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John O'Gallagher Trio at Triskel Arts Center, Cork

Ian Patterson By

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John O'Gallagher Trio
Triskel Arts Center
Cork, Ireland
March 22, 2014

Had there been a stage invasion—a historically rare occurrence at a jazz gig—saxophonist John O'Gallagher's trio, armed with its sticks, wood and metal—and with the ace up its sleeves of the high ground—would no doubt have repelled the waves. This, alas, was not a well attended gig. In fact, had the trio played an encore it could feasibly have dedicated one song per individual audience member. What a pity this creative music, delivered with passion, soul and enviable virtuosity should arouse so little public interest. To their credit, O'Gallagher, drummer Jeff Williams and bassist Ronan Guilfoyle were gracious in their appreciation of the curious baker's dozen in attendance, and showed it by playing their collective socks off.

The trio skipped out of the blocks with veteran drummer Williams' compositions "Scrunge" and "Search Me" from the excellent The Listener (Whirlwind Recordings Ltd, 2013)—vehicles for O'Gallagher's stream of improvisational ideas. The alto player wasted no time in getting to the heart of the matter and the immediacy of the music was a feature of the 90-minute set. Williams switched from sticks to hands on Guilfoyle's "Sneaky," which combined elastic grooves and free exploration. The boppish "Turducken"—the title inspired by the American culinary feat of stuffing a turkey in a duck—or was it the latest in designer cross-bred pets?—was powered by Guilfoyle's walking bass lines and featured a charged, sinewy solo from Gallagher.

Watching O' Gallagher unfold a solo bears comparison to the way the West Indian cricketer Sir Viv Richards would build a great innings; no time at all after taking the crease the Antiguan batsman would somehow have made his way into the twenties or thirties, almost surreptitiously. With the foundation laid, Richards then stroked the ball to all parts of the ground with growing fluidity—his power matched by his grace. O'Gallagher likewise, constructs his solos with a directness and confidence that quickly captures the listener, exhibiting athleticism bound up with melody. Of contemporary alto saxophonists O'Gallagher leans towards Steve Coleman in terms of rhythmic vitality and in his ability to carry a melody through even the most uninhibited improvisations. It remains unknown whether or not he can bat.

But he can pen a tune, having recorded half a dozen of his own small ensemble projects over the years. So it seemed odd that over half the tunes in the set were by Williams. "Element" was a lyrical, swinging feature for the drummer who switched between mallets, brushes and sticks as the waves of the tune rose and fell. His arsenal of accents, from deft minimalism to punchy assertion provided the perfect foil for O'Gallagher's own imaginative excursions. The off-kilter calypso of "Borderline" saw Williams take a striking unaccompanied solo and his highly tuneful "She Can't Be A Spy" allowed O'Gallagher and Guilfoyle greater room to play in and around the defining melody.

An extended unaccompanied alto spot introduced the next tune, with O'Gallagher's quiet intensity engrossing. His reverie was finally buoyed by gentle brushes and bass. As the trio's voice expanded it was fascinating to watch the balance Williams struck between skin and metal as O'Gallagher roamed freely. The trio signed off with panache on the saxophonist's niftily titled "Extralogical Railman"—a Charlie Parker-esque, blues-veined scorcher.

Just a few short months ago O'Gallagher's recording The Anton Webern Project (Whirlwind Recordings Ltd., 2013) was making Best of Year lists on both sides of the Atlantic. Maybe it takes a special project of sorts these days to draw a crowd. But it shouldn't. When musicians of this caliber play from the heart the effect is uplifting and energizing. Hopefully the Triskel Arts Center, the promoters—and the musicians themselves—will not be discouraged from trying again.


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