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Kit Downes/Cormac O'Brien Band at McHughs

Ian Patterson By

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Kit Downes/Cormac O'Brien Band
McHughs
Belfast, N. Ireland
September 13, 2014

Dating back to 1711, McHughs bar and restaurant is the oldest surviving building in Belfast. As such, McHughs underground cellar, which played host to the Kit Downes/Cormac O'Brien Band seemed like an appropriate venue for a jazz gig. For like McHughs, jazz has survived—and for some practitioners it's changed little since the 1940s—while all around it has changed dramatically.

Situated a stone's throw from Belfast's docks, McHughs has been absorbed by a new city landscape that includes state of the art culture and entertainment centres—the centerpiece of which is the Titanic Quarter—and gleaming new offices, chain hotels, high-end apartments and strolling tourists. Twenty years ago such a panorama was unimaginable in a city torn by political and sectarian strife, but times change.

Something else that has changed for the better is the flow of jazz musicians between Dublin—a mere ninety minutes down the road—and Belfast. O'Brien is no stranger to Belfast but this was his first time here leading this quartet, as part of a wider Irish tour. O'Brian and Downes—who first toured together in 2009 with singer Claire Daly—had originally penciled in saxophonist Michael Buckley for this tour but the veteran had to pull out and was replaced first by Chris Engel, and for this Belfast date, by Matthew Halpin.

Both O'Brien and Downes were road testing new material, which covered post-bop, Wayne Shorter-esque balladry and straight ahead fare laced with blues and swing. The first set began with a smart, untitled tune by O'Brien. Drummer Shane O'Donovan's elastic rhythms drove the quartet as Halpin led from the front, embellishing the head to create a satisfyingly mazy, melodic tale. Downes followed suit with a flowing solo that likewise commanded the attention. The pianist's first tune, a delightfully measured slower number with baroque overtones, maintained a strolling vibe—steered by Downes and Halpin's elegant solos—whilst gaining in intensity.

A lively bebop tune of Charlie Parker-ish hue saw Downes release a steady stream of ideas over O'Brien's fast-walking bass and O'Donovan' snap and crackle. Halpin picked up the thread, bristling with energy and invention in equal measure. To minimal accompaniment, O'Brien carved out his own singing narrative before the quartet reunited on the head. A timely, brushes-guided tune reduced the burning intensity but not the quality of the solos, with Downes and O'Brien once again in impressive form.

The first set closed with Downes composition "Skip James," an infectious a slow-burning blues from Quiet Tiger (Basho Records, 2011). A folkloric and hymnal quality—not unlike Swedish pianist Jan Johansson's blues—colored Downes' less-is-more approach on this transporting number.

The second set was weighted in favor of jazz's post-war modernists, with the quartet visiting Ornette Coleman's bluesy swinger "Turnaround," Sam Rivers' "Beatrice" and tipping a wink to Thelonious Monk too. Maybe it was a case of giving the audience a little of what they knew, but in spite of the consummate ensemble and individual playing it was the two original tunes in the middle that stood out.

Stemming from an extended piano-cum-saxophone intro, O'Brien's "Happy Days" quickly found its groove; a teasing calypso vein ran through Halpin and Downes' melodic improvisations as O'Brien and O'Donovan toggled between fractured and more flowing rhythms. Downes' brushes-led ballad "Export" was a set highlight, with the riveted audience in silent communion with the band. For the encore, the quartet took Monk's 1952 tune "Let's Cool One" at a slow and easy pace, with Halpin, Downes and O'Brien all stretching out one final time.

Afterwards, the musicians made some noises about perhaps recording the material for a future release. One the evidence of this absorbing performance such an eventuality—with this line-up—would be welcome indeed. O'Brien, Halpin and O'Donovan not only acquitted themselves well alongside Downes—one of the UK's leading pianists—but were equal to the task. It's an indication of the strength and depth of Irish jazz and whets the appetite for more of the same.

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Skip James

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