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Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 3-4

James Fleming By

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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.

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