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Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 3-4

James Fleming By

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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.
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