There was a nice symmetry to "Detour Ahead," Leighton coming to the tune via Jesse van Ruller
, informed himself no doubt by the Herb Ellis
version. This bled seamlessly into a caressing reading of "Darn That Dream," with Leighton's economy of notes in full service of the melody. In a set firmly rooted in the tradition Leighton channelled the spirit of Joe Pass
on "Body and Soul" and on particularly delicate readings of "The Way You Look Tonight" and "These Foolish Things." On the sltempo of the latter brace of tunes Leighton's pronounced harmonic sensibility and gossamer touch were captivating. There were nods to Sam Rivers
and Bill Evans
before Leighton wrapped up a stellar performance with Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer's "My Shining Hour," stretching out with a fluid solo of pristine articulation.
It's only been three months since Leighton's duo tour of Ireland with David Lyttle but there's a notable advance in his dexterity and emotional weighting. Clearly, the three to four hours daily practice are paying handsome dividends for the talented Derry guitarist. It will be fascinating, and on the basis of this splendid solo performance, highly rewarding too, to watch Leighton's continued progress. Murray Brothers: Reflections on the Great American Songbook
After a short break the Murray brothers picked up where Leighton had left off -with a high quality trawl through the Great American songbook. During the summer the Murrays had held down a duo residency in a restaurant in nearby Dunfanaghy, where they had worked their personal response to these classic jazz tunes.
Bookended by an elegant version of Frank Loesser's "I've Never Been in Love Before" and Ray Noble's "Cherokee," the seventy-minute set amply demonstrated how the raw talent the brothers displayed as sixteen-year-olds at the Sligo Jazz Project in 2013 has matured; without a doubt, Conor and Micheal Murray are two of the rising stars on the Irish jazz scene.
The duo toggled between gentle interpretations of "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Stella by Starlight" and stoked, bebop-tempo versions of "Just Friends" and "Anthropology." Impressive soloists both, it was just as often their intuitive interplay that caught the ear, especially on a beautifully choreographed finale to "You Stepped Out of a Dream."
In an interview with All About Jazz
in the lead-up to the FWJF the Murrays spoke of their passion for The Great American Songbook and their belief that this music can speak to new audiences perhaps unfamiliar with instrumental jazz. On the strength of their two duo gigs during FWJF, which were well received, their faith may not be unfounded. David Lyttle Quartet
The final act of the inaugural FWJF saw David Lyttle lead a new quartet featuring the Murrays and Joseph Leighton. Though the quartet had played together before, this gig in The Shamrock represented the formal launch of an exciting new line-up that is set to tour more widely in 2019. The standards- heavy set saw a number of tunes resurface from the gigs that had gone before, but the quartet's energy on up-tempo numbers like "Donna Lee" and its tender handling of ballads such as "Isfahan" and "Cherokee" made them shine anew. Lyttle and Conor Murray swung the music hard, though with the drummer restlessly stirring the rhythms there was no danger of the quartet falling into prolonged comfort zones.
Solos were liberally shared around, with Micheal Murray's measured improvisation on "Body and Soul"allowing the melody to breatheand Leighton's exhilarating attack on "Shining Hour" highlights of the first set. The audience in The Shamrock's packed back bar was extremely responsive to the music, rising as one to its feet at the end of the first set, the applause and cheers an acknowledgment of the high quality of the performance.
The second set followed the pattern of the first, with balladry, mid-tempo swing and bebop providing the staple. Two original Lyttle compositions stood out -the swinging "Happy Easter" from his debut True Story
A prolonged and vociferous ovation greeted the musicians, a response that drowned out the hubbub of the dedicated revellers in the adjacent room. It was surely a great moment for festival directors Micheal and Conor Murray to see the audience on its feet, uplifted and buzzing from the power of the music -a validation of their vision for jazz's possibilities in this remote corner of Ireland.
The FWJF probably exceeded most people's expectations. The quality of the music and the responsiveness of the audiences made for a potent atmosphere. Credit must go to the institutions of Falcarragh -the tourist office, the local school and the venue owners who backed the Murrays, for what on paper at least, might have seemed to some like a potential hiding to nothing. There was a sense of the community rallying together behind FWJF, and that, in essence, is what any festival worth its salt is all about.
It will be fascinating to see how FWJF evolves, as evolve it surely will in the coming years. The temptation to grow the festival, to make it a destination event, will doubtless be there. Growth for growth's sake and the lure of tourist dollars, however, would be the fastest way to erect something absolutely mundaneindistinguishable perhaps, from any number of other music festivals. But very little worth a damn was ever built overnight and the other road is one of patient construction. As long as the Murrays are permitted to retain control of the artistic values of the festival then there's every chance that Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival will cement itself in the long term as a boutique festival of singular identity.
Huge credit must go to the Murrays for having the courage and the resources to make such a success of the inaugural FWJF. For two twenty-one- year olds just starting out as professional musicians it's a fine achievement.
In the Wikipedia page on Falcarragh there are just two entries in the 'notable people' section -a poet and an Irish revolutionary; somebody will have to add the names of Micheal and Conor Murray -musicians, promoters and Artistic Directors of Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival. Notable indeed.
Photo: Courtesy of Leonie Ferry