Improvised Music Company: Orbital Pathways, Gravitational Pull

Ian Patterson By

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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.



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