Galway Jazz Festival 2016

Ian Patterson By

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Galway has shown in its recent history that culture works; culture pays, culture creates energy…from the culinary arts practised at their zenith to events like the Galway Jazz Festival. —John McKenna, Food Critic
Galway Jazz Festival
Various Venues
Galway, Ireland
October 7-9, 2016

The best jazz festivals are not necessarily the biggest. They're not always the ones with the marquee names. The best festivals, without a doubt, are the ones you remember, years later, for having had a hell of a good time. Such festivals, first and foremost, are usually rooted in and celebrate community. They often promote feasting, revelry and joy. The Galway Jazz Festival ticked all those boxes over a memorable weekend, one that that may well mark a turning point in the festival's fortunes.

The weather was kind too, with the torrid Atlantic squall and autumnal windstorms that toy with the west coast of Ireland staying away for the weekend. Of course, good weather helps, but Galway is a fun city whatever the skies dish up, habitually exuding a lively, sociable spirit.

The backdrop to the 11th Galway Jazz Festival was a vibrant one. The city's streets were bustling with young Europeans over on English study programmes; older, Irish- American tourists tracing their roots queued up to buy Galway's famed Claddagh ring, the symbol of friendship, love and loyalty; the city's restaurants, bistros and cafes were bursting at the seams; pub crowds spilled over onto the streets, the terrace tables awash with Guinness, oysters and banter.

Everywhere, the air was filed with the music of buskers, as traditional Irish folk, flamenco, a plethora of hurdy gurdy practitioners and guitar-strumming singers all vied for loose change. The compact nature of Galway meant that it was possible to stroll with ease from theatre to club, from bar to restaurant or hotel, from one gig to the next, through the alleys and lanes of the city' winding pedestrian heart.

All told, just a normal early October weekend in Galway.

There was, however, a different feel to the Galway Jazz Festival this year. Even a few months prior, you could see that change was afoot from the festival's swanky new website. Much of the impetus for the improvement in GJF's quality is down to the new Artistic Director, Matthew Berrill, who with significant support of Ciaran Ryan, Maeve Byran and Aengus Hackett and a first-rate team, has upped the ante program-wise, not just in terms of the names performing but in the adventurous nature of the festival's menu.

In addition to jazz of various stripes, GJF '16 also offered the rare chance to hear a church organ recital of Bach's Goldberg Variations and a performance of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. Very reasonably priced tickets proved attractive, resulting in full venues for nearly every performance. Free gigs, music masterclasses and a fascinating panel discussion—held in pubs, theatres and cultural centres—were also popular.

A defining feature of GJF '16, and a large part of its charm, was down to the close ties of the festival with the city's restaurants and artisan food and drink merchants. Galway's top-class restaurants proved to be most generous hosts to the musicians, and in the process, served as wonderful cultural ambassadors for a city designated as European Capital of Culture 2020.

Gourmet food and fine drink—cheeses, wines, ales and pastries to die for—were never far from hand during GJF '16, a tradition arguably dating back centuries to times when Spanish and French galleons unloaded wine, brandy and cured ham in Galway's port, loading up with wool, metals and perhaps the odd jug of poteen—oats, barley or potato based moonshine—for the return journey.

Opening with John McKenna at The Kitchen

Given the close relationship at GJF '16 between food & drink and music, it was appropriate that the festival's official opening should take place in The Kitchen—one of the city's best, yet most unpretentious eateries—with a few words of welcome from Ireland's greatest food authority, John McKenna.

McKenna, an ardent jazz fan, knows about both music and food. Who else, in a book about restaurants, would dream of comparing Irish Prime Minster Enda Kenny to Ornette Coleman?

In the late 1970's McKenna, a student at the time, was a music journalist for Dublin music magazine Hot Press, where he acknowledged writing "incomprehensible rubbish" about jazz records. McKenna has enjoyed wider fame as an award-winning food writer, authoring numerous guide books—with wife Sally McKenna—on the best restaurants in Ireland.

"The wonderful thing about jazz is that when it hits you you're not the same person," McKenna began. "After you've heard "Round About Midnight" for the first time, or "Milestones" or "Giant Steps," or "Red Beans and Rice..."something within you is forever changed."

If for some of those present the link between food and jazz sounded a little tenuous, McKenna soon put any such doubt to bed. "When you think about what the great cooks in Galway do, and what the musicians are going to do over the weekend, they both do the same thing, with different materials. They both fundamentally improvise in real time. No great cook cooks the same dish twice—ever. No jazzer ever plays the same set of chords or the same phrase the same way twice."

In wrapping up, McKenna paid tribute to the hard work of all those involved in staging the GJF '16, and to the importance of culture. "Galway has shown in its recent history that culture works; culture pays, culture creates energy...from the culinary arts practised at their zenith to events like the Galway Jazz Festival."

Certainly there was a massively positive energy in The Kitchen for the GJF '16 launch as the youngsters of the Headford Music Works jazz ensemble worked their way admirably through a few jazz standards while waiters circulated with platters of delicious sweet and savoury pastries, and the good folk from the Galway Brewery served glasses of porter, ale and beer.

The Sofa Sessions Presents...

Cormac Larkin, internationally respected jazz critic for The Irish Times and curator of the Sofa Sessions at Billy Byrnes, Kilkenny, presented three lunchtime concerts over the weekend in the oyster bar of The Meyrick Hotel. This handsome hotel sits facing Eyre Square, also known as John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, in honor of the US President, who made a speech here in 1963, just six months before his assassination. The Meyrick's central location made it a good choice for the free gigs, enabling city centre workers to enjoy top-class jazz during their lunchbreak.

Guitarist/sound sculptor Shane Latimer, who impressed during the Improvised Music Company's two-day avant-garde guitar festival String Theory back in May, got the Sofa Sessions rolling on Thursday, 6 October, a day before the official launch of the festival. All About Jazz picked up the thread the following two days.

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