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Zoe Rahman Quintet/Meilana Gillard Quartet At Bray Jazz Festival

Zoe Rahman Quintet/Meilana Gillard Quartet At Bray Jazz Festival

Courtesy John Cronin

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Zoe Rahman Quintet/Meilana Gillard Quartet
Mermaid Arts Centre
Bray Jazz Festival 2024
Bray, Ireland
May 3, 2024

2024 should have marked Bray Jazz Festival's 25th anniversary but for those two years or more of you know what. The silver anniversary will have to wait; no matter, because each year at BJF, since Andrew Hill graced the first edition in 2000, is a little bit special—a celebration, a voyage of discovery. As ever, it was a full house in the Mermaid Arts Centre on opening night, with the honor of commencing BJF 2024 falling to the Meilana Gillard Quartet and headliner Zoe Rahman's Quintet.

Ohio-raised, Derry-based tenor saxophonist Gillard is on a roll; her RBG Trios' eponymous debut (Auragami Records, 2023) has earned widespread plaudits, a spectacular electronics-cum-psychedelic funk commissioned work at the start of the year signalled a bold new direction, and a first-time appearance at the Manchester Jazz Festival 2024 further underlines her rising star.

Gillard has played BJF a couple of times over the years, though on the smaller, fringe stages. This was her first time fronting her band and presenting her music on the main stage; it is where her talent belongs. On this august occasion the saxophonist was presenting a new configuration; Gillard, guitarist Phil Robson, bassist Barry Donohue and drummer Kevin Brady have all crisscrossed paths in numerous settings but here they were taking their bow as a quartet.

A warm, expressive tenor player, Gillard is also a distinctive composer, as evidenced in this forty-five-minute set of original compositions. All four musicians flexed individually on the gently paced, infectious opener "Neither Here Nor There" and on the post-bop swinger "Chrysalis"—the latter propelled by walking bass and Brady's ride cymbal pizzazz. Though unperturbed in any setting where fast changes and the helter skelter language of bebop prevail, Gillard tends to invest in the emotional import of a solo—best framed by the slow to mid-tempo grooves that dominated this set.

The sultry vibe of "Take Your Time" proved irresistible, with Donohue's bass ostinato, Brady's hand-fueled rhythms and Robson's deft harmonic comping the springboard for a smoking though unhurried solo from Gillard. Robson, whose duo album with drummer David Lyttle IN2 (Lyte Records) was a highlight of 2023, followed suit before the quartet returned to the uber-catchy head.

The tender ballad "Light a Candle," from Gillard's Dream Within A Dream (Lyte Records, 2017) was a study in emotive understatement, and all the more affecting for the economy. There was something of Johnny Hodges seductive lyricism in Gillard's delivery, a comparison perhaps implied by the (Duke) Ellingtonian elegance of the composition's melodic contours.

For the final tune, Gillard returned to her debut album as leader, Day One (Inner Circle Music, 2009) and the medium tempo swinger "Identity." The tenor player's unaccompanied intro served as a prelude to the composition proper, with yet another handsome head inviting a sinewy solo from Robson, followed by a barreling effort from the leader. Both musicians were clearly warming to the task, making the quartet's eventual exit from the stage—following a burst of vamp-led drumming fireworks—feel premature.

It had been thirteen years since pianist Zoe Rahman last played in the Republic of Ireland. As recently as March 2024, however, on the other side of the island's invisible border, Rahman played Belfast's Brilliant Corners festival in a duo with Sebastian Rochford, where she was in mesmerizing form.

Rahman, like Gillard before, was also leading a new configuration. Out of drummer Mark Mondesir, bassist Alec Dankworth, tenor saxophonist Tori Freestone and alto saxophonist Camilla George, only the veteran bassist had played on Rahman's Colour of Sound (Manushi Records, 2023), which made up the bulk of the set.

The gig off to a wobbly start, with the imbalance in sound foregrounding Mondesir's drums to the detriment of all the other instruments on "Dance of Time," with the piano rendered almost inaudible. On the upside, Mondesir's blistering polyrhythmic assault was a thrill-a-minute exhibition of controlled passion. The sound levels and monitor issues were gradually resolved over the course of the opening songs, but that first tune apart, any sonic deficiencies from the audience's point of view were fairly minor.

"For Love" allowed Freestone and George license to bask in the limelight, though the composition's shifts in tempo and mood were equally striking. Rahman's arrangements were as impressive as her virtuosic, energized piano playing, displaying a dynamic breadth and an emotional depth that made solos feel like an added bonus. Freestone's lyrical flute playing—harmonizing nicely with George's alto—was central to the rhapsodic "Little Ones," which grew from pensive balladry to intricately layered, flamenco-esque panache.

With the horns in tandem and Rahman leading a visceral rhythm section, the music often felt grander than its quintet frame; This was particularly true of "Sweet Jasmine," an ebullient mixture of vampy motifs and driving groove, crowned by a particularly fine extended solo from Freestone.

"Peace Garden," an elegant tone poem, segued into the sprightly "Conversation with Nellie," the two pieces bridged by Freestone, again on flute, whose dancing melodic lines were a delight. "On The Road," from Rahman's solo album Dreamland (Manushi, 2016), bristled with collective energy; driven by Rahman's fiery playing—her forearm smashes the most dramatic of her percussive flourishes—the music swelled mightily, with the potent frontline of Freestone and George letting rip over the course of fifteen exhilarating minutes.

After such exclamative, joyous release, the soft landing of the meditative ballad "Mya," from Kindred Spirits (Manushi Records, 2012) sounded the perfect coda.

An uplifting performance that, in the course of time, may well go down in the annals of BJF lore as one of those I-was-there-gigs.

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