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Guinness Cork Jazz Festival 2013

Ian Patterson By

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Guinness Cork Jazz Festival
Various Venues
Cork
Ireland
October 25-28, 2013

Whether it was chance or fate is debatable but the fact is that had it not been for a cancelled bridge tournament the first Cork Jazz Festival might never have got off the ground. The 35th Guinness Cork Jazz Festival was officially launched in the Gresham Metropole Hotel, with a bit of the red carpet treatment for guests, sponsors and local dignitaries. It was an entirely appropriate setting in which to kick start four days of music and celebration: "The very first festival was held here in 1978," explained Roger Russell, General Manager of the hotel. "The Gresham Metropole is the spiritual home of the GCJF."

Russell—who has been involved with the GCJF in a variety of capacities for 15 years—related how the festival had been the brainchild of the then hotel manager Jim Mountjoy. "A bridge tournament to be held that Bank Holiday weekend was cancelled so Jim had the idea to run a jazz festival to fill the hotel," said Russell. The Cork Jazz Festival, as it was known in those less branded times, was Ireland's first jazz festival and although it started on a small scale it didn't lack for ambition.

Within a few short years it had attracted such jazz legends as singer Ella Fitzgerald, pianist Oscar Peterson, saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Mountjoy, the festival director until 1986, did much to expand the festival and make it a genuinely city-wide celebration, with jazz in the local pubs, a jazz boat on the river and a jazz train from Dublin to Cork.

Any festival that has lasted this long is bound to have evolved and the GCJF is no exception. Guinness came on board in 1982 and has been a loyal sponsor ever since. As Cork's Lord Mayor and the representative from the Irish Tourist Board told the gathering at the festival launch, the GCJF plays an important role in fostering tourism to Cork/Ireland, in creating jobs and boosting the economy. It's quite a responsibility and the slightly corporate tone of the speeches at times underlined the evolution of the festival's role and character over the years.

The 40,000 people who attend the festival each year, pumping 18 million Euros into the local economy, have also been very loyal to Guinness, it has to be said. The pumps of Cork's bustling pubs work overtime during the GCJF, dispensing Ireland's famous black stout to locals and increasingly, foreign visitors against a continuous backdrop of jazz. The GCJF is a fun weekend and the atmosphere is, needless to say, pretty damned relaxed. And as Roger Russell recounted, the Gresham Metropole increases its staff by about 50% over the weekend of the festival. Every hotel, B&B and flop house in the Cork is fully booked weeks ahead. Jazz, it seems, is good for business.

The first day of the GCJF 2013 started in the morning at various venues around the city centre. Workshops, talks, photographic exhibitions, art installation and jazz in the street announced to the wider public that it was that time of year again when jazz invades the city. Though the festival has contracted geographically speaking over the years, it has at the same time, extended its reach into more corners of everyday walks of life— from schools to shopping malls, and from shops and restaurants to galleries, squares and churches. Cracking after hours jam sessions fired passions in the Metropole Hotel. The serious business, however, got underway on Friday evening at the Everyman Palace Theatre with a double bill of singer Rene Marie and saxophonist Courtney Pine.

Rene Marie is a jazz singer of the old school, with a dozen titles to her name and collaborations with the likes of drummers Jeff "Tain" Watts, Gerald Cleaver and pianist Mulgrew Miller. Her voice was steeped in the blues and gospel and her delivery was sassy, teasing and soulful. Marie's set showcased I Wanna Be Evil (Motema, 2103)—a tribute to the late Eartha Kitt and the jazz singer/songwriters of yesteryear. Kitt's "They Say I'm a Witch" got things off to a swinging start, and introduced saxophonist Perico Sambeat.The saxophonist is one of the most renowned jazz musicians in his native Spain—pianist Brad Mehldau has played on four of his albums—but his interventions were mostly short and rarely caught fire.

The rhythm section of double bassist Alex Davis, pianist Albert Sanz and drummer Stephen Keogh lent tight, swinging support on "C'est Si Bon," the slow-burning "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Oh, John." Two of Marie's best interpretations came with Cole Porter's "Let's Do It" and Dave Frishburg's "Pick Me a Grape"—sensuous numbers that sizzled sexily in the singer's hands and underlined Porter's craft in masking earthy, sexual subject matter with poetic innuendo. The self-penned "Weekend" sprang from a terrific bass ostinato and ran its bluesy course with Marie a sultry presence. The title track of the CD rounded off the crowd-pleasing set on a swinging note, with Sambeat finally tearing free.

Courtney Pine is no stranger to the GCJF, having played here several times. This time up he was presenting music from House of Legends (Destin-E Records), inspired by the roots music of the British Afro-Caribbean community. The quartet tore through the rhythms of calypso, soca and zouk at mostly breakneck speed, fueled by Pine's inextinguishable energy. Unfortunately, this was not music best appreciated in the formal setting and atmosphere of a municipal theatre.

In a standing arena or in the open air, such music would inspire a dancing party. Pine did his best to lively up the crowd but there was little energy coming back towards the stage, making for a strangely subdued event. Perhaps the GCJF could use a standing-room venue for such dance-oriented gigs in future. Marketed as such, it would probably also help to draw a younger crowd to the festival.


Pine set out his stall on the opening track with a frenzied soprano solo that set the blueprint for his rather self-absorbed playing throughout the entire show. Samuel Dubois brought a genuine flavor of the Carribean on steel pans, impressing with a firey solo on "Claudia Jones"—Pine's heady calypso tribute to the founder of London's Notting Hill Carnival. Guitarist Cameron Pierre took an extended solo as did Pine, who turned the Everyman into a 19th century English variety hall with a verse of the old nursery rhyme "Pop Goes the Weasel," with the crowd playing its part on the obscure refrain.

Pine switched to EWI when accompanying but only on the final number, "Samuel Sharpe" did he tear into it as he had done on soprano all evening. Though tunes like "Kingstonian Swing" and "House of Hutch" were celebratory in tempo and uplifting melodically, the barrage of solos—mostly from Pine—one after the other grew a little tiring. In a dancing environment such virtuosity can fire a crowd whose energy in turn feeds back to the stage, but sat in the stalls on the receiving end of relentless high voltage virtuosity became energy sapping.

Pine encouraged clapping, standing and clapping, fist waving and general carnival-esque participation, but this wasn't Notting Hill with its teeming streets full of color and energy. Pine gave a typically energized performance but there was little of the nuance and interplay that characterized House of Legends.

One of the most satisfying aspects of GCJF 2013 was the degree to which the Fringe Festival enlivened Cork's streets. Local shops, cafes and restaurants decked their windows with all manner of jazz paraphernalia; there was live music on street corners and in squares and in public spaces such as a church, the library and a former jail; even Cork's mime artists got into the jazz swing of things.

The New York Brass Band, a septet comprised of grooving tuba, swinging trumpet, trombone and saxophone plus percussion animated a packed Duant's Square with its infectious New Orleans funk tunes. Several dancers got their jazz groove on to everybody's delight. Toyin Adelasoye and Camille Roy had traveled from London and Paris respectively just to dance when and wherever possible over the weekend and they found an able partner in Michael Munane of the Cork Jazz Exchange—a dance group that has created a fringe within the Fringe with its 'flash-mob'-style spontaneity.

Performances that transform civic spaces from their everyday function into places of celebration largely mark the character of a city's festival. The real fun is when the lines between performer and audience blur and in this respect the GCJF 2013 was a great success. The only event that didn't quite come off as planned was the New Orleans-style Jazz Funeral March. A large crowd assembled at the artisanal English Market but half an hour after the appointed time there was no sign of movement: "It's like a feckin' funeral" one man observed. Thankfully, the New York Brass Band saved the day with an impromptu performance—perched on a plinth—that breathed life into the gathering.

Saturday evening's double bill at the Everyman Palace Theatre began with Portico Quartet, complete with new addition to the group, singer Cornelia. Its hybrid electronic-acoustic music has inspired many groups in the past half dozen years since its debut, Knee Deep In the North Sea (Babel, 2007) but few have managed to straddle genres quite as successfully. The one-hour set began with "Window Seat" which segued into "Ruins"—a delightful opening serving of ambient soundscapes, pulsing rhythms and electronic-infused minimalism.

Portico Quartet was one of the first groups to fully integrate the hang—the percussion instrument that sounds like a cross between a tabla and a West Indian steel pan—into its sound and percussionist Keir Vine's use of mallets to announce the repeating refrain of "Rubidium" sounded like the peel of church bells. Bassist Milo Fitzpatrick's shimmering arco and saxophonist Jack Wylie's drawn out notes created a dream-like vibe that was temporarily broken by Duncan Bellamy's combined electronic and drum trance. The rhythms gradually dissipated as the chill-out vibe reasserted itself on this striking number.

Singer Cornelia brought her ethereal vocals to a new number and "Steepless." The addition of the Swedish vocalist to the band is a further sign of Portico Quartet's refusal to stick to the tried and tested and its pursuit of new sonic territory. An absorbing show culminated in "City of Glass"; metronomic percussion and grooving bass ostinatos combined with floating saxophone and keyboard melodies in a striking juxtaposition of rhythm and ambient texture.

As absorbing as Portico Quartet's performance was, it had next to nothing to do with jazz. In this respect, the GCJF is seemingly going the way of so many other jazz festivals in diversifying its program musically with indie rock, Neo Soul, funk and whatever else has wide appeal. The inclusion in this year's program of artists such as Chic & Nile Rodgers, Soul II Soul Sound System, Bilal, Efterklang and Primal Scream at the Cork Opera House represented the festival's desire to attract not only a larger audience but a younger one to boot.
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