Workin' II - Irish Jazz Showcase: Dublin, Ireland, May 26, 2013


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Workin' II: Irish Jazz Showcase
Workman's Club
Dublin, Ireland
May 26, 2013

Where do you go to see Afro-Peruvian jazz, an 18-piece Sun Ra tribute band, neo-soul, vocal jazz, trios, quartets and electronic music with live horn processing, all on the same day? The Workman's Club in Dublin, Ireland, of course. Workin' II, a mini-festival organized by the Improvised Music Company, was—as the title suggests—the second installment of a concept designed to showcase the contemporary jazz and related music that is flourishing in Dublin these days. Apart from nine of Dublin's best, and as an unexpected bonus, somebody had actually booked the sun for the day and a good crowd turned up to sample over seven hours of truly diverse music. The success of the event was all the greater, considering that there were no fewer than four festivals going on in the Dub on the same sunny Sunday.

Workin' I had been held in early January, when hardy souls braved the cold and ventured out to see six bands—ReDiviDeR, whose Never Odd or EveN (Diatribe Records) was one of the most arresting jazz releases of 2011, the folk-jazz of Leafzang , the Hugh Buckley 4tet, Asteroids of Doom, Laura Hyland's Clang Sang and OKO guitarist Shane Latimer. The response from musicians and audience alike was overwhelmingly positive, prompting IMC head Gerry Godley to set up Workin II, and it's to be hoped, an ongoing series of such all-day mini-festivals.

The Workman's Club faces the river Liffey in the heaving Temple Bar district, whose labyrinth of pubs, eateries, clubs and dive bars—many of which serve up music—makes this area the center of Dublin nightlife. Workman's Club has been one of the premier live music/entertainment venues in the city for a decade and the old, wooden-floored building exudes cozy informality. Three stages in two rooms meant there was a very fast turnaround between gigs, each one lasting 45 minutes.

The first band of the afternoon was pianist Luke Dunford's quartet, The Chief Keegans. Dunford, heavily influenced by the rhythms of New Orleans, steered the band through a set that was also colored by saxophonist Owen O'Neil's rhythm and blues tones. Dunford displayed fine bluesy chops and, on slower passages, veered towards a sort of shuffling Thelonious Monk-type groove. Drummer Tommy Gray and bassist Kevin Higgins delivered fat grooves and snappy rhythms that drove the music on the opening couple of numbers, and delicate, quite lyrical accompaniment on a lovely trio number on which O'Neil sat out.

Piano and saxophone enjoyed plenty of solo time, though both would gravitate towards each other, fusing in up-tempo unison lines. In a fun set, fat funk jazz grooves and deep blues swing made for wonderful bedfellows. The standout song, and a highly danceable one at that, was "Iko Iko," a pop-inspired jazz-funk tune with a hint of calypso in its veins.

In the main concert room, barely the length of the bar away, singer Edel Meade and guitarist Julien Colarossi's duo performance was intimate and engaging. Meade possesses an undoubtedly beautiful voice, but equally impressive were her sophisticated interpretations and her natural stage presence. Joni Mitchell's 1974 song "Help Me" was the perfect vehicle for Meade's high register charm, with Colarossi providing sympathetic, intuitive support. Youth is not always the best ally of a singer, but Meade is blessed with a warmth of tone that the young, somewhat shrill Mitchell arguably lacked until later in her career. Guest musicians Cote Calmet on cajon and soprano saxophonist Chris Engel injected swing and considerable swagger on Michael Jackson's "The Way you make me Feel."

Meade artfully weaved lyrics into the seams of saxophonist Wayne Shorter's classic "Iris," and "Beyond the Coda" provided further evidence that not only does she write a decent tune, but that she's a confident improviser to boot. Another Meade original, the gently melancholy "Love Lost," had the mark of a jazz classic. Less successful was a fairly straight version of Paul McCartney's "When I'm 64" and equally unbending—and a little inexplicable in the context of a 45-minute set—was Meade's rendition in English of the Irish national anthem, "Amhrán na bhFiann" ("A Soldier's Song"). Meade's quietly delivered version of guitarist/singer Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," with Colarossi adding lovely embellishment, rounded out the set.

A thumping tenor and alto saxophone intro, courtesy of Sam Comerford and Chris Engel, announced the arrival of neo-soul outfit Butter. When the dust had settled, singer Georgia Cusack eased into Erykah Badu's "Didn't Cha Know." Butter has been together for a just over a year, but already there's a lovely tight-but-loose dynamic in the seven-piece band's interplay. Neo-soul old and new inspires the band's repertoire, but the combination of a double-sax front line and versatile guitarist Stephen McHale considerably broadens the collective options. "Love Poems" was given an upbeat treatment, with drummer Dennis Cassidy and bassist Sean Maynard Smith bringing a more insistent groove to the mix than Bilal's original version. McHale's snaking guitar solo lent the tune a harder—though no less soulful—edge.

Cusack's silky vocals were best appreciated when there was less going on, as on the Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit, "The Look of Love," and Aaliyah's "One in a Million." On the latter, keyboardist Johnny Taylor's minimalism proved that less is more, and throughout the set his low-key brush strokes, like little splashes of color, were a fundamental part of the group sound. The centerpiece of the performance was Radiohead's "National Anthem," a soaring version with Cusack leading a pronounced psychedelic segment. The honking, squealing saxophone cacophony, as heady as bliss, remained faithful to the original in spirit.

On the largest stage in the main hall, Peruvian drummer Cote Calmet's quintet, Phisqa, won over a large crowd in a set drawn mainly from its impressive debut recording, Phisqa (Self Produced, 2013). What set Phisqa apart from most other contemporary jazz bands was Calmet's transposing of Afro-Peruvian rhythms to his kit, and his effusive, energetic playing was at the center of everything. "Muerdele El Diente" opened the set, with guitarist Julien Colarossi, and that man Chris Engel again, enjoying extended solos. Colarossi exhibited the flair and fluidity of ideas that made his debut recording as leader, Note to Self, (Self Produced, 2013), such a resounding success. Engel, for his part, combined lyricism with John Coltrane-esque fire, particularly on the rampaging "Nuna."

Phisqa's debut was released just a month or so earlier, but a couple of new songs already made it into the set list. "Fratello" featured pianist Leopoldo Oslo's dancing lines, whilst a ballad gave bassist Cormac O'Brien a deserving turn in the spotlight. The band's habitual set closer, "Ayarachi," featured lively closing statements from all, bookended most elegantly by Calmet on charango (Andean lute), accompanied by Engel on soprano.

A little improvisation sometimes goes a long way, and the duo Bebop and Rock Steady- -multi-instrumentalist Tom Walsh and drummer Shane Latimer—indulged in some comedic antics that involved Walsh running through the crowd and urging it frantically to join in clapping and singing. Enforced participation is almost the antithesis of improvisation, unless it serves as a springboard for creativity, but in truth there was meager audience enthusiasm, and consequently little in the way of spark to fire the musicians. Instead, Walsh goofed around like eccentric singer John Otway for awhile, and seemed to be having fun in his own world.

Latimer and Walsh were soon joined by a whole raft of musicians, eventually numbering eighteen, who collectively made up Outerspaceways Inc—a tribute band to pianist/composer Sun Ra. Complete with matching orange robes—though with not nearly enough spangle—five saxophonists, two trumpeters, two drummers on one kit, a fiddler, a guitarist and other assorted other loonies gave a hugely enjoyable, tongue-in- cheek performance of such Ra staples as "We Travel the Spaceways" , the joyous "Face the Music" and "Space is the Place."

In time-honored Arkestra tradition, the Outerspaceways Inc. ensemble slowly snaked its way through the crowd, chanting and playing jubilantly. That man Engel, this time on baritone sax, ventured into the audience, scaring a little girl with his frenzied playing and manic gyrations. Back onstage, as Walsh conducted the riotous assembly with lunatic verve, a cacophonous, swirling mosaic of sound engulfed the audience with that mixture of discipline and freedom that characterizes the Arkestra to this day, under the guidance of saxophonist Marshall Allen.

With Belfast 16-piece QUBe Myth Science Space Arkestra paying its own tribute to Ra during the city's recent Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, it's reassuring to know that Ra's music is seemingly alive and well in this small country sandwiched between continental Europe and the endless void, as the centenary of one of jazz's most prolific and controversial figures nears in 2014.

With barely a pause for breath, The Multiverse hit the main stage, where electric guitarist Niwel Tisumbu, bassist Peter Erdei and drummer Shane O'Donovan fairly tore up the place with an intense show. Whilst firmly in the tradition of electric jazz-rock trios, The Multiverse nevertheless referenced no influences overtly. However, the shifting time of the Ginger Baker/Bill Frisell/Charlie Haden trio, the contemporary edge of Wayne Krantz/Keith Carlock/Tim Lefebvre, and the blues intensity of Jimi Hendrix's Experience, with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, all sprang to mind.

The title of the opening composition, "The New World View," could almost have served as a mission statement, as Congo-born, Cork-resident Niwel spun his unique idiom of African, jazz, rock and blues roots. When the trio was playing at breakneck speed, as on the opener and "Space Joke," the unison playing and accompaniment was just as dazzling as the improvisations. All three musicians possessed mean chops. On the easy-paced "In and Out of Purgatory," with O'Donovan shifting from bamboo brushes to mallets, Tsumbu's mesmerizing finesse was to the fore. The final number seemed to arrive with impolite haste and Tsumbu, Erdei and O'Donovan signed off with another smoking, powerhouse tune.

The penultimate band was Umbra, a sextet of well-established Dublin jazz musicians. Engel, wouldn't you know it, was there once again on soprano, with Sam Comerford on tenor. With a modern sound tipping a nod to New York, guitarist Chris Guilfoyle produced a series of infectious riffs and ostinatos around which the saxophones drew melodic unison lines, peeling off in turn to solo. All the while, bassist Barry Donohue and drummer Matthew Jacobson maintained a meaty, in-the-pocket groove. On "Three Mats," Comerford squonked and roared terrifically, and Engel did likewise on "Train of Thought," with one of his wildest-of-many-improvisations of the day.

On an ode to mathematic ineptitude entitled "Mathematics Arse" (though I could be mistaken there), Guilfoyle stretched out in a fluid and engaging manner, turning to Jacobson in an exciting exchange. Guilfoyle was in great form, equally at home in jazz or rock settings, and mostly steered a striking hybrid line. The final number, "Return Address," began with Guilfoyle charging hell-for-leather in a wildly exuberant solo. Guitar and bass then repeated a motif, saxophones toyed gently together and drums took advantage of the ceasefire to build towards a dramatic concluding statement.

There was just time to grab a quick half of Guinness before the final act, though it was a little surprising, almost disappointing in fact, that Engel wasn't pulling the pints given that he'd been just about everywhere else during the day. Ah, but wait a minute, who was that on saxophone taking the main stage with ZoiD? Surely not Chris Engel? Looking slightly bleary eyed and raggedy, Engel duly rose to the task as though hypnotized by the dance floor beats of DJ/electronics improviser Daniel Jacobson. Trumpeter Bill Blackmore dovetailed with Engel as Jacobson processed their respective voices in real time, creating layers of groove-based sounds over driving beats that lured folks onto the dance floor.

Engel and Blackmore's slow unison lines contrasted sharply with Jacobson's insistent urban rhythms, and the concoction stewed slowly, gaining potency as the set went on. Engel summoned up his last reserves for one final body-arching, face-contorting solo—a manic blues of tortured contours. When it was all over, a pop DJ took over the stage and churned out some cheesy, camp pop for the late night party goers who had breezed in at the end of the day's marathon jazz session.

In a way, it was hard to know which was more surreal—the 1980s pop fluff coming after seven hours of improvised jazz, or the all-day exhibition of bold music-making that preceded it. In any case, the contrast was stark. There is, of course, place for both, but with a limited number of live venues open to this sort of creative music in Dublin, few people are regularly exposed to the creation of music—however fleetingly— in the moment. As the nine bands collectively demonstrated, there's nothing quite like the thrill of improvised music. The communion at work on stage, and its transmission to the audience was pure gas—a very natural high.

Workin II was a resounding musical success, amply showcasing a cross-section of Dublin's healthy contemporary jazz scene and celebrating its diversity. Hopefully more venues will follow the Workman's Club in hosting live jazz of this caliber. The music after all needs the oxygen of exposure in order to grow, and the Dublin public surely deserves the best of locally brewed music, does it not?

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of Dublin Jazz Photography

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