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Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 3-4

James Fleming By

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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.

"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."

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