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Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 3-4

James Fleming By

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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.

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