Eastern tour with Lyttle, is the nominal leader of their duo dates in Jamaica in February 2020. Kelly has played with Scott Flanigan and drummer Steve Davis for a BBC broadcast, performed at Brilliant Corners 2018 and has a string of Irish tours under his belt. If Lyttle's name keeps cropping up it's no coincidence. In his role as Artistic Director of Jazzlife Alliance, the MOBO-award nominated drummer/composer is mentoring this young generation of musicians, taking them under his wing and encouraging their development.

Just as importantly as the music, Lyttle is also imparting his business savvy. With around 200 gigs a year, Lyttle is a shining example of how an independent musician can make a living touring jazz. His example has doubtless emboldened the Murrays to start a jazz festival in their own back yard.

The crowds in the pubs looked much the same as last year, though there was one significant difference. Whereas the 2018 edition really had been a local affair, this year the audiences came from near and far. Ramelton is forty kilometres away, Derry 75 kms and Larne 190 kms, but people came from these places, lured by the prospect of some top-notch jazz. They weren't to be disappointed.

Providing the international flavor were UK vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, pianist Steve Hamilton and up-and-coming Canadian guitarist Lucian Gray.

Friday, 6 December

Cleveland Watkiss

Though he's won a slew of Best Jazz Vocalist awards and performed with the likes of Art Blakey, Abdullah Ibrahim, the Kenny Wheeler and Wynton Marsalis, Jazz Warriors co-founder Cleveland Watkiss has other strings to his bow. In fact, to view him only as a jazz singer is reductive. Collaborations with Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bjork, Talvin Singh, The Who, symphony orchestras and gospel choirs, all point to a genuinely multi-faceted artist.

Those present in The Gweedore Bar for this opening gig of Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival 2019 were treated to a slice of Watkiss' broad and often spontaneous musical palette.

Using a loop station to layer multiple vocal parts, both rhythmic and harmonic, Watkiss began with the slow burner "Millennial Times." It was one of several through-composed tunes in an otherwise improvised set, with a soulful version of Bob Marley's "Turn Your Lights Down Low" the other outstanding song of fairly faithful rendition.

On the other hand, jazz standards like "Autumn Leaves," "Summertime," and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" were completely reinvented, with Watkiss carrying the melodies over a veritable choir of interlocking harmonies. On a slow, R&B-esque Brexit rap lamenting the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, there were shades of Bobby McFerrin, but Watkiss is nothing if not an original. The singer would stop mid-song to sup on a pint of Guinness, to interact with the audience, or to regather his improvisational flow. These unscheduled pit stops were all part of his performance craft.

Singalongs and call-and-response chants swept the audience up in short waves of mutual enthusiasm, with more than a few folk finding voices they maybe didn't know they had. Occasionally Watkiss would muddle the lyrics to a song, notably on David Bowie's "Space Oddity," but used such slip-ups as opportunities to launch into improvisational flights.

Watkiss' freedom from the fear of slipping up, or of hitting an impasse, didn't mean the set was without such moments, but it engendered some exceptional passages of on-the-fly improvisation, and no little comedy. For Watkiss, the stage really is a playground, and the audience on a good night like this, his playmates.

Joseph Leighton Trio

The back-bar of The Shamrock was packed out for Joseph Leighton, the Derry guitarist whose stock has risen steadily in the past few years. For this gig Leighton was backed by drummer David Lyttle and Charles Jack Kelly on bass. Much of Leighton's work this year has been in a duo format with Lyttle, including a forty-date duo tour around some of Ireland's lesser-known spots and a Middle Eastern tour. Both have also played often with Kelly, so the deep channels of communication the trio exhibited came as no surprise.

Cole Porter's "E'rything I Love" and Harry Warren/Joseph Young's "You're My Everything" got the set off to a brisk start, with the three musicians revolving in the spotlight. Though possessing distinct musical personalities, the common denominator with all three was the heightened sense of melody in their soloing.

At a recent This Is How We Fly gig in Navan, American percussive dancer Nic Gareiss described instrumentalists as 'dancers holding things,' a description that fitted perfectly the animation of Lyttle and Kelly, whose bodies moved the whole time. Leighton was more reserved by nature—no John Scofield grimaces here—but his dance was internal, his song vibrant and lyrical.

On "All or Nothing at All," the trio was joined by Cleveland Watkiss, who acrobatically mingled lyrics and scat as the song built to a crescendo. Micheal Murray lent his mellifluous tones to the ballad "My One and Only Love," with Leighton's measured solo the jewel in the crown. Murray came into his own with a snaking improvisation on Charlie Parker's bluesy bopper "Segment," with Watkiss again leaving an indelible stamp.

A gently sunny, Latin vibe infused "These Foolish Things," with Lyttle employing his hand—sans sticks—throughout. The slower tempo and greater space on this number, and on Joe Henderson's "Serenity," brought Kelly's lyricism into greater relief. A thrilling drum feature over a sustained vamp signalled the end of the gig, but the audience demanded more and, with Watkiss leading from the front, the musicians tore into "Body and Soul" with gusto.

Saturday, 7 December

Conor Murray & Micheal Murray

The Murray brothers got Saturday afternoon off to a good start in the back bar of The Shamrock, with two sets of jazz standards. Swapping lead and comping roles, the twins impressed on interpretations of "Days of Wine and Roses," and a breezy "Out of Nowhere," which bled into a beautifully tender reading of "Darn That Dream." Following the Latin-tinged "The Shadow of Your Smile" the duo closed out a nicely varied first set with "There is No Greater Love"—a 1936 hit for Isham Jones' Orchestra, which would become better known as the Woody Herman Orchestra.

After a brief pause to allow people to charge their glasses, the Murrays resumed with Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan," which provided a frame for strongly mellifluous improvisations from both. A change in dynamics came with an unaccompanied saxophone intro to "My One and Only Love," Micheal then comping in almost whispered tones as Conor took an extended solo.

Conor sat out "Alone Together" as Michael was joined by Lucian Gray on double bass. The Murrays wrapped up a fine set with a swinging version of Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite."

Steve Hamilton

The Rhodes electric piano wasn't playing ball. Or rather, the legs refused to cooperate. Despite the efforts of five people, the legs refused to join the body of the instrument. There would have been sympathy, however, from anyone in the audience who had ever struggled to assemble flat-pack furniture, sweating though the assembly only to find you have half a dozen unexplained screws left over.

In the end, the stubborn legs were abandoned, and a table was commandeered to substitute. Pianist Steve Hamilton waited patiently throughout, but then he's probably seen stranger things in a twenty-five-year career with Bill Bruford's Earthworks and Billy Cobham's band, and via everybody from Ray Charles, Joe Lovano and Freddie Hubbard to Van Morrison and Carol Kidd.

In the circumstances, the back bar of The Shamrock was the perfect venue for the gig.

From the melancholy of the opening track "Spike's Waltz," Hamilton's set was one dominated by ballads. A lyrical version of Jimmy van Heusen/Johnny Burke's much-covered "Here's that Rainy Day" was followed by the altogether darker "Ojos del Gato" by Carla Bley. "You don't hear her compositions that often these days but she's an absolutely amazing composer and everybody should check her out," Hamilton said in tribute to Bley, before unfurling the witchy harmonies of Bley's composition. There was greater melodic flow in "Falling Grace" (by Bley's life/musical partner, Steve Swallow) and playful dynamics in "Someday My Prince Will Come" , but these proved to be diversions from the ballads that Hamilton was clearly in the mood for. Horace Silver's Peace," Denny Zeitlin's "Quiet Now"—a tune adored by pianist Bill Evans—and a jazzified reworking of Maurice Ravel's "Pavane" made for a restful, even meditative listening experience. The pick of the bunch, however, was a gently bluesy interpretation of the standard "Never Let Me Go," with Hamilton resisting the temptation to over embellish the achingly pretty melody.

Hamilton drew a line under a subtly beguiling performance, with a happily freewheeling—and relatively short—version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." It was a special treat to see Hamilton in such intimate surroundings, but it was impossible to escape the idea of what his ruminations might have sounded like on a concert piano.

That, however, will have to wait for another day and another venue. If the Murrays and the festival's supporters and sponsors in Falcarragh wish to raise the bar, then a decent piano, even if only loaned for the weekend, will be required.

Lucian Gray

Berklee graduate and semi-finalist in the 2019 Herbie Hancock International Guitar Competition, Toronto-born Lucian Gray is a young guitarist on the rise. He may not have released an album as yet, but as this FWJF concert underlined quite emphatically, Lucian Gray is a guitarist boasting an embarrassment of riches. An eleventh-hour change of venue moved the gig from The Gweedore to the upstairs lounge of Batch café and restaurant. In truth, Batch was the better venue, both in terms of space— for the musicians at any rate—and above all acoustically. Having to contend with the noise of Saturday night revelry in a busy pub was never going to lend itself well to full appreciation of Gray's art.

With Lyttle on drums and Conor Murray on bass poised and ready, Gray counted in "Let's Get Lost' and wasted no time in demonstrating an uncommon fluidity, clarity and lightness of touch. Gray's dazzling technique was coupled with genuine soulfulness, the combination heard to great effect on the brushes-driven ballad "My Idea." Nearly everything Gray played was colored by the blues, understated perhaps, yet ever-present.

Like the best leaders, the spaces Gray left invited meaningful input from Lyttle and Murray, the latter's solo on a very tender reading of "The Shadow of your Smile" underlining that any group is only as good as the sum of its parts. The driving tempo of "Just One of Those Things" drew blisteringly fast runs from Gray, though even in high gear no note sounded superfluous.

Equally impressive was Lyttle's kit work, and for those sat on the floor a matter of feet away, it was a thrilling ride to see such a master of his instrument at work, his entire body moving with the currents of the polyrhythms.

The trio was joined by Micheal Murray on "Darn That Dream," his beautifully measured alto saxophone lines drawing a similarly lyrical response from Gray, followed by a melodic solo from Lyttle, who made the drum skins sing. Sonny Rollins' "Solid" closed out a highly impressive set on a bluesy note, with significant closing statements from all. A merited standing ovation ensued, with the greatest applause reserved for Lucian Gray—a remarkable talent with the world at his feet.

David Lyttle Trio

The back bar of The Shamrock was packed out for the closing concert of Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival 2019. Lyttle's trio partners, Conor and Micheal Murray, were joined by Steve Hamilton on electric piano. The set was evenly divided between Lyttle's own compositions and jazz standards.

The swinging hard bop of "City Life" created a sympathetic soundtrack to the bustle and chatter of the bar, a factor for both good and bad in this festival. On the one hand the energy of the crowd could galvanize the musicians, but on slower, more refined tunes, it could be a distraction to those invested in listening.

A tour to China had provided Lyttle with the inspiration for "Summer Always Passes," a meditation on the inevitability of change. From the melodically striking head, Micheal Murray, Hamilton, and then Lyttle, took solos of contrasting personality: Murray's like a summer stroll through a park; Hamilton as though in the final stretches of a race; and Lyttle as though in the midst of a festival of firecrackers.

The cantering rhythms of "After the Flood" coaxed splendid, dancing solos from all, while on the newly minted tune "Camels" Hamilton's dreamy lines evoked Middle Eastern textures, an echo of Lyttle's recent tour with Joseph Leighton to Lebanon, Egypt and Israel.

From there on it was standards all the way. A lively romp through the bop standard "There is no Greater Love" overpowered the background noise, but the boot was on the other foot during the ballad "Misty," with the bar chatter a distraction during a beautifully weighted solo from Micheal Murray. Lyttle paid tribute to his colleagues and their dedication to jazz. "These guys are jazz musicians three hundred and sixty-five days of the year and it's one of the hardest things out there to perform. You've got to be as good as classical musicians, you've also got to improvise, which is seventy per cent of it. It's the most underpaid, underrepresented, underappreciated music in the world. It takes a lot of work and a lot of passion. Whenever you see people playing this music you know they care about it one hundred per cent. Why else would they be doing it?"

After such an impassioned declaration it was entirely fitting that the musicians responded with "Body and Soul," and a fired-up version at that, with Hamilton, Micheal Murray, and Lyttle unaccompanied, all stretching out. For the encores, the trio was joined by Lucian Gray. The quartet signed off with a nicely unhurried "Straight No Chaser" and an even more laid-back reading of the ballad "These Foolish Things," with Gray bidding Falcarragh farewell with a couple of sparkling blues solos.

In between the two encores Conor Murray took the microphone and thanked everybody for coming out to support the festival. "A really important part of it for us is getting to share it with all of you and for everyone to experience and hear the music we love listening to and love playing."

Wrap-up

The Murrays have been wise to start Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival on a relatively small scale. It's a lot of work to run a jazz festival, no matter how modest in size. The little hiccups they encountered and overcame in this second edition, such as malfunctioning equipment and the need to secure an alternative venue at a late hour, will stand the twins in good stead for possibly greater trials to come if the festival grows in the future. And if people keep coming from further afield as the festival's reputation travels, then grow it certainly will.

The pubs have proven to be great venues, at least up to a point, but they will likely limit the range of music Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival is able to programme in future editions. Fiery bebop seems well suited to a raucous pub atmosphere, but more subtle music sometimes struggles to make itself heard.

One thing, however, is sure. The warmth of the ovations that greeted the musicians over two days of great performances left absolutely no doubt that there is a real appetite for more of the same in Falcarragh.

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