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Improvised Music Company@25, Various Artists At Sugar Club

Ian Patterson By

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The sheer narcissism of our society is reaching levels never before seen…what jazz does is a kind of antidote to that in terms of its ethos; you’re working for the group and you’re supposed to express yourself. I think that’s a fantastic thing to be involved with.” —Ronan Guilfoyle - Director, Newpark Music Centre/IMC co-founder
Improvised Music Company@25
Sugar Club
Dublin, Ireland
November 26, 2016

It was an appropriately festive atmosphere in the Sugar Club to mark Improvised Music Company's twenty fifth birthday celebrations. Older musicians, perhaps just starting out a quarter of a century ago, rubbed shoulders with the current generation of aspiring artists. Friends and supporters of IMC turned out in goodly numbers, though not enough to demolish all the iced buns, proudly bearing the logo IMC@25. The IMC's original co-founders were present as was the current team; all must have looked on with a certain amount of pride as they reflected on the journey thus far, with five bands/artists—of markedly different stripes—in turn, signposting the way towards the next twenty five years.

IMC has come a long way since 1991 and its cottage industry roots, and today stands as Ireland's leading promotor of jazz and improvised music. Most young jazz groups anywhere in Europe will likely have heard of 12 Points, the IMC's pioneering festival—founded by former IMC chief from 1994-2014, Gerry Godley—that presents a dozen, mostly unheard of jazz/jazz-related acts, to an unsuspecting, though increasingly open-minded public.

So much has changed in the past twenty five years —a quarter of the history of jazz to date. So many of the jazz greats have passed, but on the up side, many new young stars have emerged, not so much bearing the old standard—or standards—as forging distinctive new paths.

The contrast between the distinctly American-flavored sounds from IMC's record label days—spun by DJ Billy O' Hanluain at the start of the evening—and the less overtly American sounds that unfolded on the stage across the evening spoke volumes about the seismic shift in attitudes towards jazz amongst European musicians in the last twenty five years.

The evening kicked off with some words of welcome from IMC Artistic Director, Kenneth Killeen, in which he acknowledged those who have supported IMC throughout the years. This was followed by the projection of an excellent short documentary film on IMC by Cormac Larkin's hatch21productions. Testimony from IMC founding members and musicians pieced together the IMC story and its hefty impact on the Irish jazz scene. IMC has promoted thousands of gigs over the years; names that flashed on the screen such as Elvin Jones, Tinariwen, Esbjorn Svensson Trio, Altan, The Necks, Bang On A Can, Louis Sclavis, Nguyen Le and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band gave a flavour of the diversity and quality of international music that IMC has brought to Ireland.

The main driving engine of IMC, however, has been geared towards the promotion of local talent and to that end, the evening, as with so many IMC-curated events over the years, was all about presenting the best of Ireland's musical talent. The half dozen acts that took to the stage during the course of the evening represented a cross-section of the vibrant Irish music scene, centred inevitably in Dublin. What was evident, during six or seven hours of pulsating musical entertainment in the Sugar Club, was that the roots of the music run deep.

There may have been nothing absolutely new in Matthew Halpin's bold solo saxophone improvisation against a backdrop of seemingly random black-and-white film clips, nor anything radical in The CEO Experiment's pulsating post-bop electro-acoustic jazz; the multiple horns of the electrifying SuperUmbra—a family-sized version of Chris Guilfoyle 's Umbra—were a staple of jazz in its earliest incarnations; the iconoclastic sonic waves of Insufficient Funs, Matthew Jacobson and Sam Comerford's drums-cum-bass saxophone duo harked back to John Coltrane and Rashied Ali's collaborations; the visceral jazz-infused hip-hop of the mighty Mixedtapes from the Underground, likewise, was hardly genre-defying.

Good music, however, is not as much about novelty as it is intent and execution. Halpin is arguably one of the finest saxophonists to have emerged from Ireland in recent years and the film images of colored balls bouncing down a street, a dancing woman, yesteryear's silent screen legends such as Harold Lloyd or Laurel and Hardy and Fred Astaire, or more abstract and subliminal shapes, provided the imaginative fuel for his quietly mesmerising improvisation.

One significant change impacting the Irish jazz/improvised music scene this past quarter of a century has been the shift in the country's demographics. The CEO Experiment, for example, consisting of Peruvian drummer Cote Calmet, Venezuelan keyboardist Leopoldo Osio and Hungarian electric bassist Peter Erdei represents an Ireland where foreign residents contribute not just economically but also culturally as never before.

The CEO Experiment's tight set was founded on strong, contemporary sounding compositions from its debut CEO Experiment (Self-Produced, 2016), liberally peppered with thrilling solos. Michael Buckley on tenor saxophone seemed more like an essential part of the foundations than a guesting musician, while guest musician Curtis Fowlkes—jetting in from Berlin—brought all the soul and elegance to Osio's "Nossa Historia" that have been a feature of the veteran's playing with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, Louie Bellson and Bill Frisell in a distinguished career.

Buckley's "Atomic" moved steadily through the gears, climaxing in high-tempo, collective roar. Buckley brings not just an added element to CEO Experiment, he also brings the best out of these highly talented musicians—one of the most exciting small jazz ensembles in Ireland. Twenty five years ago, a Venezuelan, a Peruvian, a Hungarian and an Irishman would have sounded like a ..."walked into a bar" joke. Today, such a coming together of cultures is reflective of wider social integration in Ireland, and the country is better for it. The CEOB Experiment? It would make for a natural evolution.

Insufficient Funs has only been together a short time, but a barnstorming performance at 12 Points 2016 in San Sebastian and its eponymous debut album have got the duo off to a flyer. Comerford and Jacobson are also part of Ingo Hipp's pan-European quintet AERIE, which gave such a memorable performance at Galway Jazz Festival 2016, and the intuitive interplay between the two on the Sugar Club stage was evident.

Comerford's 1936 bass saxophone is a truly unwieldy beast, yet the bruising riffs and guttural howls from this tree-trunk of an instrument were tempered by surprisingly lyrical, subtle voicing. Up-tempo, the duo created fireworks; Jacobson's constant invention—never at the expense of groove—coaxed beautifully wild flights from Comerford. On more balladic material the duo's chemistry simmered menacingly, like a slow-burning Nirvana. Intoxicating stuff.

Unlike some festivals/organisations that might privately admit to feeling restricted by the title 'jazz,' the IMC's strength from day one has been its openness to all creative music. One artists who embodies the rich diversity of the creative music scene in Ireland better than most is Niwel Tsumbu, the Congolese guitarist resident in Ireland for over a decade. Whether heading his exhilarating electric jazz-rock trio—a hybrid Jimi Hendrix-meets-James Blood Ulmer fusion—or plying sunnier, pop-centric avenues in David Flynn's super-group D.F.F., Tsumbu is a most versatile musician.

On acoustic guitar, Tsumbu's unaccompanied opening number cast a hush over the crowd. Tsumbu's rich vocabulary encompassed Congolese rumba, flamenco, jazz and European classical threads, though the exquisite fusion was almost seamless. Vocals in Tsumbu's native ngala language were delivered in rapid streams, punctuated by lyrical repeating motifs. Tsumbu was joined by hand-drum percussionist Éamonn Cagney—who plays with Tsumbu in the trio Treelan, along with Altan accordionist Martin Tourish—on "Footsteps of the Heart," an elegant tapestry of African and Indian colors.

The pulsating "Africa, Eh!," a song about the double standards surrounding migrants based on their skin color—with electric bassist Peter Erdei adding rhythmic ballast—had an urgent, yearning quality. Although a commanding singer and a fine songsmith, it was Tsumbu's melodically flowing six-string improvisations that set the blood racing. Singers Sallay and Emma Garnett from Tsumbu's group RIZA took to the stage for a harmonically pronounced number where the guitarist's lightning arpeggios contrasted with the singers' mantra-like hand-clapping rhythm. Tsumbu and Cagney's fiery percussive exchange crowned a memorable performance.

Another guitarist and composer of note, though one emanating from a more specifically jazz-oriented background than Tsumbu, is Chris Guilfoyle . For this IMC celebration his sextet Umbra was supersized to a nonet. Matthew Jacobson, electric bassist Barry Donahue and keyboardist Greg Felton handled rhythm duties, while saxophonists Sam Comerford, Chris Engel and Ingo Hipp, trumpeter Gerhard Ornig and trombonist Kieran McLeod brewed steamy unison and interweaving lines.

Guilfoyle served early notice of his beautifully fluid, cleanly articulated lines on the lively opener, "Panic Merchant," a tune especially composed for this version of the band. With such an array of talent on stage plenty of juicy solos were inevitable—Ornig and Felton on the bluesy "It's Clearing Up Now," McLeod and Guilfoyle on "And Your Address," Hipp and Engel on "Smashy Smashy"—but it was Guilfoyle's episodic writing for the ensemble, which translated into rhythmically vibrant patterns, harmonically rich contours and arresting narrative flow, that most impressed. Arguably the jewel in the crown, however, was Guilfoyle' spare arrangement of Bonnie Stewart's lovely "Sandunes."

Umbra released its first EP earlier in the year and it is to be hoped that further studio time might render a more substantial record of what is arguably one of the most exciting jazz ensembles in Europe.

What better way to wrap up a party than with the ultimate party band? Mixtapes from the Underground has been shaking up audiences with its jazz 'n' funk-inflected hip-hop grooves since its inception ten years ago. Vocalists Jamel Franklin, Raven and OpheliaMC formed a powerful front line, with guitarist Shane Latimer, keyboardist Darragh O'Kelly, DJ Harry Phipps and drummer Dennis Cassidy cooking up a groove-based storm that rendered conversation next to impossible and seduced a portion of the crowd up to dance. With Mixtapes from the Underground dancing shoes, party vibes and earplugs are requisite. There is no other way.

It will be fascinating to see what the next twenty five years bring for IMC and improvised music in Ireland and beyond. It's safe to say, however, that IMC will likely be at the heart of much that is innovative, ground-breaking, genre-defying, and above all, inclusive. The burgeoning jazz/improvised music scene needs outfits like IMC to oil the wheels of creativity and to nurture new talent. For twenty five years IMC has done just that, contributing significantly to the creative economy in Ireland and vastly enriching the national cultural panorama in the process. Such a legacy is no small feat.

Phot Credit: Courtesy of Dublin Jazz Photography

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