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Sligo Jazz Project 2013: Days 1-3

Ian Patterson By

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You're not practicing what you're going to play, you're practicing what will affect what you play. —Kenny Werner
Sligo Jazz Project
Various Venues
Sligo, Ireland
July 16-21, 2013

For such a small country, perched on the Western extreme of Europe, Ireland has created a disproportionate amount of history, and had more than its fair share thrust upon it. Everywhere, history informs the landscape and the collective memory. Sligo, home to the Sligo Jazz Project is no exception. Megalithic stones—tombs of the ancients—dot the land, and the tombs of Spanish Armada ships and their ghosts lie at the bottom of the sea.

Walking from venue to venue around this old town, from workshop to jam session and gig, the voice of poet William Butler Yeats echoes in the narrow streets; bookshop windows proudly display anthologies of his collected poems, while streets, accommodation blocks, pubs, museums and societies are named in his honor. There's also a lively trade in tea-towels, coffee mugs, and glass and stone inscribed with his verse.

Beside St Edwards primary school—where 85 students from around 20 countries gathered to attend a week of workshops given by some of the world's premier jazz musicians/educators—stands Sligo's Famine Graveyard, an understated monument to the estimated 1 million Irish who perished in the Great Famine of 1845—1852. Hundreds of thousands more abandoned Ireland in the following decades, many heading to North America and the strong historical ties linking the two countries were evidenced at the SJP by the picture of President Barack Obama above the whiteboard in one of the classes.

Claiming approximately 4% Irish blood—and there are living relatives in Moneygall to prove it, even if there's no marked physical resemblance—Obama visited Ireland in 2011 and the photo bears beneath it the legend Obama spoke in Gaelic: Is Feidir Linn—which translates as "Yes, we can." It's an appropriate call to arms for primary school children and no less inspiring for the students in Sligo's jazz summer school, where students of varying ages and abilities came to learn, to improve their existing skills and knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, to come away with increased confidence and renewed motivation.

These were, and have always been, the main aims of the SJP since its inception in 2005, but there's more to it than the school. Daily jam sessions in the restaurant/bar space of Source Sligo provided a small-combo laboratory for students to work through new skills and knowledge in a public setting. In the evenings, a jazz festival program in the Hawk's Well Theatre hosted an outstanding array of international musicians, nearly all whom were tutors in the SJP.

The faculty of SJP 2013 boasted the participation of pianists Kenny Werner and Phil Ware, drummers John Riley and Steve Davis, trombonist Marshall Gilkes, saxophonists Jean Toussaint, and Linley Hamilton, double bassist John Goldsby, electric bassist Janek Gwizdala, guitarist Mike Nielsen and singer Ian Shaw. No wonder then, that the students who arrived at St. Edwards school on Tuesday morning were keen to learn who would be tutoring them in small ensembles for the duration of the week.

As the students mingled and acquaintances were made, the swell of voices created a happy cacophony like an orchestra tuning up. A fair few students were returning to SJP for the second or third time, which was also the case for several of the tutors. Mayo-based drummer Martin was back at the SJP for the third consecutive year, drawn each time by the opportunity of studying with John Riley.

Beginning with bandleader Woody Herman in the mid 1970s, Riley has kept time for iconic jazz figures including trumpeters Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, saxophonists Stan Getz and Joe Lovano and guitarists John Scofield and Mike Stern—the latter who was opening the evening festival program: "I think that's why people come back every year," said Martin, "because of the quality of the tutors and because there's no pressure at all." In fact, a spirit of bonhomie and mutual support was a constant feature of the SJP.

After a brief welcome from SJP founder and director, Eddie Lee, which included an introduction to the faculty staff, the students made their way to the first ensemble classes. Soon after, the school was buzzing with music, talk and laughter. The ensembles typically ranged from quintet to septet in size and the participants from 12 years of age to 70.

Age at either end of the scale is no barrier to joining the SJP as the ensembles are grouped according to levels of ability. In fact, the three youngest students, Thomas Maxwell (12), Charlotte Kinsella (13) and Emmett Harrison (13) provided some of the most inspiring stories of the week.

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