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Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 1-2

James Fleming By

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Days 1-2 | Days 3-4

Sligo Jazz Project
Various Venues
Sligo, Ireland
July 24-29, 2018

July 24, 2018

The Garavogue River flows slow and lazy through the centre of town to Sligo Harbour. Mountains stand in the distance out in Yeats country, green and rocky, overlooking the fields on the outskirts of town. Looking over the dull metal roofs of Ballast Quay's warehouses to the land beyond Sligo town, the faeries steal away with one's imagination. And the sounds of tin whistle airs dance on the fringes of the mind. Lightyears away from the jazz that swept the streets of Sligo for a week in late July, 2018.

Coming in from all corners of the world armed with saxophones and heathen ideas, master musicians/tutors were lured to this peaceful land for the annual Sligo Jazz Project. To gig and teach throughout the town in venues ranging from the Hawk's Well Theatre to the cosy Hargadon's Pub. Bringing jazz from its birthplace in the noisy social setting of the bar to the theatres it now calls home.

It is across Hughes Bridge, lit by the sun streaming in through its skylights and wide windows, that the Sligo Jazz Project's base of operations rests: the Institute of Technology, Sligo. A centre of learning that opened its doors to the students who studied the fine art of jazz under the 26 musicians/tutors. As trumpet instructor Linley Hamilton would explain, the participants studied not just in the masterclasses and through working with the instructors in their student-ensembles but through the invaluable experience of watching them perform onstage.

Inside the college the sound of the ensembles tuning up snaked down the hallways. Past the foodcourt and the student bookshop. A gentle swing-beat underpinned the tune-up's cacophony and scat singing and saxophone scales coasted atop it. Down a hallway in the Business & Social Sciences building, in the thick of these sounds, "Lord and Lady Sligo," Eddie Lee and Therese O'Loughlin held court. With the festival's red-shirted volunteers sat at tables around the room, organising and discussing the week ahead.

Neither half of the husband/wife team of Eddie and Therese ever stayed still for more than a minute. Their week was spent in third gear -with Eddie billed as "Artistic Director" while Therese fulfilled no less than four roles: "SJP Admin, Merchandising, Hospitality, Artist Liaison." It is their work alongside their three children and the volunteers, that has brought SJP out of the imagination's haze and into concrete reality annually for 13 years.

Everyone from the tutors through to the students and onwards to the volunteers spoke highly of the Lee/O'Loughlin clan. Through their leadership, the Sligo Jazz Project is kept a loose and passionate affair. With no divides between the Project's participants and their instructors, the free exchange of knowledge, wisdom, gratitude and emotion was encouraged. Making Sligo Jazz Project a unique learning experience.

All doors along Sligo I.T.'s many hallways were open to the inquisitive. And the curious were free to wander, peering in doorways to better soak up all that there was on offer. Italian bass-master Federico Malaman arranged his ensemble in preparation for the climactic "Sligo Jazz Project Big Bash" on Sunday. Where in their instructor-led ensembles, all the students would perform onstage for their newfound friends and mentors.

Maestro Federico nodded and smiled as an American gent, who described himself as a "musical virgin" when he stood up, sang into a microphone for his first time. And if his preceding confession hadn't betrayed his inexperience it would have been revealed through the way he held the mic: moving it around in circles so that the sound of his Sinatra-esque croon faded in and out.

Post-tune a younger female singer named Cara Lynch explained about holding the microphone steady. And the American gentleman took the advice onboard with grace and an eagerness to learn. It's this coupling of experience and the lack thereof, the teaming up of musical virgins with such recognised masters as Malaman, that makes the SJP experience memorable, priceless and addictive. Many of the participants return year after year. Some have for as many as five years running. Precisely because the atmosphere is so non-judgemental and welcoming.

The philosophy of Sligo Jazz Project is one of open-armed welcome. All ages, instruments, and experience-levels are encouraged to partake. In order to facilitate the personal growth of the participants and the continued growth of jazz.

Without a proper education -be it in chemistry, English, or jazz -progression becomes an impossibility. Unlike the schoolhouses of the world however, there is no indoctrination in the teachings of SJP's tutors. The exploration of outer realms—free jazz, world music, spirituality -was encouraged throughout the week alongside the quote-un-quote "proper" methods. With each member of the faculty keen to impress upon the students the relationship between the mathematics of the music and its spiritual elements. In breaking down the barriers between the teachers/performers and the students, information moved from one participant to the next in a liberated, but not overwhelming, fashion. And as Malaman went about the room making adjustments to the chord progression and the bass line, the smiles on the members of his ensemble's faces confirmed the success of this approach.

The crowd spilled out of Hargadon's doorway, pulling on cigarettes and chatting amongst themselves. The sun threatened to split the pavement and eyes narrowed against its glare. Over the threshold it was wall-to-wall flesh. The opening jam, Sligo Jazz Project's "Festival Launch," was about to get underway. And the quartet billed as Paul Clarvis & Friends set up in a space no bigger than five foot by six.

The aforementioned SJP-instigator Eddie Lee leaned into his double bass, tuning up. Clarvis pieced together his tom-less drum kit. Ciaran Wilde stood to the side armed with a saxophone, a clarinet, and his sheet-music. And Mike Walker sat on his guitar amplifier, warming up his hands for the show. Sligo Jazz Project 2018's first live gig.

As the quartet blazed into "Bye Bye Blackbird," after an admittedly tepid start, an older gentlemen sang over the band's singer-less performance. Vocalising the enthusiasm of everyone who had squeezed themselves into the bar. Clarvis's drumming was so solid a watch could've been set to his time. And Eddie Lee's bass playing, similarly simple and reliable, meshed with Clarvis's playing like cogs' teeth. His solos kept smooth and frictionless as his accompanying basslines.

Clarvis's and Lee's no-frills rhythm section anchored Wilde and Walker's perfectly complementary team. Wilde's alto/clarinet lines interweaved impeccably with Walker's shimmering chords in an inspired reimagining of Coltrane and Tyner's tenor/piano relationship. Walker's performance that afternoon in Hargadon's favoured spacious higher-string guitar chords rather than bebop speed runs. Leaving open sonic plains for Wilde's reeds to wander freely. While simultaneously providing solid ground for his stratospheric highs. Stabbing notes that left deep impressions on the consciousness.

In any good band -be they rock n' roll, death metal, or jazz -each member stands on the balls of their feet. Ready to react to the sharp about-turns of their bandmates while still providing a sense of a coherent whole. Clarvis & Friends' quartet proved themselves well beyond capable in their first set. And as the drinks were handed down to the band, there wasn't a grim face on the premises.

Eddie moved to the door, chatting to anyone who stopped him on the way. For the second set the bass-mantle was taken up by Conor Murray who handled his responsibilities admirably. Proving himself to be on-par with Eddie, Murray played with deft understatement. His playing fit in with his band members' as if they were tailored for each other. There was no ego on the stand -no pomposity or parading. Walker, Wilde, Clarvis, Lee, and Murray simply took care of business with a passion for their craft rarely found in any trade.

And just as architecture or fine carpentry stirs up admiration in its pupils and the public, these trades/jazzmen provoked applause and appreciation from Hargadon's gathering. All of whom were more than willing to lend their voices to the band's stirring finale of "Goodnight Irene." So when the final chorus came around there was not a silent tongue present. Each person singing the words. But telling of how they had been moved down to their cores. As the band wound down and began packing up, the smiling crowd moved out into the sunshine. Eddie made his way back to the quartet's tiny performance space where his bandmates were chatting to all who stopped to congratulate them. Warm and open as the azure Summer sky.

The venue sits only around the corner from the religious bookstore that displays images of Pope Francis in its windows. And just up Temple Street, Sligo Cathedral's parish bulletins advertised the upcoming church events. But the devoted walked on past these faith-peddling dens to their own temple: A modest theatre that seats a congregation of 340. And each night for six nights running it was jammed with people. Tight as cigarettes in a pack.

Until Saturday's final concert the Hawk's Well Theatre homed the jazz music once thought sinful by the powers-that-be. But as the musicians proved night after night, jazz is a profoundly spiritual music. Capable of exposing even the deepest-buried soul through the mere delivery of a musical phrase. And the five women who took the centre stage for the theatre's first SJP show of the week proved that fact beyond the scepticism of any doubting Thomas.

Liane Carroll & Friends -namely Meilana Gillard on sax, Shannon Barnett on trombone, and Carroll herself, Emilia Martensson and Sara Colman on vocals -lifted spirits out of their chair-bound vessels and up to the skies. On their rendition of "Bye Bye Blackbird" the three vocalists blended their voices together with all the skill of Arachne—she who dared challenge the goddess of crafts Athena to a weaving contest -threading her God-shaming tapestry. And when any one of them took a scat solo smiles cracked open like eggshells underfoot. Exposing the crowd's inner joy to the stage lights.

It is the mark of a true artist -not a mere theorist or player -when a whole theatre of people are unafraid to release themselves. With no hint of self-consciousness, Liane Carroll brought out all the glee lying beneath the crowd's veneers of day-jobs and duties. Her strong, without being domineering, stage presence could probably have done it with her smile alone. But by singing through that smile from deep within herself, she made it impossible for even the meanest cur to remain unmoved.

Carlos Santana famously said that five things must go into every note: "soul, heart, mind, body, and cojones." And over the course of Liane Carroll & Friends's show, no note lacked in any of those qualities. Even Dr. David Lyttle's expertly played drums mirrored the humanity of the vocalists' performances.
About Liane Carroll
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