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Limerick Jazz Festival 2013

Ian Patterson By

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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."

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