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Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival 2018

Ian Patterson By

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Despite the obvious differences in subject matter, the common denominator between the adults of Brooklyn and the children of Falcarragh was the sense of belonging, of place and of community. Falcarragh and Donegal, by comparison with Brooklyn, seem to have changed little over the years, but of course that's not the case. It's mainly Germans buying up real estate in significant numbers, while people from many countries -France, England, Poland, China and India have all moved here to seek a better life. There are too many cars and trucks now for children to play in the streets. Fast food shops are outnumbered only by the pubs and bars.

And in the display cases, posters and photographs that adorned An Tsean Bhearraic where Lyttle performed his tapes-and-drums show, the reminders of the struggle for Irish independence, the Civil War and of the streets of Falcarragh without cars brought home how inextricably linked the past is to the present -how time and place are rooted in the identity and psyche of a person. Perhaps the only constant is change.

During the As Gaelige performance, just over Lyttle's right shoulder, the headline of a newspaper from the summer of 1916 read: "Home Rule Talks End in Discord." Some things in this corner of the world, however, don't fundamentally change at all.

Joseph Leighton

Another piece of bold programming saw Derry guitarist Joseph Leighton give an eighty-minute solo performance in the back-bar of The Gweedore. From the opener "Without a Song," Leighton set a high bar with his melodic, harmonic and rhythmic multi-tasking. Quite personal arrangements of "My Ideal" and Autumn in New York" showcased Leighton's sensitive balladry. The former is a tune the guitarist played nightly on a recent tour with David Lyttle of off-the- beaten-track venues in Ireland, and his deft interpretation of Broadway composer Vincent Youmans's 1929 composition was a set highlight.

A melodically uncluttered, though harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated version of Henry Mancini's "Days of Wine and Roses" followed. It was Derry tenor saxophonist Gay Macintyre who introduced Leighton to this tune during the 85-year old legend's regular gigs in Bennigans Jazz Bar in the city. Leighton has since picked up the torch, holding down a Friday solo residency in the same venue.

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 breathe—and 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.

Wrap-up

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 mundane—indistinguishable 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.
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