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Limerick Jazz Festival 2013

Ian Patterson By

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Limerick Jazz Festival
Various Venues
Limerick
Ireland
September 26-29, 2013

There's a lot to be said for laying strong foundations. By the time the Limerick Jazz Society got it together to put on the city's inaugural jazz festival in 2012 it already had 30 years experience of hosting local and international jazz acts. That's three decades building relations with venues and sponsors, local and national musicians and media, volunteers and supporters, and of course the Limerick public.

Even before the first festival took jazz in Limerick to the next level, however, the city justifiably enjoyed a reputation as the best place for jazz in Ireland outside of Dublin. The LJS was responsible for bringing pianist Brad Mehldau to Ireland for the first time and artists such as saxophonists Chris Potter and David Binney, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, guitarist John Abercrombie and pianist Jason Moran have all been persuaded to play this small city of 57,000 that nestles by the River Shannon. The Limerick Jazz Festival 2013 consolidated the success of the inaugural festival by bringing jazz to even more venues in town and by attracting international media.

Day 1: Louis Stewart & Jim Doherty

Promotion of Irish jazz talent has been central to the LJS's ethos since the beginning and the very best Irish jazz musicians regularly play the spring and autumn concert series that have been part of the cultural fabric of Limerick for the past thirty years. It was therefore entirely fitting that two of Ireland's best jazz musicians, guitarist Louis Stewart and pianist Jim Doherty got the festival underway on Thursday evening. There was further symmetry in the fact that back in 1988 Stewart had been the LJF's first major invitee, performing with singer Honor Heffernan in what was formerly The Granary Bar, now Trinity Rooms.

Stewart is undoubtedly Ireland's most famous jazz musician. In 1968 he won the special jury prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival and went on to play for three years with clarinetist/bandleader Benny Goodman. Collaborations with saxophonist Tubby Hayes, pianist George Shearing and several years as a member of saxophonist Ronnie Scott's quintet cemented his reputation. Reviewing Acoustic Guitar Duets (Livia Records, 1986), which Stewart recorded with guitarist Martin Taylor, Downbeat magazine wrote: "Louis Stewart must be considered one of the instrument's world class players"—something they'd already known in Ireland for a long time.

This gig was a celebration of Stewart and Doherty's debut CD together, a recording, Doherty admitted, that took a while to see the light of day. Fifty three years after first playing together in a Showband, the two musicians finally made it into a studio earlier this year to record Tunes (Beechpark Records, 2013)—a collection of timeless jazz standards. "It Could Happen To You" and "I wished On the Moon" got the set off to a swinging start and this was followed by an elegant bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim. An intimate version of "Body and Soul" highlighted both players tremendous lyricism.


Doherty took a solo piano spot, a medley of George and Ira Gershwin tunes that revealed a continual flow of ideas and a strong rhythmic pulse. Reunited with Stewart, the duo closed the first set with a boppish take on "Broadway." After a short break the duo launched into "My Heart Stood Still" before welcoming saxophonist Larry McKenna and vibraphonist Tony Miceli to play on a couple of tunes. McKenna, like Stewart, is a consummate interpreter of a song and his warm tone and melodic invention brought luster to "East of the Sun." Miceli's delightful solo set the scene for some rapid exchanges between all four musicians.

The quartet also let off some collective steam on saxophonist Charlie Parker's 1947 bebop classic "Scrapple from the Apple" before Doherty and Stewart resumed their intuitive duo dialog once again on "Darn That Dream." Stewart gave a captivating solo performance of "It Ain't Necessarily So," Doherty linked up with Stewart on "Yesterdays" and McKenna And Miceli returned to close out a classy set with a lively quartet rendition of "What is This Thing Called Love."

Day 2: Limerick Jazz Workshop; Larry McKenna Quartet

With just the one evening gig on Friday there was time to wander the streets of Limerick and take in a few of the sights. Limerick dates back to at least the time of the Vikings, who settled here in 812. The Normans built King John's Castle in the 12th century—a sign of the city's strategic position on the River Shannon in those feudal times. The castle has undergone a multi-million Euro refurbishment and now boasts a state of the art visitors' center.

Like most Irish towns these days there are a dew chain stores but in the main the streets and shops retain a local character. Pubs abound. So too, does art. Limerick has a vibrant arts scene, with very active theatre and dance companies. Flyers and posters advertising gigs of all musical styles vie for space in the town's shop windows. Limerick gives graffiti a good name and striking wall murals brighten up building facades in various nooks and crannies of the town. Despite its small city feel Limerick is multi-cultural, with an important African community and the largest Polish population outside Dublin. At the time of LJF 2013 an exhibition of art/photography by Polish artists was on display at the Hunt Museum.


Later that evening two of Philadelphia's finest musicians, saxophonist Larry McKenna and vibraphonist Tony Miceli gave a wonderful performance of jazz standards. Joined by Australian, Dublin-based bassist Damien Evans and drummer/LSJ chair John Daley, the quartet set out its stall with a gently swinging version of "Robin's Nest." At 76, McKenna remains one of the very best exponents of standards interpretation. Neither is it surprising from one who has played with both Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett that he swings too. Miceli, a 60's child, often gravitates towards more contemporary collaborations, though he quickly demonstrated that, like McKenna, he has a real feel for the tunes.

The tune is everything in McKenna's book and even when the quartet was cooking on the up-tempo swinger "That Old Black Magic" and drummer Denzil De Costa Best's bop standard "Move" the melodies formed the basis for solos and were never sacrificed or submerged beneath a sea of scalar runs, as is often the case with less subtle practitioners of standards. "You've Changed" allowed McKenna to demonstrate his rare talent for ballad interpretation in a mesmerizing interpretation of the Carl Fisher/Bill Carey tune from 1941—a standard for singers Billie Holiday, Julie London, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. Daley and Evans' danceable rhythms enlivened Antonio Carlos Jobim's classic "So Danco Samba," and featured a thrilling, tropical-flavored solo from Miceli and an equally vibrant one from McKenna.

The second set followed a similar pattern of swingers, ballads, bossa nova and firey bebop. McKenna and Miceli opened the second set with a lullaby delicacy on Henri Mancini's "Dreamsville," though there was absolutely no danger of anybody nodding off. Kurt Weil's "September Song"— which appears on McKenna's CD From All Sides (Self Produced, 2013)—swung mightily, with saxophonist, bassist and vibraphonist all stretching out as Daley kept impeccable time on brushes. Guitarist Barney Kessel's seldom heard bebop number "Swedish Pastry" brought the gig to a stirring conclusion; fast-walking bass and ride cymbal kept a constant groove as first McKenna and then Miceli gave captivating solos—the vibraphonist's sticks a blur.


The crowd demanded an encore and the quartet obliged with "How High the Moon" in a bop-tempo that encouraged strong closing statements from all four musicians. It may be that jazz standards are losing a certain amount of currency among younger generations of musicians pursuing their own identity and more contemporary sounds. Nevertheless, when played with the complete conviction that McKenna and his quartet displayed over two memorable sets it's clear that this music can still inspire wonder.

An important part of the Limerick Jazz Society's roots to branches approach are the jazz workshops, which run for two terms during the year. As workshop director Ed Hansom explained, the jazz workshops began in October 2007 and are designed for musicians of any age who wish to learn how to play jazz: "We don't teach students how to play their instrument. If you have reasonable facility on your instrument and a willingness to work hard we'll teach you how to learn to play jazz. That involves not only improvisational skills but it involves ensemble skills as well. Everything you do is in a group and the focus of every term is actually one or two live performances, during and at the end of the term."

Hansom recognizes that jazz in Ireland does not receive anything like the same sort of corporate sponsorship or Arts Council funding as other types of music: "If 80% of funding is for classical music then 80% of the rest is for trad. Kids get very little exposure to jazz these days so we go into the schools to do workshops now and again."

The workshops have proven to be an undoubted success, with some of the students going on to study jazz at Newpark Music Center—the only educational institution in Ireland that offers jazz studies.: "We have people who have been coming right from the word go and they're still coming," says Hansom. "It's extraordinary to be able to see how much people have improved over the years." Hansom underlines that whilst the atmosphere of these workshops is informal and laid back, the emphasis is very much on study: "It's a different philosophy to a summer school. It's lovely to go away for a week but then people tend to put their instruments away again until the next summer school. What we do is two twelve week terms each year and if you come in twelve weeks twice a year and practice you are in real danger of improving."

As part of the Limerick Jazz Festival students from the jazz workshop gave a performance in the Hunt Museum—one of Ireland's most celebrated museums. With teachers, drummer John Daley and bassist Peter Hanagan providing a rock solid rhythm section three students performed a series of standards: "Blue Bossa"; "Straight No Chaser"; "Perdido"; "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and "Song for My Father." Unbeknown to saxophonists Connor O'Brien and Laura Ryan, and guitarist Emmet Ryan, Daly asked each of them to take a solo improvisation. It must have been fairly nerve racking for the young students but they all rose to the task well, with Ryan in particular impressing with his Jimi Hendrix-inspired lines. Hitting the occasional bum note in front of an audience is painful, but as Daly said, "You've got to play lots of wrong notes first before you learn the right ones."


Afterwards the students spoke about their experience in the Limerick Jazz Workshop: "It's such a great community," said 15-year old O'Brien, who has been attending the workshops for three years. "I definitely feel more confident." Playing before a public is one of the aims of these workshops, a slightly daunting task for most young musicians, but Ryan was full of praise for the LJW teachers and the confidence they help inspire: "They build you up to it. It's getting easier. It's grand now," says Ryan, who has been attending the LJW for five years.
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