SMALL STUFF HITS THE BIG TIME

Cu­rated fes­ti­vals found their stride, while a num­ber of ma­jor projects were led by Ir­ish and Ir­ish-based women

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - JAZZ 2019 - COR­MAC LARKIN

Jazz may be the new art mu­sic for our times, em­body­ing the val­ues of democ­racy, di­ver­sity and in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion, but ask any Ir­ish jazz fan and they will tell you that the mu­sic still strug­gles to be heard above the din of ear candy pop, and still fails to at­tract of­fi­cial sup­port com­men­su­rate with its grow­ing stature.

Nev­er­the­less, the live scene, par­tic­u­larly out­side Dublin, con­tin­ued to grow in strength and di­ver­sity in 2019. Af­ter a brief ‘re­nais­sance’, many felt that the Cork Jazz Fes­ti­val was back to its old tricks, but smaller re­gional fes­ti­vals in Bray, Gal­way, Sligo, Belfast and Lim­er­ick, mostly pow­ered by vol­un­teers and arm twist­ing, scored ma­jor artis­tic suc­cesses.

The year be­gan with the first-ever Doc­u­ment­ing Jazz con­fer­ence in Dublin, or­gan­ised by bassist and Ir­ish jazz his­to­rian Damien Evans, which gath­ered mu­si­cians and aca­demics to take the first im­por­tant steps to­wards cre­at­ing an Ir­ish jazz ar­chive.

On the live scene, 2019 saw the rise of cu­rated concert se­ries, like the mu­si­cian­cu­rated Dublin Jazz Co-Op gigs at Dublin’s Workman’s Club, and the Jaz­zGate se­ries at Gal­way’s Black Gate, cu­rated by gui­tarist Aen­gus Hack­ett. In the cap­i­tal, the Im­pro­vised Mu­sic Com­pany in­tro­duced its new Sig­nal Se­ries, a monthly sa­lon of Ir­ish ta­lent that fea­tured per­for­mances from do­mes­tic mu­si­cians such as F-JOB, Joe O’Cal­laghan, Tudo Bem and Mike Nielsen, among oth­ers.

Spe­cial­ist bou­tique fes­ti­vals such as Bot­tlenote in Fe­bru­ary and Spec­trum in March also proved that group­ing events to­gether un­der a recog­nis­able brand can em­bolden au­di­ences to ex­plore more chal­leng­ing mu­si­cal av­enues.

In Cork, the pop­u­lar ses­sions at Crane Lane, cu­rated by trom­bon­ist and big band leader Paul Dun­lea, con­tin­ued to draw the crowds for an ever-chang­ing pro­gramme of lo­cals and vis­i­tors. There was also a new se­ries of sum­mer con­certs at the jazz-friendly Triskel, pro­grammed by for­mer Cork Jazz Fes­ti­val di­rec­tor Sinead Dun­phy.

Hard bor­ders and hard­en­ing po­si­tions may have clouded the po­lit­i­cal land­scape in 2019, but mu­si­cally, the bor­der be­tween North and South has never been more fric­tion­less with sev­eral strong projects in­volv­ing North-South col­lab­o­ra­tions. Belfast trum­peter Linley Hamil­ton led a new quar­tet with Dublin pi­anist Cian Boy­lan on an Ir­ish tour that in­cluded US grandees Mark Egan and Adam Nuss­baum. Belfast pi­anist and or­gan­ist Scott Flana­gan, a grow­ing pres­ence on the Dublin scene, was part of Tommy Halferty’s tour pay­ing homage to John Aber­crom­bie. News also broke last month that Belfast drum­mer Steve Davis has been in­vited to join a new quar­tet led by leg­endary US free jazz pioneer An­thony Brax­ton, with a record­ing slated for the new year.

Af­ter a lamentably slow start in Ir­ish jazz, women are fi­nally be­gin­ning to fea­ture more promi­nently as play­ers and band lead­ers and 2019 saw a num­ber of im­por­tant projects led by Ir­ish and Ir­ish-based women. West Cork sax­o­phon­ist Cather­ine Sikora brought free im­prov to many lesser vis­ited parts of the is­land in a duo with Yeah Yeah Yeah’s drum­mer Brian Chase, while Dublin pi­anist Izumi Kimura re­leased a widely praised new trio al­bum with two gi­ants of free mu­sic, bassist Barry Guy and drum­mer Gerry Hem­ing­way. Vo­cal­ist Sue Ryn­hart toured Ire­land and the UK with renowned Welsh pi­anist Huw War­ren; Belfast-based US sax­o­phon­ist Meilana Gil­lard toured in May with her cross-Bor­der RBG Trio; and late in the year, veteran duo Zrazy were back in ac­tion, sell­ing out their show at the newly re­vamped Bew­ley’s Café on Dublin’s Grafton Street.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, too, some of the strong­est re­leases of 2019 came from women in­stru­men­tal­ists, in­clud­ing the won­der­ful Aven­turine from US bassist Linda May Han Oh; the lu­mi­nous Not Far From Here by Ger­man pi­anist Ju­lia Hüls­mann (who ap­peared at the Gal­way Jazz Fes­ti­val); and the eclec­tic Step­ping Back, Jump­ing In from UK trum­peter Laura Jurd’s quar­tet.

In­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors

Of the in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors to these shores in 2019, Ka­masi Washington at Dublin’s Olympia in­evitably brought out the hip­sters in March, but the hip­per-still did bet­ter a cou­ple of days later at the Sugar Club with UK catas­trophists The Comet is Coming. The Per­spec­tives se­ries at the Na­tional Concert Hall (NCH) con­tin­ued to fly past the genre nets, pre­sent­ing an ad­mirably di­verse pro­gramme in­clud­ing gui­tarist Bill Frisell’s group; Tu­nisan oud­ist Anouar

Bra­hem’s star-stud­ded trio; and, as part of the Hall’s Tra­di­tion Now se­ries, Songs of Free­dom, a new work con­nect­ing jazz and Ir­ish tra­di­tional mu­sic from Ar­magh con­certina player Niall Val­lely with a pow­er­ful in­ter­na­tional en­sem­ble that in­cluded New York free jazz trio Har­riet Tub­man. But per­haps the concert of the year was the ap­pear­ance in the NCH’s Kevin Barry Room of much-ad­mired US pi­anist Craig Taborn, whose solo per­for­mance in Fe­bru­ary drew a knowl­edgable and ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence.

On the record­ing side, Dublin-based Ro­ma­nian singer Aleka re­leased her de­but al­bum with a pow­er­ful group in­clud­ing Dutch drum­mer Eric Ineke. Vo­cal­ist Flo McSweeney has been low­er­ing her­self into the jazz waters for some years now but the for­mer pop star broke her jazz record­ing de­but in fine style with Pic­ture in a Frame. Carmel McCreagh re­leased her third al­bum, the gor­geously pro­duced 13 Songs, with con­tri­bu­tions from a raft of no­ta­bles, in­clud­ing ar­ranger and pi­anist (and McCreagh’s hus­band) Fi­achra Trench and sax­o­phon­ist Bren­dan Doyle. Ir­ish-Aus­tralian sax­o­phon­ist Daniel Rorke’s finely judged Naked Al­lies, recorded in New York, fea­tured bassist Si­mon Jermyn and drum­mer Matthew Ja­cob­son; and veteran gui­tarist Tommy Halferty con­sum­mated his long mu­si­cal love af­fair with re­spected UK singer Norma Win­stone on In­vites, per­haps the strong­est Ir­ish jazz re­lease of a busy year.

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