Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 3-4

James Fleming By

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"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.
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