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Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 3-4

James Fleming By

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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.

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