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Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 3-4

James Fleming By

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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.

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.


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