| Days 3-4
Sligo Jazz Project
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 ByrneSJP'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 vocalistsMårtensson, Liane Carroll
, Sara Colman
, and Cara Lynchwere 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
'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.
"What a team!" as Edmonstone would later exclaim between numbers. No one but he had seen the music before 4:30PM that afternoon. Yet it was like watching a wolf pack in action. Wild and loose and easy as instinct. But purposeful and thoughtful too. As a movie-crew must all be on the same page, each member working towards the common creative goal, an orchestra's players must all be on the same wavelength. Be it a baroque, a classical, or a jazz orchestra, each member must pull their weight to make the music's message coherent. However, it's the composer/arranger's job to write the message. To make sure it's a worthwhile and righteous statement. And Edmonstone did an excellent job.
Without his leadership and expert adaptations, "Nightfly & Other Stories" would have lacked its distinctive tone. As a novel or short-story collection has a narrative tone running through it, he sewed a common musical thread throughout his orchestrations. Danceable, moving grooves and declarative brass lines brought the lyrics to life. So as Colman sang of "jazz and conversation" on the LP's title track, Edmonstone's music squeezed every drop of nostalgia out of the line. That time is gone now. When jazz and conversation were not only enjoyed, but were vital. The Nightfly captured that vanished age on its vinyl grooves. And Edmonstone brought them to life onstage with the lightning of his creativity. Each note infused with care and thought.
The short shock of "Walk Between The Raindrops" charged the stalls with vigour. Its ska-like offbeat groove snapped and fizzed like an action sequence. Alive with all the animated spirit of a blockbuster film but with all the élan of a red-carpet treader. Liane Carroll sang of romance and Miami. Of big hotels, Florida's shores and the rain. And as the lyric's couple dodged the raindrops the band moved just as deftly. In and around the tricky rhythm. Hopping from one offbeat stepping-stone to the next. Never falling into the song's rush.
When the last echoes of the coda faded the crowd filled the space with their approval. Pouring their gratitude into the sonic gap left by the band's exit. Until at last their demands were met. And Edmonstone and his band returned to the stage for the encore of "Green Flower Street." Raising the crowd from their seats as they expressed their joy in movement. Through dance and applause they spoke twice as much as they ever could with only language. And through all their movements not a bad word was said. Not a soul was untouched. No person left unmoved.
At the Riverside Hotel post-show the jam went on into the night. The members of the SJP big band moved among their students and friends as the music that brought them together surfed the sound-waves. Dashing itself against their consciousnesses. Leaving experience, memories and learning on the shores of their psyches.
July 27, 2018
The sky rested on the flat-topped mountains beyond Sligo town. Grey, punctuated by pools of blue. The warehouses and garages and the gym that squat low by the harbour were just beginning to stir with their employees and the delivery vans. And the arrhythmic sounds of the clanging metal doors and the river's flow beat on the still morning air.
SJP's students and volunteers trickled into Sligo IT in a thin but steady stream. Carrying instrument cases and chatting to each other. The music had barely begun. Only a lone saxophone ran up and down scales. Hidden away in one of the classrooms. But gradually the academic stillness of the college was swallowed by sounds. And jazz replaced the hush.
At a piano in the centre of a classroom sat Brian Byrne. Golden Globe nominee and SJP's composer-in-residence. Seated before him was the only quiet left in the building: A silent gathering of students. Who sat rapt. Hanging on his every word.
Each day of SJP, Byrne hosted masterclasses in composition. In the fine art of imagining. It is his grasp of that art that earned him his arm-length list of awards and credits. The accolades for film and TV scores, the scholarships to universities, and the constant gigs writing, conducting, and arranging for such names as Kelly Clarkson and Sarah McLachlan. For and through these experiences Byrne has learned to feed his creativity. Where lesser artists sit and wait for inspiration, Byrne actively seeks fuel for his Promethean fire. And it was this searching that birthed Goldenhair. An LP that marries his compositional prowess with the musicality of James Joyce's poetry book Chamber Music. The record that was the topic of Friday's talk.
He would tell his gathering to "be proactive." To seek out the muses. Through his own questing, when he was between film-scoring gigs, he found Chamber Music. And was struck by the "music all throughout the text." That lyrical, singing quality of Joyce's poems would provide Byrne's imagination with its fuel. The spark that set its cogs turning.
"I heard you singing a merry air," as Joyce wrote in the title-less verse that gave Goldenhair its name. An air that Byrne took up and stretched and cast into his own shapes. He drew on the old traditions for his moulds: jazz, blues, traditional Irish music, even bluegrass. Byrne extracted these metals from their trans-Atlantic ores. And set them in his own musical matrix.
He sat at the piano there in the classroom. And hit a wide open chord. He said that "Goldenhair" reminded him of "Greensleeves." The oft-interpreted folk tune. From there he built upwards line by line. Turning each one on invention's lathe. Making them into musical phrases.
The poem's opening stanza became the refrain. "Goldenhair," the hook. It's a word that comes laden with connotations. Loaded with fairytale imagery and magical allure. Byrne recognised that potential and harnessed its evocative powers. Steering them along his melody's track.
When it was ready, when the track was laid and the tune was sure, Byrne contacted Kurt Elling
. A singer with a thick, crooning baritone that has earned him 12 Grammy nominations, a Grammy for "Best Vocal Jazz Album," and nigh-on a book of positive press. It was their collaborative recording -Byrne's composition and production with Elling's singing -that Byrne played for his captivated audience in Sligo IT. A gem of shimmering piano chords and strong vocal vibrato that slowly built to its climax of strings and melismas.
It was a similar climax that ended "Why Have You Left Me Alone? (I Hear An Army)." But the strings stirred up mental images of suited spies and femme fatales. Rather than mythic damsels and ancient books of magic. And its deep, hearty voice belonged to The Commitments' Andrew Strong. Who sang from his core of the black-armoured knights and the charioteers and the abandonment Joyce wrote about in his poem. A verse WB Yeats described as "a technical and emotional masterpiece."
As Byrne moved from piano to laptop, from keyboard to keyboard, he talked about his creative processes and inspirations in a low Navan accent. His was a discreet enthusiasm. No less passionate than a more overbearing creative's. But where they might lean on a crutch of loud eccentricity Byrne carried himself with a modest confidence. The picture of well-balanced cool.
"James Joyce, to me, is the sound of a Dublin pub," he said. And it was through attempting to recreate the atmosphere of the perfect session that he wrote "The Flowery Bells." The poem speaks of the day's dawning. That moment when the "choirs of faery" begin to sing and the dew starts to glisten in the sun's first light. It could be the tune the drunkard sings as he stumbles homeward. Watching as the fresh rays begin "making to tremble all those veils of grey and gold and gossamer." Declan O'Rourke's lilt on the recording invoked the images vividly without any need for clichéd word-painting. With only his accent and Byrne's arrangements, all the twilit ambience of the words was conjured up. And the scenes rolled across the mind's eye. Each one followed by the grateful crowd's applause.
Among the audience sat other SJP tutors. Mike Walker and Paul Clarvis both contributed as many questions as the students. Asking about how best to avoid overwrought banalities such as the aforementioned word-painting. And Byrne's answers were open, honest, and informative. His tricks were not meant to be kept secret. They were not meant to be locked away for his sole use. Instead, he shared his expertise out with the gathered. Sticking with SJP's philosophy of keeping information and learning moving freely between everyone. Students and instructors alike.
Byrne pulled up the score for "Strings In The Earth And Air" on the projector. The "writing process should start with your pen and paper," he said. Just as Goldenhair's own road to fruition began. While the recording played and Gavin Friday's husky voice read "all softly playing, with head to the music bent," the class heard Byrne explain the tune's flattened sevenths and Irish-isms. The emerald shades that coloured the song.
If "Strings In The Earth And Air" was of old Ireland then "The Winds Of May" was all-American. "I heard a Fred Astaire
/Ginger Rogers thing," said Byrne. A big band arrangement that could have come from a thirties time capsule.
That well of inspiration birthed the staccato brass lines and sweet harmonies of Curtis Stigers
's and Sara Gazarek
's vocals. Setting the archaic romance of Joyce's stanzas against the modern shock of a big band was a masterstroke from Byrne. It stripped the words of any potential pretentiousness while adding a touch of classicism to the arrangement's joyous modernity. When Gazarek sang of a lady "who goes among the green wood, with springtide all adorning her," she could easily have been singing of a woodland-nymph. The sprite-guardians of the natural world from Greek legend. Fixtures of the classical legends.
But it was the other side of America that provided the inspiration for "Cool Is The Valley." Far from the urban glamour and glitz of the big band, from up the Blue Ridge Mountains, comes the bluegrass music of rural-USA. It's old country. And its music is timeless as "the thrushes calling." The birdsong that Joyce's poem speaks of. Byrne tracked down Balsam Range online. An award-winning bluegrass band who call those mountains home. And their six-part harmonies, clear as rocky streams, brought the opening lines to life: "O cool is the valley now. And there, love, will we go."
The lyric was composed of three different poems from Chamber Music. Adorned with gently strummed mandolin and set in a brushed-snare beat. A sunny rhythm. Free as the coyotes and bobcats that roam the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even when Balsam Range sang "I gave him pain," the tune kept its pace up rather than descend into misery or self-pity's murk. The melodies were kept high-spirited and the acoustic instruments shimmered like the breeze brushing the valley's grass. As serene and peaceful as unspoiled land.
"Music is music," Byrne said. It is the sole universal language. Or as John Lydon/Rotten put it: "Words cannot express quite a lot of feelings, whereas a noise or tone or drone or sound, an accordion falling down a staircase, can somehow capture an emotion much better." And to illustrate that point, Byrne ended his masterclass with a piece he composed for "Heartbeat Of Home." The sequel show to Riverdance.
Byrne took traditional Irish fiddling, whistles and bodhráns and mixed them "with salsa, with Afro-Cuban music" on "Passion And Pride." Moving seamlessly between the cultures. A snare/jam-block groove carried the opening 007-esque brass-lines and grand piano chords that segued into fleet-fingered traditional violining. It was an imposing, grand piece. But neither clumsy nor overwrought. Byrne expertly welded together the disparate styles in his composition. And didn't leave even the faintest surgical scar post-operation.
"Music is music," he repeated. "And the most important thing is that it moves you." Not only is Byrne's music moving, but he is an excellent educator. He stirred that small melting pot of students with his accessible explanations of the composer's craft. Through his teaching, his art/livelihood seemed if not easy, then possible. In a country like Ireland, where the arts are not seen as a viable or even valid profession, it would be a dream that too often would be dashed by the education system or quote-un-quote "reality." But at Sligo Jazz Project aspirations and ambitions were encouraged. Fostered in the true spirit of education.
Liane Carroll looked at her class and told them "My darling friends, listen to me, if you're not getting emotional we might as well stop."
She was sat behind an electric keyboard. In a classroom tucked away at the bottom of a hall. Dotted around the terraced seats were her masterclass's students. The ages ranged from early adolescence to over fifty. And their voices ran the gamut from Winehouse-esque soaring to gritty earthiness. As one by one she brought up her students and set them singing, Carroll also brought up and out every ounce of their potential. She passed on every tool she had for digging out the core of a song, a performance, and a performer. Explaining how to turn the insides out.
No matter how seemingly nebulous an art form is, there are tangible and definite practicalities to it. Skills to hone and master so that they become instinctive rather than cerebral. It was through these practicalities, from effective breathing to proper posture, that Carroll guided her students. Helping them to turn their talents inside out and to keep their end goal in mind. As a reminder of their ambitions and of how they were always edging closer to achieving them.
"You don't want to copy anyone," she said. That was the goal: originality. Whenever Carroll took to the stage she sang like no one else. Her's was not an alienating style. It wasn't totally uncharted territory. Rather she operated independently within the parameters set by the great soul singers. She didn't sound like any one of them. But like someone who had learned from them their most valuable lesson: That to be an individual is more important than to be a perfection.
However she stressed that "the song is the boss." That a musician must be an individual, but that they must work to benefit the music. To work towards a greater end than themselves. It's no good to be a rebel without a cause. There's no revolution without reason. Only chaos and fear. The very demons art seeks to exorcise.
One young woman, one of the aforementioned early adolescents, kept shaking her head when Carroll asked her to sing. Until she was the only one left who hadn't. And she at last made her way to the top of the room to stand by Carroll's side. Ready to sing. Ready to face down fear.
She stood up to her full height and sang Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." She was shy, still afraid. And held tight to the rhythm for comfort. But Carroll's enthusiasm encouraged her to stray from the score's rigidity. To shape the phrases in her own, unique way. And as a testament to Carroll's coaching abilities and her own strength, she ended the class triumphantly. Having seen the challenge and stood up to meet it.
The class ended with that victory. It was not a bombastic finale -there were no pyrotechnics or crescendos. But there was enthusiastic, sincere applause for that young woman's courage. It was a win that did not go unnoticed. And that stands up as a perfect example of what Sligo Jazz Project was about.
Bravery is as fine an art as jazz improvisation. The ability and will to stand up to fear, to work through panic and dread and insecurity, is not a skill that comes easy. But it's a crucial craft in any walk of life. Be it in an office, flying a plane, or on the bandstand. Without it opportunities will be missed. And then regrets will set down in the soul. Set themselves in doubt's concrete.
SJP taught its participants to forsake trepidation and embarrassment. Carroll herself told her masterclass "embarrassment can go out the window." For they are only creative hindrances. Evolution inhibitors. If an art is to survive it must change. It must develop and grow. The Sligo Jazz Project sought to facilitate its students' musical progression. To form the first link in the chain reaction that will develop the music further. And in order to do that, fear must be cast down. Just as Carroll helped her young student to do. Proving beyond any scepticism that SJP's mission was accomplished. That fear is only an obstacle in the path. Not the road's end. And that with help and experience, it can be overcome. So that it gets a little bit easier each time.
"Put your mind in a place," said Meilana Gillard
. "Where everything you want to get out of your instrument is present. And that is beauty, and gratitude."
Gillard is based near Belfast now. But her accent, broad as the Mid-West's prairies, betrays her Ohio origins. She came to Ireland via New York. Reversing the route taken by Ireland's millions of emigrants. And brought with her the experience and insight that she passed on to her student-ensemble at SJP. A drummer-less sextet of sax, two vocalists, double bass, guitar, and clarinet that she was coaching through a version of Freddie Hubbard
's "Little Sunflower."
With only the bass to keep time, the combo's sound was wide open. And the piano and guitar emphasised that space with supportive, sweeping chords. Rather than trying to cram the void full with narcissism they carried the woodwinds on a harmonic breeze. Uninhibited and unrestrained. But respectful and humble as well. Giving up their own egos for the music.
However without a backbeat, it was easy for the band to lose their way in that great expanse. The bassist played a steady ostinato. Doing his damnedest to keep everything earthed. But it was still necessary for Gillard to stop them and instruct them to play as "one." A band is a team after all. A communion. And everyone needs to walk the same plane. When she stopped them midway through the following take she laughed and said "we need to get together on what 'one' is!" Dispelling the nervous tension that was building.
Gillard instructed the bassist to "err on the side of rushing." So as to avoid dragging down the tempo. Then she sat at the piano and hit one of those magical McCoy Tyner
chords. Looking up at the ensemble's attentive keyboardist and telling him to "Get into the Bossa vibe." To be more rhythmic in his playing. Her ensemble was an education in music's fundamentals: rhythm and time. Without a drummer to anchor them, her students had to keep track of their own groove and each other's. To prove themselves not only capable, but trustworthy.
The best drummers are solid, dependable. Without one, each of Gillard's players had to prove themselves to be as trench-worthy as the greatest of drummers. It's a role most lead instrument-players are uncomfortable with. The groove and the time are the band's responsibility. The glory is theirs.
Bands do the dirty work. They're the first wave of attack that gets shot all to Hell. While the lead guitarists and horn players get the medals. Gillard's ensemble sessions taught her students a valuable lesson in compassion and humility. That the foremost responsibility of a band member is to strengthen the playing of the other musicians. To come together as a whole greater than the sum of the parts. And without a drummer's physicality underpinning their playing, Gillard's ensemble had to work twice as hard to transcend themselves.
The old Norse people believed in Yggdrasil -the world tree. A mighty ash that connected the earth and heavens. At its root was Midgard. The realm of mankind. From there, from humanity, it grew upwards. Transcending all of mankind's imagined boundaries as art does. But staying rooted on this plane. Grounded in this earth. And though they played a much gutsier, earthier music than Gillard's headier ensemble, Malcolm Edmonstone's and Paul Booth
's student-band were no less transcendent. Like Yggdrasil, they reached for humanity's furthest possibilities. But kept themselves rooted in the human spirit. Kept the dirt between their toes.
Their music was raw, bluesy. As Jimmy Rabbitte said in The Commitments: "It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart." Their take on Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine Where She's Gone" almost bled with passion. When the overdriven guitar solo bit into the driving, hard, Talking Heads-esque bass line smiles cracked around the room. And as the tension built up, as the band scaled Yggdrasil, the music clawed at the stratosphere. Stretched thin between the land and sky.
Keith Richards said in his autobiography Life that "rock n' roll ain't nothing but jazz with a hard backbeat." And like any myth, there's a grain of truth in that statement. Both genres stemmed from the black cultures of America. They both grew from the ground up. And Edmonstone and Booth used that backbeat to emphasise the common thread sewed into both tapestries. Where people forget that all music is communal, that it is an expression of human emotion, they made the commonalities clear. Rather than draw boundaries between "them" and "us" they brought cultures together: two American folk musics played in a college classroom on the western edge of Europe.
Scattered about the hallways of Sligo IT were other ensembles doing the very same thing. Fingertip-callouses were forming. Throats stretched for the high notes. Hands blistered. For just like athletes, musicians must build up strength. Through their hours of training they toughen their muscles and minds. Building the layers of robust musicality that will stand by them no matter how cruel the hecklers or demanding the gigs.
A tour, or even a concert, is a marathon. Not a sprint. While it of course requires physical strength, it also requires just as much mental resilience. A psychogenic skin tough as crocodile hide. Many of the participants talked about how "full on" their week at SJP was. Not complaining about it. But acknowledging the worth of the week's intensity. Through that intensity they built up another layer of thick mental armour. Armour forged in experience's fires. And there is no chainmail or breastplate stronger than that.
Outside the day was ageing. The sun sank to the west. Coming down to sit upon the horizon as Sligo's work-week came to an end. The evening beckoned. With a siren's call it lured the town to the Hawk's Well Theatre. Where at 8:00PM Brian Byrne would walk onstage to perform Goldenhair. SJP's second-to-last show at the Hawk's Well. The festival's end loomed close and unwelcome. No one wanted the week to finish. No one wanted its coda to fade out. So the fans and participants, volunteers and faculty, drew every last drop of enjoyment from the well. And savoured each one.
It took him "six or seven years." Between film-score contracts and writing "what they want you to write," Brian Byrne chipped away at Goldenhair's marble. Out of James Joyce's poetry and his own imagination he sculpted a record of 17 songs. Modernising a vanished world just as Joyce did with Homer's Odyssey in Ulysses. Those years brought Byrne and his new world to the Hawk's Well Theatre's stage. And as his performance that Friday night in July proved, they will bring him further. Further on down the road he led his rapt audience along. Byrne sat down at the Steinway as his cousin William walked up to the microphone. While Paul Clarvis clacked strung-together seashells, "Play On's" pre-recorded intro of pipes and Glenn Close's poetry-reading played. William Byrne stood silent at the mic. Awaiting his cue. And when at last he sang it was in a voice strong as ocean waves. His accompaniment was spare. A lean musical land. But hidden beneath its deceptive sparseness was a vibrant world. Where the double bass's understated vibrato shook like autumn leaves. And the piano's jazzy licks butterfly-flitted across the soundscape.
William grinned as his cousin's nimble piano solo sped along the keys from open chords to the song's inspired, shimmering climax. The applause rose to fill the airspace left by the music's end as Brian stood up to thank William and introduce the next guest. A talent who could handle all challenges thrown at her. From singing salsa to Irish "sean nós" singing to speaking Portuguese. And with that high praise ringing through the air, Lucianne Evans
walked onstage. To take up the tune of Byrne's "When The Shy Star."
Between her entrance and the slight bow of her exit Evans sang with a vital, dynamic voice. Smiling all the way along the melody's path. Quiet brass accompaniment walked her down the tune. Rising in volume and drama as they went. And when they reached Evans's subtly melismatic finale every word of Byrne's praiseful introduction was proved true. As true and honest as her voice.
In lieu of vocals Paul Booth's saxophone and Ryan Quigley's trumpet carried the melody of "Though Love Live But A Day." Booth took the lead with playing so tender you could hear the click of the sax's keys. Ushering in the tune with a warm, full-hearted tone. A tone that contrasted starkly with the concentration of Quigley's own sound. Who focused his emotion to the finest of lyrical points. Delivering his verse with pinpoint accuracy. Not once missing the evocative, emotional bullseye.
When Booth stepped into the spotlight again he raised the tune higher. Ascending into the upper register. He played with more heft and muscle as he built up the suspense. Driving up the tension while he stretched the crowd's nerves tight. Before diving down into bass-note territory. Ending on a low, deep, note. A note that laid a solid foundation for Quigley's solo. That, underpinned by the simplest bass line, opened with a long, drawn, note. He threw in the briefest flash of ornamentation. Before he let fly with a high that cut like a sunbeam and followed that with a short, sharp flurrying lick. The bass played octaves far below. With the hypnotic rhythm safe in its hands, Booth and Quigley joined forces to play the melody in unison. For a finale the sax darted below the final note. Then rose to meet it. And ended on a fulfilling, yet tantalising close. Like the best of movie-endings, it was satisfying but left things unresolved. Setting the usually idle consumer's gears turning.
Byrne directed the band from the piano. Leading them through Evans's psyche-stirring return on "A Little Ashes (Sweetheart)." And on to William and Liane Carroll's duet of "Love Is Aweary." A slow, silver-toned number. Where the band left the stage to leave the vocalists backed only by the ivories. William harmonised Carroll's hushed, intimate vocals as Byrne's glissandi skated around their voices. It was a short, sweet tune. Fine as silk or frosted webs. A world away from the big-band stomp of Evans's and William's duet on "The Winds Of May." A burst of song that roared as joyfully as any of the jazz-age's champagne parties.
The vocalists faced each other. Singing directly to their partner in voices that fit together as if they were tailored to. A brilliant staccato brass riff sparked the tune to life. Jolting and rocking the song through its form to a sharp, sudden, stop. In any one of the tracks performed that night there was more music than in most artists' careers. And the abrupt finish emphasised that point like a musical exclamation mark. There was no more to be said. The point had been proven.
But there was still the second set. And even if there was no doubt in anyone's mind as to the brilliance of Goldenhair, it was a pleasure just to hear the music come to life. To experience the animal in the wild.
William hummed over the drums' intro-beat. A rhythm he rode into the opening lines of "Why Have You Left Me Alone (I Hear An Army)." The piano spat louder chords between the gentler, subdued ones that supported his voice. And as the brass kicked in and the volume surged from piano to forte, Carroll's voice joined William's with enough strength to match the rest of the band by herself. While a heavy, anchoring bass line kept the band moored to this earth. Ensuring that the song's punchy physicality was not lost in translation.
A seven note horn riff ushered in Mike Nielsen Quartet
's guitar solo. A tasty, inventive exploration beyond most players' comfort zone of the pentatonic scale. Incisive and pointed, his playing was a marked contrast against Linley Hamilton
's. Where a trumpeter like Chet Baker could descend into emotionless depths of "cool," Hamilton wore his heart on his sleeve. And gave an unabashedly emotive, thrilling performance as a result.
"Cool" is a dangerous concept. To quest for cool is to beg for others' validation. To hide your own emotions and insecurities in plain sight. Rather than face up to and conquer them.
Instead of fighting the good fight to harness one's humanity, "cool" represses it. But that battle, that utilising of emotion, has birthed the great masterworks. From Picasso's paintings to Ginsberg's Howl to A Love Supreme, rather than crushing emotion those artists embraced it. And steered it down their individual roads to expression.
Just as Hamilton and his following virtuosos did in their solos. Paul Booth's return ended on a thrilling repeated R&B lick. A repetition that laid down the road for Shannon Barnett
's trombone showcase to walk. Before she freed herself from its set direction to wander through faster runs, lithe as a cat. And when she ascended to the heavens on the root chord's back, she raised the audience up to the tune's peak. To the summit of Byrne's composition.
The band laid back through Matthew Halpin
's more subdued solo. Moving through the angular introduction of Byrne's piano cadenza to his climactic, jarring, beautiful note. A note that signalled the drums' buildup into the final chorus. The song built up and up on the ride cymbal while Clarvis played a bass drum and a floor tom with his bare hands. Climbing, scaling, building, up until the vocals returned at the boiling point. Returned to sweep the Hawk's Well away with their spirited joyfulness.
Emotions are contagious. Infectious as any physical ailment. And the delight of the performers spread through the theatre's air. An exhilaration that was juxtaposed against the slow, Tom Waits
-inspired "The Year Is Gathering." A song of old love and Autumn. One that's words lend themselves more to quiet melancholia than exuberance. But William carried both tune and lyric with confident enthusiasm. Driving the volume skyward before it dropped back to earth for a soft finale. An understated, artful close.
When Evans sang "dear heart why will you use me so?" on "Where Love Is," heartstrings broke. Her slight, assured melismas carried more than their weight in emotion. And when coupled with her faraway stare, the sore sadness of the song was unmistakeable. Joyce was a lonely young man when he wrote Chamber Music. A young adult who wandered the streets of Dublin longing for love. The words of "Where Love Is" are eloquent enough on the page. But in Byrne's adaptation, their impact is twice as strong. And in Evans's masterful hands their message cut to the core of the listener. The most calloused hides were pierced. The stoniest souls moved. So that when tears rolled down Evans's face at the song's end it was met with a flood of applause. A release of the built-up emotion in the stalls.
CS Lewis once said "we read to know we are not alone." That through literature, we can find the common threads of humanity that run through everyone. Music, if created with good intentions, can be just as candid and honest. And as the band moved from the outpouring of "Where Love Is," through the finger-clicking tempo of "Silently" and on to the immense horns of "Go Seek Her Out," they ran humanity's obstacle course. Starting at unrequited love and ending with the determination of the line "And soon will your true love be with you." Before they moved into the encore of "Goldenhair." And its "merry air" filled the theatre with quiet happiness. A gentle contentment.
When the last strains of the music faded out, and the audience moved into the night, their talk of the show's excellence filled the sonic gap left behind by the music. At the Riverside Brian Byrne moved among the crowd. Accepting their praise with thanks and gratitude. No one was more grateful though, than the audience. Grateful for the opportunities presented by Sligo Jazz Project. Nowhere else would people get the chance to shake the show-star's hand. To tell him how much the music meant to them. At SJP however that was not only the mission, it was the point. To strip away the layers of misconception that separate performers and viewers. So as to reveal the common humanity between the two groups. And make the future changing of the guard possible.
Photo credit: Lieve Boussauw