Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 3-4

James Fleming By

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"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.
About Malcolm Edmonstone
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