Improvised Music Company: Orbital Pathways, Gravitational Pull


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As an idiom jazz is not static, just like the world isn't static. It's in constant flux. Jazz is a prism for whatever's in the middle...
—Kenneth Killeen, Improvised Music Company Artistic Director
Arguably some of the most dramatic changes in jazz have taken place in the last quarter of its century-long history: the emergence of a strong European jazz identity/identities; technological advances that empower individuals to become their own producers; Youtube, which has all but erased the boundary between past and present; the increase in pedagogical institutions; pan-national collaborations facilitated by myriad budget travel options; instant communication and dissemination brought about by the explosion of social media; greater cross-genre experimentation than ever before; on-line media reaching a world-wide audience...the list goes on.

Improvised Music Company—Ireland's foremost jazz promoter—has been at the heart of most of the key developments and innovations in jazz/improvised music in Dublin for the past twenty five years, nurturing and supporting the island's outstanding musicians and bringing the very best international artists to Europe's most westerly outpost. This November, IMC celebrates its quarter century with a couple of events that pay homage to a cross-section of the musicians who are helping put Ireland on the international jazz map.

IMC's story, as related by its current Artistic Director, Kenneth Killeen, has always been about risk, innovation and pro-active engagement with Dublin's jazz community. IMC has taken on an increasingly European perspective with the passing of the years, but let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

IMC came into existence at a significant moment in modern Irish history, as the economic boom years of the 1990s attracted workers and asylum seekers as never before from the European Union. Jazz in Dublin also stood at something of a crossroads, with an active if somewhat ad hoc scene. "I don't think there was a single upstairs room in a pub in Dublin where there wasn't jazz at some point," says Killeen.

Artists like Louis Stewart, Jim Doherty and Honor Heffernan would appear on The Late Late Show, Ireland's flagship TV chat/entertainment show and jazz gigs were plentiful all over Dublin. "It was a different time for jazz," Killeen expands. "I think there were actually more concerts but less money, less regular income. It was all very ad hoc and there was no sort of masthead for the genre, which IMC came to represent to those musicians."

IMC was founded through the collective efforts of Allen Smith, and architect and one of the modern designers of Dublin's National Concert Hall, Ronan Guilfoyle , an internationally renowned bassist (and later Director at Newpark Music School) and Cormac Larkin, musician, and to this day, jazz critic for The Irish Times. Other musicians and jazz advocates were on board in the early days, notably, former Artistic Director Gerry Godley, and together they mobilized to ensure a funding stream and help steer the future course of Dublin's jazz scene.

Smith, who had organized jazz concerts on the terrace of the National Concert Hall, brought over some big names to Dublin. Through his applying to the Arts Council for project awards, Smith relaized that for the Irish jazz scene to grow and prosper funding was needed on an annual, recurring basis. In 1989, Smith brought former Miles Davis/Elvin Jones sideman Dave Liebman, who proved to be something of a catalyst in kick-starting the IMC.

"It was Dave Liebman coming over and his hard-nosed New York attitude saying, 'You guys can do this,'" explains Killeen. "I think that incentivised people."

'Can do' has been the IMC's leit motif all these years. From drawing some of the biggest names in jazz to Dublin to setting up its own record label, and from touring and promoting home-grown talent to establishing some of the city's best music festivals, such as Down With Jazz and Hotter Than July, IMC has never baulked at a challenge. With the 12 Points festival, which is hosted on alternate years between Dublin and other European cities, IMC has taken a greater Europe-wide view of the music, giving up-and-coming bands a significant platform and introducing audiences to some of the most progressive, exciting and challenging music from across the continent.

IMC's initial annual funding grant gave way to a three-year funding program, which meant IMC needed to adopt longer-term planning. Ambition was not in short supply, and the early years saw IMC promote artists of the calibre of Elvin Jones, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin and Tomasz Stanko. "These were watershed gigs for IMC," says Killeen, "because they were just so well received."

There was also what Killeen calls "the halo event," the IMC-curated-and-produced Dublin Jazz Festival, intended to drive awareness and bring audiences into that kind of music on a regular basis. The DJF had a relatively short lifespan of just a handful of years and the real work of music promotion/audience development took place day in and day out in the regular club gigs promoted by IMC.

At the end of the 1990s IMC set up its own record label, a response to the lack of consistent output by Irish jazz musicians who had no easy method by which to get funding to record. "We needed to have a cannon of work, a tangible output to compliment the live output," Killeen explains.

IMC released almost thirty recordings over the next decade including the compilation Music from Ireland (IMCD, 2009), which appeared on the front cover of Journal of Music—at that time a print publication—in the mode of Uncut or Mojo compilations. "It was a great calling card for Europe," says Killeen, "because that's when the European Jazz Network and all of those organisational integrations were happening."

Before the turn of the decade, however, IMC's record label was no more. "I think it was a combination of limited resources and changes in listening behaviour. The CD was kind of on the wane a little bit at that time. The label was very important," Killeen acknowledges, "but it was of its time as well. But things change. Now we live in a world of playlists and algorithms."

If the production and distribution method of music has changed drastically since IMC's inception in 1991, then so too has the music. Inevitably so, says Killeen. "As an idiom jazz is not static, just like the world isn't static. It's in constant flux. Jazz is a prism for whatever is in the middle, the middle being a popular culture of pop ideology. Jazz by its very nature is adaptable and innovative. It's a propellant for creativity."

Clearly the advent of the internet has played a huge role in the development of jazz in Ireland, as everywhere else, from the way that musicians access and hear music to the propagation of music online. "It's had a profound influence on Irish musicians," says Killeen. It affords different opportunities for different interactions and largely it has had a positive effect on the music."

The increase in pedagogical institutions such as Newpark Music School, BIMM, Dublin Institute of Technology and Trinity College has also dramatically altered the musical landscape, but as Killeen points out, this is only one part of a larger puzzle.

"There are two sides to it. You have this very strong, pedagogically driven input side, where a lot more musicians now are going to study the music and learn complex, harmonic and rhythmic material and they do that by paying strong homage to the giants of the idiom."

The American roots of jazz and its historic practitioners who have marked the greatest changes in the music's evolution continue to influence new generations of musicians across the globe, but there has been a notable change on European shores during the IMC's lifetime. "While the north star of jazz is always reflected in the roots of American heritage music I think what's happening now is that a stronger European identity is coming out," states Killeen.

"Young musicians have the whole vocabulary that they need but their output changes because it's influenced by different things. It could be influenced by traditional Irish music, or it could be influenced by Scandinavian music, for example, just because they hopped on a Ryanair flight and collaborated with musicians in Stockholm, Helsinki or Bergen. Then they take that home and it further perpetuates the melting pot."

Whilst there is still great respect amongst Ireland's jazz/improvising musicians for the fundamentals of the music, its origins and for its past masters, Killeen notes a fresh take on the jazz tradition among Irish/European musicians. "The musicians here don't feel as burdened by having to constantly reproduce or reinterpret that in an overt way. They do it in multiple other ways. I think that ultimately that is healthy for the music because the music is actually progressing as we speak and that's really important to understand," emphasizes Killeen.

"I think it's a very fundamental thing that audiences are getting now. That's what excites me, when the musicians are putting this material together and we have audiences who are coming to meet it."

Killeen refers to jazz as "community music" and like the multiple communities that make up any given zone or neighbourhood of a city, be it in Seattle, Belfast, London, Valencia or Seoul, change in the social dynamics is increasingly rapid. Such fluid social situations are bound to affect the music. In Dublin's jazz/improvised scene, as IMC is well aware, African, South American, Asian and diverse European accents have all added spice to the melting pot in recent decades.

If the music has evolved—absorbing new accents, new vocabulary and new approaches, not to mention embracing new technologies—then so too has the audience for the type of music championed by IMC. The audiences is, as Killeen and IMC fully understand, the lifeblood of the music. "We're always trying to generate and develop new audiences," states IMC's Artistic Director.

Killeen talks of audiences in the plural, for there is, as indeed there nearly always has been throughout the hundred-year history of jazz, more than one notion as to what the music represents—a codified style for some, a concept for others. "For us there is the jazz tradition, there's the jazz condition—for want of a better word—and there's the jazz experiment," Killeen says, breaking it down.

"So, in the jazz tradition there's a certain subset of our audience who have a very defined set of values about what jazz is and that audience is getting older but it's been supplanted by a younger audience who are more into the jazz condition or the meta genre that jazz is housed under now. I have this solar analogy where the sun is pop, or popular culture, and jazz is kind of like Pluto in this really crazy elliptical orbit, and sometimes we're very close to the sun, where the mainstream comes to meet the music, or to phrase it another way when it becomes hip."

Forgetting the time in the 1920s and 1930s when jazz was popular music in America and abroad, jazz's occasional penetration of mainstream popular culture has generally been greeted with surprise, like an asteroid hitting Earth.

Dave Brubeck's 1961 single "Take Five" and albums like Charles Lloyd's Forest Flower (Atlantic, 1966), Les McCann/Eddie Harris' Swiss Movement (Atlantic, 1969), Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) were all huge sellers. In Britain, Courtney Pine's Journey to the Urge Within (Verve, 1986) shifted 250,000 copies, a phenomenal amount for an unheard of British Afro-Caribbean saxophonist inspired by John Coltrane.

In more recent times, Esperanza Spalding and Kamasi Washington have both reached audiences beyond the jazz enclosure. Perhaps the common denominators in all these cases, spanning half a century, are rhythms and accents atypical of traditional/classic jazz (swing, bebop, hard bop etc)—an enhanced and expanded vocabulary.

These days, the coming together of popular culture and jazz—however you choose to define either—is happening in a more organic way than ever before, in Dublin as elsewhere. "What I see when I go down to the Workmans Club or The Grand Social is an increase in the complexity of instrumental music that doesn't come from a pedagogical jazz background," Killeen expands.

"It comes from people listening to math-rock or mathrobeat or any of those subgenres of indie or rock and those places are packed with people. Then I see jazz musicians increasingly coming to meet that while doing their own type of thing—I think of OKO and other bands that have that kind of groove-based approach, even if it's odd metre or cyclical or whatever."

OKO, born out of the Dublin collective Bottleneck, was formed in 2010. Its debut album I Love You Computer Mountain (Diatribe Records, 2014) was a fascinating mash-up of electronica, turntable punctuation, synthesizers, samples, dub, indie rock and chill-out. The individual members of the quartet, with their various projects, are all at the coalface of improvised/experimental music in Dublin and represent a generation of jazz-conversant musicians for whom, sonically, anything goes.

For IMC, the development of a new audience for contemporary jazz/improvised music lies precisely in this genre-less terrain, where experimentation and originality are watchwords to be revered, not feared. Almost inevitably, perhaps, bands like OKO and others of its experimental ilk draw an audience more attuned to today's urban rhythms. "I definitely see a younger audience," says Killeen, "and the coolest thing of all is that the gender balance, certainly at our festivals, is almost an equal fifty-fifty. It's not reflected on the bandstand, which is a problem, but it is in the audience and that's great."

Despite advances in recent years, and notably in some countries more than others, women instrumentalists are still in the minority in what continues to be a male-dominated industry. For Killeen, the question of why this should still be the case in the second decade of the twenty first century is not a mystery. "I don't think it's that difficult to answer. I think a lot of it lies in infrastructure, in early-learning development and in a lot of the choices that we impart to young children."

One of those choices is what instrument to play. "Children from the age of four are choosing instruments, whether it's handed to them or it's in their household or a primary school," says Killeen, "and sometimes there's a gender association with an instrument—there certainly is in orchestral music."

Gender stereotyping, however, as Killeen acknowledges, goes far deeper than just the instruments supposedly best suited for boys and girls. "At an early development stage, in primary school, male students are always taught to take a chance, to go out and play hurling and they're really pushed in that way to excel, to take risks, and I don't think it's the same for young girls in primary school. I think that has a compound effect when they're making critical choices at thirteen, fourteen going into secondary school."

If the causes are clear, then what is the way forward in addressing the gender imbalance, at least as far as music is concerned?

"ICM's long-term development goal is to look at models in other countries, like Norway and Sweden, where their primary curriculums encourage this improvisation and buck gender stereotypes. I think it starts there," posits Killeen. "It's very hard to correct or steer a primary curriculum or even a part of it but I think that won't come from the people who write the primary curriculum, it has to come from organizations like IMC and Music Network, who can augment the primary curriculum. That's where we need to do a lot of work. We need to look to a future where there's more freedom and where there isn't any gender bias. There's just no place for that in this day and age."

One improvisation-based ICM project that encourages the creative ideas and participation of girls and boys as young as four is Monster Music Improv, featuring award-winning vocalist Lauren Kinsella, guitarist Shane Latimer and live illustrator Patrick Sanders. The concept is to encourage children to interact with the artists in real time, improvising conceptually and thus shaping the cartoons drawn and the music performed. Jointly designed by IMC and The Ark—a leading, children's cultural centre in the heart of Dublin's Temple Bar district—Monster Music Improv is a celebration of and a catalyst for children's creative instincts. "It's improvisation which is no way condescending or patronizing," explains Killeen. It's an equal opportunities event and children walk away from it with a whole new outlook in their imaginative minds as to what they can do with their thoughts and their ideas. It's about turning it into a reality and I think Monster Music has been successful, which is down to the wonderful work of the three people on the stage."

The IMC project which has achieved greatest international acclaim is, without a doubt, the annual 12 Points Festival, founded and directed by former IMC Artistic Director Gerry Godley, now Principal and Managing Director at Leeds College of Music.

From the outset 12 Points was about much more than simply providing a platform for a dozen up-and-coming bands from throughout Europe. "It's as much about introducing new audiences to the meta-genre of jazz, or jazz as an attitude or approach and not just an idiom, as it is about promoting the bands," explains Killeen.

"It's also about framing the question, what exactly is jazz? It's such a subjective word and it's in such a state of flux that I think it's really hard even in the English vocabulary to pin it down. So yes, it was about developing new audiences and also about promoting this concept of jazz in Europe."

12 Points has been a great success, winning the European Jazz Network Award for the most innovative and adventurous festival programing in 2012. The festival's success has surprised Killeen, particularly given the festival's unusual character—a horizontal festival model where there are no headliners.

"We're selling twelve bands that ninety per cent of the audience locally won't know. So we sell a concept, a brand and that's a big risk," admits Killeen. "That's why it's not that common, for who likes to take these huge risks?"

The rewards, however, outweigh the risks. "If a certain number of things fall into alignment it generates this really fantastic momentum...and motivation; motivation for us as organizers, for when you zoom back out to the whole of Europe it really alters your concept of what jazz means—the regional variances, the similarities, this melting pot of what's happening. That's incredibly motivating as a promoter and it's incredibly exciting. The audiences go on a journey of discovery, just as we do in the application process. Then we just have a party for four or five days where everybody hangs out together."

In 2016 12 Points celebrated its tenth edition, in San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain. The relative longevity of 12 Points, this rather unique festival of jazz and related music, has been a pleasant surprise for IMC.

"We never said it was going to be a festival that would last ten or fifteen years," states Killeen. "It was a response but the response has been great and we're incredibly grateful and thankful to the musicians because it's the musicians that make it. But equally, we're grateful to audiences who are still curious about coming out to hear this music and that is the most rewarding thing of all."

IMC's twenty fifth anniversary celebrations get underway in the last week of November with two very different events. On 24 November in The Opium Rooms, IMC pays homage to Tommy Halferty—one of Ireland's jazz great's—on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Halferty will be joined by Norma Winstone for the first set, followed by a second set featuring Halferty's original compositions arranged for septet by long-time friend and collaborator Ronan Guilfoyle .

"Tommy is an integral figure on the Irish jazz scene and in the development of jazz in Ireland," says Killeen. "It's down to musicians like Louis Stewart and Tommy Halferty who have essentially made Dublin a guitar town. The number of jazz guitarists who have been influenced by Tommy is incredible actually. We need to celebrate milestones like this and we need to get out of our Irish self-deprecation thing and actually be proud of our musicians of international calibre, like Tommy."

Halferty, Killeen emphasizes, has been an ambassador for Irish jazz for several deacdes. "It's only right to celebrate the birthday and the work of a musician like Tommy because he has influenced generations of musicians and that influence is still felt today. And he's still rocking it"—an assessment that's bang on the money, based on Halferty's storming trio outing Burkina (Self-Produced, 2015).

IMC's second event on 26 November brings together a number of Dublin's most exciting young jazz/improvised music formations in The Sugar Club, beginning with a dynamic solo set by tenor saxophonist Matthew Halpin, described by Killeen as "probably one of the best tenor players we have produced in Ireland." Other acts on the bill include the exciting piano trio The CEO Experiment, whose Dublin-based members hail from Peru, Venezuela and the Hungary.

Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, an electrifying performer is sure to set pulses racing at the head of his visceral jazz/rock/ethnic fusion trio. Nor is Sam Comerford and Matthew Jacobson's saxophone/drum duo Insufficient Funs for the faint hearted. SuperUmbra, a specially expanded version of Chris Guilfoyle 's Umbra will show large ensemble writing and virtuosity at its best. Last but not least, Mixtapes From The Underground promises to take the party late into the night with its infectious hip-hop infused, jazz-tinged funk.

Any number of other bands, time and availability permitting, could have made the bill, but the line-up is nevertheless representative not only of the depth of talent in Dublin but also of IMC's mission.

"Personally, I think it says that we have world class musicians," says Killeen. "For us it was about presenting a younger core of bands from solo up to large ensembles and to highlight the quality we have in the younger Dublin musicians. This gig is very much about looking forward and identifying musicians who we think have the potential to be part of this jazz in Europe—to be European jazz musicians."

Looking forward, IMC has plenty on the go. Over the twenty five years IMC has focused its lens on different areas when and where it was needed and beginning next January IMC will launch a series called Music Matters, which will feature a number of Irish and European experts in the area of PR and marketing skills—essential areas in which many talented musicians lack knowledge and confidence.

In March, in conjunction with Note Productions, IMC will launch another festival, tentatively titled Spectrum, which will highlight jazz in all its stripes and spots. Another project set for early 2017, and one of great potential benefit to musicians, will identify different outputs for composers and performers.

"There's often this binary relationship when you do a performance degree," explains Killeen, "the notion that you need to get on stage and perform your music, when in fact there are multiple different outputs—writing music for video games, scoring music for films and theatre, interdisciplinary work with dance, live videos, visuals and so on. It's an attempt to help musicians get out of the teaching loop, so identifying different ways that musicians can present their music is really important."

Of course, staple festivals like Down With Jazz, the roots music celebration Hotter Than July and 12 Points—returning to Dublin this year—will form the backbone of IMC's 2017 output. In addition, IMC will be focusing on Norwegian music, and the legendary Dutch Instant Composers Pool is being lined up for an improv weekend in November. "There are quite a lot of pots on the boil," says Killeen.

Who knows what the next twenty five years hold for IMC? Or for jazz, for that matter. The term, which is often the source so much friction, may be a redundant one altogether. Over the first twenty five years IMC has focused its lens on different areas when and where it was needed. Doubtless new opportunities and new challenges will present themselves during the next twenty five as the music, the on-stage gender balance, the technology and the audiences mutate.

What's sure, is that IMC will be in the thick of things, stirring the pot, challenging audience's expectations and conventions, and above all, championing the music with passion and invention, much as it has done for the past quarter of a century.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Improvised Music Company

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