Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 3-4

James Fleming By

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High heels clicked on the concrete outside the Hawk’s Well Theatre. Cigarettes were lit, smoke went to the sky. Inside the bar-staff handed wines and pints across the counter, shouting prices over the conversation. The talk was of jazz. And the different accents bullied each other for the airwaves. The song of a night that has yet to begin. An atonal, arrhythmic overture. —James Fleming
Days 1-2 | Days 3-4

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

July 26, 2018

When the wind died down the day turned humid and heavy. Clouds hung low in the sky, grey and oppressive. And as Sligo's people sipped their coffees and settled down at their desks, the electricity cut out at Sligo IT. Amplifiers and keyboards were rendered powerless. Putting a halt to the morning's planned classes.

Instead, Paul Clarvis led an impromptu percussion class outside on the college grounds. The low-slung sun moved across the sky as he directed the participants armed with a tambourine. And as the sun reached its noonday-apex, the power was restored. Allowing the afternoon's ensemble sessions to go ahead as scheduled.

In the heart of the college, Ciaran Wilde awaited the members of his ensemble. He chatted in-between running up and down scales on his alto. Telling self-deprecatory jokes and discussing jazz-journalists in his Northside Dublin accent. He told a story about how Charles Mingus would play his new compositions to jazz-writer Nat Hentoff down the phone. And talked about how in 1939, Duke Ellington stopped calling it jazz "because there's so many different styles of it."

His flow was interrupted by the arrival of his ensemble -"Youth Academy Two." A group of teenagers filed into the classroom, each one fist-bumping Wilde and saying "respect" in a display of mutual admiration. Just as the students admired Wilde's skill and expertise, he admired their dedication to learning. None of Wilde's instructions or insights were wasted. Instead, each direction was taken onboard by his band. And recognised for its knowledge, value, and wisdom.

The instrumentalists ranged from a trumpet, a clarinet, and flautists, to a bassist, a guitarist and a drummer. Who was the twin brother of the sole vocalist. Wilde directed them through the tune-up, running over some of the finer details of their chosen song for Sunday's approaching Big Bash.

He paced the room with his head bowed in concentration as the kids ran down their reggae-inflected version of The Zutons'/Amy Winehouse's "Valerie." Over the course of an hour he stopped and started them, making adjustments and giving advice -..."tempo tends to drag," "Brass was lovely." But most tellingly, after a successful run-through he went around to each ensemble-member and asked them "What are you happy with?"

It's rare in any classroom situation for the master to ask for the pupils' opinions. For as accomplished a musician as Wilde -who has worked with Van Morrison, The Pogues and many others -to take an active interest in what his students think of their own progress is a testament to his patience and skill as an educator.

By fostering the fine art of having an opinion, Wilde was helping to instil in his small band of the young generation one of the skills that grows into critical thinking. And in cultivating critical thinking, SJP ensured its continued reputation as an educational resource of the highest order.

The comic-prophet George Carlin once said "They don't want an educated populace capable of critical thought." "They" being what he called the teachers' "corporate masters." For a population of critical thinkers knows what is in its rights and its responsibilities. What rights it is entitled to and that it cannot be deprived of. And what responsibilities it holds to themselves and to each other. In order to advance this world towards Utopia.

The sound of their funked-up version of "Summertime" moved down the hall and disappeared around the corner. While deeper in the Business and Social Sciences building, Dr. Steve Davis conducted his own ensemble from behind his drums. His eyes were closed in concentration, admiring the progress his ensemble was making through a rendition of "Misty." Two days before, these players had never met. But under Davis's instruction they could navigate through treacherous double-time solo sections and safely make land back at the original beat. Displaying teamwork that would make any football team flush with envy.

Scott Flanigan and Brian Byrne—SJP's first ever composer-in-residence -stepped in for Dr. Davis as his skills were required elsewhere. The pair of masters took the ensemble through the subtleties of the art -instructing the keyboardist to leave more space, explaining the difference between double-time and double-feel to the bassist. Where Wilde's directions to his younger ensemble were more general, Flanigan and Byrne delved into the grit of jazz. For just as a brushstroke can change the meaning of a painting, the fine details of a sound shape its meaning. And ensure that it is transmitted eloquently and efficiently.

As the band took up "Fly Me To The Moon" their playing lacked coherency. The vocals and tenor sax contradicted each other as both instruments clambered for the limelight. Tangling the song's tongue and obscuring its meaning.

Flanigan saw through the layers of muddled instrumentation however. And brushed past them to bring the core of the song out into the light. He instructed the saxophones to play as if they were members of a big band. To play riffs, rather than cram all available spaces with fills.

Free of that encumbering ego and narcissism, the music's meaning could be expressed. By leaving that gap there was room for breath and for movement. So each voice and instrument could get their word in, or a gesture. Where before there was mad shapelessness, there was now definition and an order. Not a strict rigidity. And certainly not a hierarchy. But a respect for each player's right to expression. As democratic as any Athenian court. As modern as a jazz quartet.

High heels clicked on the concrete outside the Hawk's Well Theatre. Cigarettes were lit, smoke went to the sky. Inside the bar-staff handed wines and pints across the counter, shouting prices over the conversation. The talk was of jazz. And the different accents bullied each other for the airwaves. The song of a night that has yet to begin. An atonal, arrhythmic overture.

The name on the ticket was "Nightfly & Other Stories." Performed by the SJP Big Band and arranged by Malcolm Edmonstone. Who, as artists past drew on classical mythology, reimagined a masterpiece. Reworking and arranging the synthesisers and drum machines of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly for a Steinway piano and big band. Merging the Great Depression/Swing era with the eighties' "Me Decade," when the LP was originally released.

Upon its release in 1982 The Nightfly was a window through time. A look back through the ages to a post-WWII America. A time before the assassinations and protests, outfits and records that would shape today's world. Some people look through that window and see only naivety. A blind faith in a future that would never arrive. But others see hope. A sincere, if misguided, belief that the world was moving in the right direction. Despite all the evidence to the contrary.

It was this optimistic seam that Edmonstone mined. Even when he talked about that day's ever-present fear of "the impending doom of the Cold War," he was smiling. As Emilia Martensson sang of the "dugout that my dad built in case the reds decide to push the button down," the rhythm section rocked the bodies in the seats. Moving them with the metropolitan groove of the cities that rose from the war's ashes.

The night began with "I.G.Y." A tune that celebrates that expectance in its refrain of "What a beautiful world this could be, what a glorious time to be free." A chorus that rings true down the decades. Juxtaposed with Edmonstone's taut, punchy arrangements it became not only optimistic, but confident. Taking on a dimension of humanity not seen often enough in music. The positive, assured side.

Jazz is the voice of a people. Alongside the blues, it was one of the few outlets for expression available to black people in the early-to-mid 20th century. But as well as voicing the people's sorrows and trials, these musics also conveyed their triumphs and joys. Sharing the full human experience out among the people. Stirring this melting pot called Earth.

The harmonies between the four vocalists—Mårtensson, Liane Carroll, Sara Colman, and Cara Lynch—were Apollonian. Fitting together like the symbols in a balanced equation. The band carried the foursome from "I.G.Y." through a version of Doug Kleiber and Stoller's "Ruby Baby" and onwards to Fagen's own "Maxine." They moved together as one. Never tripping over the big band's many limbs. But moving around each other with grace and deftness.

Colman's lead vocals on "Maxine" swept the Hawk's Well Theatre from its foundations in Sligo Town to the New World. With only melody and lyrics, she ran away with the audience across the Atlantic. Bringing the packed house south along the gulf stream to Mexico City. And then northwards to Manhattan's sprawl. Using song to blur the imaginary boundaries between lands and peoples. Evoking images of exotic countries in the imaginations of the gathered.

The song of Maxine and her lover's dreams ended. To be replaced by the stark possibilities of "New Frontier." The constant dread of nuclear annihilation pervaded Cold War America. A nagging anxiety that played out each night on the evening news like the discordant, menacing refrain of the space-age's siren-song. The fearful national anthem of suburban America. The people's true tune.

Mårtensson took up the microphone. Joined on each alternate line by her co-vocalists' harmonies. Atop the rhythm section's urban groove they glided smooth as a sports-car on asphalt. Cool, sharp. While in and around the lyric, Mike Walker's bluesy guitar licks occupied the space filled by Larry Carlton on the original LP. Painting the number with sound-strokes so subtle they were almost camouflaged against the band. Not unnoticeable. Not invisible. But hidden just beneath the surface. Barbed fishing hooks that caught the ear and reeled in the listener.

Beneath his crisp guitar solo the trumpets fired short flurries of notes. Accurate as a platoon of marksmen. Pointed as eloquent sentences. The virtuosic Ryan Quigley's solo was cool as any of Chet Baker's without seeming detached or uncaring. Contrasting against the alto saxophonist's welcoming, warm solo. A yin-yang jazz dichotomy.

The eight-bar solos moved from Quigley to alto sax to trombone and back. Each player distinguishing themselves from the last. Adding their signatures to the bottom of Edmonstone's big band constitution. Who's arrangements, even though the vocals sang of the potential for armageddon, were joyous. Even uplifting. He conducted from the Steinway with grand gestures. Movements that betrayed his own overflowing enthusiasm. A passion mirrored by the band members. There was not a soul onstage who wanted to be elsewhere. Not a dragging limb on the beast.
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