Sligo Jazz Project 2013: Days 4-6

Sligo Jazz Project 2013: Days 4-6
Ian Patterson By

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Don’t think this is good or this is bad. Keep judgment out of it – it’s the fastest way to lose your way.
—Janek Gwizdala
Sligo Jazz Project
Various Venues
Sligo, Ireland
July 16-21, 2013

After three action-packed days at Sligo Jazz Project, with SJP founder/bassist Eddie Lee and drummer David Lyttle's world premiere of The Barinthus Suite providing an unforgettable highlight, the first signs of attrition amongst the students were beginning to show. The non-stop nature of the SJP is one of its attractions, and there were absolutely no complaints about value for money; world-class tuition, workshops, master classes and individual lessons by request all took place at St. Edwards primary school. There were jam sessions downtown in the afternoon and late at night, and a top-rate international jazz festival was held in the Hawk's Well Theatre every evening. And the lunches had been great too.

Murderous Mornings

But just a couple more hours of sleep would have helped. Bags began to appear under eyes, the coffee flasks were emptied at an alarming rate, and fewer musicians went to the late night jams. Up at the Yeats Village where the majority of students were staying in student digs, there was a slightly grating wake-up call each morning for the lighter sleepers caused by crows, and hundreds of them—great, black scavenger crows. There are several collective nouns for crows, including 'murder,' but so numerous was the Yeats Village brood that a Hitchcock of crows seemed more apt.

Downtown, just a stone's throw from the jam session venue Source Sligo is an old pub called Shoot the Crows. It turns out, that in the early part of the 20th century local farmers were so incensed at the decimation of their crops by crows that a bounty was levied on the feathered fiends. Memories are long in Sligo, it seems, and perhaps it's no coincidence that Eddie Lee plays in a band called No Crows.

Day 4: Mike Nielsen/Janek Gwizdala Workshops

Guitarist Mike Nielsen's early morning talk on Friday covered micro-tonality, equidistant intervals of octaves, the overtone series and temperate system, consonance and dissonance. It was challenging and stimulating in equal measure. But in truth, given the complex theoretical nature of his talk and the amount of information he imparted, thirty minutes was rather too short. Some students mentioned that handouts would be useful for such presentations, as taking notes in double time wasn't conducive to listening.

Bassist Janek Gwizdala's workshop for all musicians repeated a lot of the advice that he gave during the first day's master class, but many more students had the chance this time to listen to his sage words: "Instrument-specific stuff is the last thing on my priority list," he said. "A good part of my practice every day is on the fundamentals of music." He also warned students against the dangers of slipping into overly comfortable practice routines and called upon them to exercise mental fortitude: "A favorite lick or rhythmic pattern is like a safety blanket. You need to get away from it."

Like double bassist John Goldsby, a few days before, Gwizdala advised students not to think while they are playing: "I record every concert, every practice session. I do the thinking afterwards. Don't think this is good or this is bad. Keep judgment out of it—it's the fastest way to lose your way." All students have a pretty good idea if the practice they're doing is meaningful or unchallenging and Gwizdala wrapped up his short presentation by reminding them of this fact: "Honesty," he said, "is the deal breaker."

John Goldsby & John Riley: Master Class

The pre-lunch master class by Goldsby and drummer John Riley was one of the best of the entire week. Simplicity, concentration, control and support were the watchwords. Though specifically oriented towards bassists and drummers playing in a trio context, the wisdom of these two veteran musicians held a universal truth for all musicians. "The bass and drum relationship has to be secure before we can play too much with the piano," Riley said.

"If John [Goldsby] plays intimately with the pianist then I have to play a more supportive role. We have to do the simple things together and if we can't do the simple things together then there's no way we can do more complicated things," Riley emphasized. "It can become more conversational but without losing the purity and simplicity. You need the concentration and the restraint to recognize what's important. That's a challenge and a sign of maturity when you get to that point."

Practical demonstrations illustrated various key issues and students got the chance not only to play for Riley and Goldsby, who offered up precise analysis, but with them as well. In response to a musician who was rather too busy on the drums, all but drowning out the bassist, Goldsby likened the interaction to meeting someone on the street: "The first thing you say when you meet someone is, 'hi, how are you? Boy, it's hot today.' You don't kick in with, 'my grandma's from Arkansas.' The analogy of mad social behavior caused much laughter, and probably upon reflection—all things need time to be absorbed—helped raise greater self-awareness among the students.

When students' timing began to stray, Riley underlined the importance of visual clues: "If the drummer can't hear too well he watches that right hand and gets in sync." In response to a clumsy finish to a blues tune Goldsby's simple advice to the drummer was "learn to sing a blues tune." How many times during the week did students hear the professionals encourage singing as a means to improve musicianship? Maybe there's something to it then.

Friday Jam Session: Source Sligo

The Friday afternoon jam session at Source Sligo underlined the come-one-come-all nature of the SJP. Australian singer Aminha Hughes is shortly to release her debut album featuring the great guitarist Tommy Emmanuel; Northern Irish singer Louie McDonald is a student of jazz composition in England; Jerry Fehily is former drummer with legendary Irish folk-rock band The Hothouse Flowers; Lars Schmid studies jazz piano at the Zurich School of Arts, and 13-year old Charlotte Kinsella is a classically trained flautist who had never played jazz before enrolling in the SJP 2013.

Of course, in the SJP school students were grouped as far as possible according to level, but on the jam floor everybody was welcome. Well-known Sligo multi-instrumentalist Seamie O'Dowd guested in Aminah Hughes ensemble and played outstanding slide guitar on the Hughes original "You Don't Need"—an old-school blues of some power. Hughes, a strong, soulful singer, brought real nuance to "Hold on my Love," another original whose contours were evocative of singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell. Bassist Aron Salzmann and pianist Schmid—two names to keep an eye on—provided intuitive support.

Schmid learned about SJP through his teacher Chris Wiesendanger, who had been a tutor at SJP in 2006, and the experience has clearly been a positive one: "It's cool to have so many equal-spirited people coming together and sharing their passion for music," he said. "It doesn't matter how old they are or how good they are, or what their instrument is. You just get together and work at whatever level you're at. Everybody plays at the jam sessions no matter what their level is." Schmid was also full of praise for the teachers: "The teachers are great," he said. "They speak to all levels about the mindset—to get rid of the pressure of trying to sound good.

"Actually, I was quite relaxed," adds Schmid. "There's such a good atmosphere here; it makes you feel okay. "I'm on holiday to be honest, and I'm not trying to learn that much," he admitted, "but by not trying to learn that much I learn much more [laughs]."

Schmid's enthusiasm for the SJP experience was tempered with a pragmatic view of the wider challenges: "I do feel pressure, though" he admits, "just for myself, struggling to become a professional musician. It's not easy."

As for taking on board all the advice about practice gleaned from his tutor Kenny Werner once back in Zurich, Schmid said: "I'll try. The hard part about this experience will be to keep the energy going. It's easy to fall back into old patterns, but I've got Kenny's book and I've got Kenny's DVDs so I'll try to maintain that spirit."

To students who maybe feel their level is too low or their experience insufficient to attend SJP, Schmid only has words of encouragement: "It's a great thing to do. It's great for beginners because it gives them the opportunity to play with people on their level and with some of the greatest jazz musicians ever. When confidence comes playing will follow."

For some students, the experience of playing in front of a public was daunting. For less experienced jazz musicians in particular it took real courage to get up and play. Apprehension, bravery, motivation and inspiration all went hand in hand at the SJP. The joy at playing before a public—albeit the floor of a cocktail bar—brought to mind the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats, penned in 1916: ..."I seem to myself most alive at the moment when a room full of people share the one lofty emotion."

Dublin City Jazz Orchestra: Hawk's Well Theatre

Big band jazz got a run out at the Hawk's Well Theatre on Friday evening in the form of the Dublin City Jazz Orchestra. The 17-piece DCJO led by Ciaran Wilde was joined by a number of special guests from the faculty of the SJP in a program of two sets that featured bebop, brassy swing and romantic sounding 1960's film scores. The first set included arrangements of Oliver Nelson's "Hoedown" and "Miss Fine," the latter which featured a fine solo from trumpeter Linley Hamilton.

Pianist Kenny Werner and drummer John Riley sat in on several numbers but it wasn't until the introduction of saxophonist Jean Toussaint on an arrangement of a tune by guitarist Hugh Buckley that the blues came to the fore. Even on original compositions the big, brassy arrangements conferred an air of nostalgia. A short, punchy take on saxophonist John Coltrane's "Impressions" closed the first set with greater momentum than the music that had preceded it.

The second half of the show offered greater variety. Singer Ian Shaw was superb, breathing new life—and no little humor—into the old chestnut "I Thought about You." Unpredictable and endlessly inventive, Shaw combined jazz and soul on a three-part Burt Bacharach/Hal David suite, the centerpiece of which, "Alfie," Shaw had previously recorded with pianist Cedar Walton on In a New York Minute (Milestone, 1999).

Trombonist Marshall Gilkes—no stranger to big band settings through his work in Maria Schneider's Orchestra and the WDR big band—brought a slightly more contemporary edge to the evening with several original tunes. Gilkes is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest post J.J. Johnson trombonists and featured on his own compositions "Down Time," "Edenderry," and the firey "Puddle Jumping" where he slipped free of the tethers with some wonderfully agile playing. An enjoyable evening was rounded off by a stonking version of Pinetop Sparks 1935 tune "Every Day I Have the Blues." Singer/guitarist Nigel Mooney played Bobby King to the DCJO's Count Basie band in a swinging end to the program.

David Lyttle & Interlude

Over at the The Glasshouse Hotel in the ballroom of the Swan Suite, drummer David Lyttle and his project Interlude served up steady grooves that blended jazz, funk, hip-hop and soul. It was something of a family affair with Lyttle's mother Anne and sister Rhea on vocals. Rapper Homecut brought an urban edge to songs from Lyttle's neo-soul delight Interlude (Lyte Records, 2012) and another busy night at SJP ended with a vibrant jam session for those with the energy left to jam—or merely listen.

Day 5: John Goldsby: A history of the double bass

Day five of SJP saw bassist John Goldsby present a linear history of the bass in jazz, playing video and audio clips, and analyzing the styles of Wellman Bruad, Jimmy Blanton, Eddie Safranski, Walter Page, Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Israel Crosby Ray Brown up to Charles Mingus. Riley also showed an old clip of Thelma Terry, a bassist who started out in Chicago in the 1920s and who was one of very few women to lead an all-male band, The Playboys, which, incidentally, included drummer Gene Krupa. Terry disabanded The Playboys in 1929, tired of showbiz and, according to the later testament of her family, the insubordination and sexual harassment she had to contend with from the band members.

Tony Miceli Quartet

At the Glass House Hotel, vibraphonist Tony Miceli's quartet gave a wonderful lunchtime concert in tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet. Featuring pianist Phil Ware, bassist Dave Redmond and drummer John Daly, the quartet visited standards such as "Green Dolphin Street," "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," and the MJQ's "Jasmine Tree." Miceli paid dancing tribute to pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi, followed by a gorgeous rendition of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos' suite "Bachiana Brasilieras."

So delicate was the quartet's voice on the Villa-Lobos number that it was possible to hear someone in the audience munching a sandwich. Applause would have come as an intrusion, but at the end, the ovation that greeted a riveting performance spoke volumes for the quality of the concert as a whole.

Kenny Werner Talk: Effortless Mastery

In 1996, pianist Kenny Werner wrote a book called "Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within" (Jamey Aebersold Jazz, 1996), which outlined his philosophy on teaching and learning music. Werner gave a talk about the book, which has influenced more than one generation, at the Hawk's Well Theatre in the afternoon. Sitting at the piano stool, Werner loosened up with a classically colored, quietly rhapsodic exploration that lasted ten minutes. His talk wove a similar spell.

"Everybody has effortless mastery at something they do," Werner said—"something you do with precision that you don't have to think about." For the next 45 minutes Werner made the case quite persuasively that students of music can achieve that same unthinking mastery of their instrument through a combination of mindset and discipline.

Growing up in Long Island, Werner talked about his early detachment from the arts in general, describing the cultural poverty of his environment as a blessing in disguise. "When I played I didn't feel so crushed by the weight of tradition and the things that had gone before me. Of course, later on I filled in all that stuff and studied it and loved it but I was already in the habit of not thinking about it when it was time to play. When I played, I had a natural state of mind that no-one has ever played the piano before this moment, which is a very freeing feeling."

Werner reiterated an idea that was made by several of the tutors during the week—to remove judgment from playing: "Judging yourself daily by how good you play is really a waste of a lifetime," he said. Werner spoke of deprogramming habits and reprogramming a different relationship to the music—one free from fear and free from judgment. He told the audience not to obsess about their music and to rein in the ego that inflates the importance of making music: "When we think of ego we think, oh he's got a big ego, but the person who puts themselves down also has a big ego—it's still self obsession. The problem with ego," Werner underlined, "is that it ruins your playing and it ruins your practicing."

For students who say they're too lazy to practice, Werner said provocatively: "No you're not. You're overwhelmed. You don't know where to start." Werner provided strategies for overcoming fear-based practice, fear-based playing and fear-based listening, and outlined ways of finding the mental space to play free of tension. All these ideas, and more, are dealt with more expansively in Werner's book and DVD. In addition, recordings of Q&As with Werner are freely available on his website

SJP All Stars

The evening concert in the Hawk's Well Theatre of the SJP All Stars brought together the entire teaching faculty under the leadership of Werner and Riley. Such thrown together ensembles are sometimes a disappointment at festivals but this wasn't the case at the Hawk's Well. From duos to large ensembles and everything in between, the musicians of the teaching faculty gave a scintillating two-hour concert that was a definite highlight of the week. From a local perspective, it was gratifying to see the Irish/Northern Irish musicians holding their own with their more famous American colleagues.

Saturday Festival Club: Blues Special with Nigel Mooney

The late night festivities at the Glass House Hotel began with guitarist Nigel Mooney leading his band through an entertaining set of blues tunes from his album The Bohemian Mooney (Lyte Records, 2013). The up-tempo numbers put bassist Dan Bodwell and drummer Dominic Mullan through a tremendous amount of work and it wasn't until the back-to-back ballads of "Old Folks" and singer/pianist Ray Charles' "Hard Times" at the set's mid-point that either could take something like a breather.

Mooney's "I ain't Ready," saxophonist Joe Henderson's "The Kicker" and guitarist BB King's "Baby Don't you want a Man like Me" got the set off to a rocking start, with keyboardist Little Johnny Taylor—the band's musical director—adding bluesy swing. Mooney impressed with both vocals and guitar. His vocals had the lived-in suaveness of singer Robert Palmer and his guitar style owed a debt to BB King. On guitarist/singer Willie Dixon's "I am Ready," the band was joined by saxophonist Jean Toussaint for a roaring version of the tune made famous by Muddy Waters. Songwriter Harold Arlen's "Come Rain or Shine" and a lively version of "Early in the Morning" rounded out a hugely enjoyable set.

With the students' final ensemble session taking place in the morning followed by the public performance of their repertoires, most of the assembled dragged weary bodies off to bed. However, that still left a number of the usual suspects who jammed on for a further hour or so until the hotel, in what could be viewed as an act of kindness to all, pulled the plug.

Day 6:SJP Big Bash!—Student Ensembles Presentation Concert

There was a gala atmosphere in the Swan Suite of the Glass House Hotel on the final day of SJP 2013. One by one, the ensembles took to the stage and presented two or in some cases three tunes that they had rehearsed with their tutors during the week. The Connor Murray Nonet, tutored by Jean Toussaint and led by saxophonist Michael Murray nailed trumpeter Miles Davis' "So What," the tune that had caused such difficulties at the start of the week. With Connor Murray absent, the students had to settle with a sub, but it's unlikely they'll ever complain about having John Goldsby at the heart of the rhythm section.

Sixteen year-old saxophonist Michael Murray from Donegal, who participated in all bar one of the jam sessions, spoke of his SJP experience: "It's been absolutely fantastic," he enthused. "I loved all the master classes and all the concerts." For Michael, however, the highlight of the week was Werner's talk, "Effortless Mastery": "You can feel really overwhelmed, which I was, by all the jazz theory. You learn something but it's never enough. I related to what he said about fear-based practice. After the talk I felt really good. Me and [pianist] Ben Tyson went back to the school and we had this jam where we just started playing, trying to get into the space that Kenny [Werner] was talking about. It might have been the most enjoyable jam that I've had the whole week."

The Truth and Good Will Ensemble, tutored by Goldsby, gave extremely polished renditions of "Scrapple from the Apple," "Moonlight in Vermont" and Juan Tizol's "Caravan." Pianist Marius van den Brink, soprano saxophonist Tiernan Jones and guitarist Paddy Shannon—jam session monsters all—played with real gusto.

Tutor Cathal Roche must have been delighted with his ensemble Sunflower Seeds for the way they executed trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" and multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk's "Serenade to a Cuckoo." Thirteen year-old Sligo trumpeter Emmett Harrison—one of the youngest students at SJP—did a great job and can be justifiably proud of his achievements. He cut a much more confident figure than he had at the start of the week and he had nothing but positive things to say about the SJP: "I couldn't have imagined that I'd have learned so much as I have by the end of the week."

Theory was made easier for Harrison by teacher Linley Hamilton: "He was really good," acknowledged Harrison. "He taught me all these major and minor scales. I didn't think I'd ever know them because I found them so difficult to understand, but he made them so much easier. He showed me techniques to play better and it's really enhanced my trumpet playing." The age gap in the ensemble was no deterrent to Harrison: "I see it as an advantage, he said. "I get to learn more because I'm treated as an adult, and as a child, [laughs] but with respect." Harrison was excited about a practice tool that Linley showed him: "He showed me a warm-up technique that's really amazing and I will practice every day of my life now."

Guitarist Carl Wheelan, from guitarist Mike Nielsen's ensemble "Fubar" evoked a jazzier Jimmy Page on striking versions of "Madagascar" and pianist Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't." Trumpeter Linley Hamilton's ensemble "Charlotte's Angels" negotiated guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel's "Mirror Blue," pianist Scott Flanagan's "11" and the standard "You'd Be so Nice to Come Home To' in fine style. Thirteen-year old flautist Charlotte Kinsella seemed a foot taller than at the start of the week, introducing the songs and the band with assurance. She and Aminah Hughes nailed their interventions and were perfect on unison lines.

Hamilton was full of praise for his students: "That was a challenging set they played but I thought it went very, very well. The performance level was quite high and they did themselves proud. Hopefully they can move on from here with a bit of confidence."

John Riley's ensemble "Molly and the Boats" led by vocalist/songwriter Molly Bolton gave a commanding performance of saxophonist John Coltrane's "Afro Blue." Molly's own compositions didn't feature as they belong more to the realm of solo singer, but as she demonstrated during the week she's a striking and original singer/songwriter with bags of potential.

Marshall Gilkes' ensemble name, "The Sort Ofs," was inspired by the inimitable Homer Simpson. If the students had been 'sort of' confident at the start of the week, demonstrating a little Homerian clumsiness, then by week's end they too had grown into a tight, confident sextet. Vocalist Louie McDonald possesses a fine voice and is a singer to watch out for. Mention must be made of classically trained pianist Martin Devek. Devek had struggled with the jazz idiom early on in the week but his openness allied with determination to acquire the vocabulary and grammar of jazz saw him make progress—unspectacular, but perhaps genuinely significant.

One of very few original tunes heard all week was pianist Frank McPhail's "Changes," which Ian Shaw's ensemble "Shaw Thing" executed admirably. Kenny Werner, rooting from the wings, was obviously delighted with his ensemble's renditions of 'Blackbird," "You Don't Know What Love is" and "Now's the Time."

Tropicana Musica/Wrap Up

The final concert of a week that had flown by was by Tropicana Musica, a group of musicians/dancers from Congo, Zimbabwe, France, and Ireland, whose mixture of soukous, makossa and rumba coaxed all-comers onto the dance floor. At the start of Tropicana Musica's concert the dancing was enthusiastic, but a little rigid; by concert's end the body language of the dancers had changed —more relaxed, more flowing, and more attuned.

"We try to mix everything," said guest singer Adrisha after the concert. Adrisha is an asylum seeker. "There's a problem in my country," he stated simply. Adrisha arrived in Ireland four years ago, with no English but with a valuable skill—music. "My way to integrate myself into Irish society is my music," he explained. "It's what I know, what I can do. I listen to all the music—sometimes jazz, sometimes Irish music. I sometimes go to Irish music sessions to learn. I want to mix everything." For Adrisha, jazz is not a strange idiom: "No, in some drums the beat is like African rhythms,' he said.

Though a French speaker, Adrisha isn't thinking about a move to France, "I want to stay here. I like Ireland. I like Irish people, they're very kind. I prefer to stay here and I prefer to stay in Sligo. Sligo is like my second land."

In Adrisha's story of flight and hope, and a strong desire for rootedness there are echoes of the Irish who abandoned Ireland for America in the second half of the 19th century. In his openness to all music and his desire to integrate, there are echoes too of the story of jazz. As jazz has traveled through time and across borders it has found new homes where it has absorbed new language and found new forms of expression.

The SJP is part of that history. For Eddie Lee and his team, bringing together people regardless of race, nationality, gender, age, background or ability is in itself a success. Nurturing musical learning through notions of respect, tolerance and communication is embedded in the SJP ethos, and it's this philosophy that makes for such a relaxed, happy environment at the SJP.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the SJP though, is not musical at all, but engendering in the students the motivation to do better, and to some degree, in contributing to increased levels of confidence, greater self-belief and a renewed sense of personal worth. If that's so, then sitting in a primary school chair for a week will seem like a small sacrifice indeed.

Photo Credit: Aminah Hughes

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