And all that jazz... Highlights of the Cork Jazz Festival

And all that jazz... Highlights of the Cork Jazz Festival
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

From old-style vocalists to cutting edge innovators, there was some fine music to be heard at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival.

JOHN SURMAN, Triskel Christchurch

By Alan O’Riordan

It starts with trills from Surman’s soprano saxophone, and then some light piano colour from Vigleik Storaas, like raindrops falling on the emerging melodies. Twenty-five minutes later, this superb duo finally pause for breath (75-year-old Surman quite literally) after two tunes, ‘Three Princes’ and ‘Counter Measures’, have provided the basis for an uninterrupted exhibition of artistic mutual understanding. And that was just for starters.

Vigleik Storaas, 59, is a native of Bergen, and Surman, though from Devonshire, has long lived in Norway. Both, then, qualify as exponents of Nordic jazz, something which can have a reputation as austere. But there is nothing austere about this evening.

Surman is an affable host. His tone of the saxophone is lyrical, on the bass clarinet deep and rich, and on the wooden flute playful.

Worlds of music, meanwhile, flow from the fingers of Storaas with deceptive ease. They range across folk, American jazz, chamber sonatas and contemporary classical. It’s a reminder of how immense Europe’s contribution to improvised music has become: it’s a 21st-century home to heritage.

As is his wont, Surman finishes with something simple. This time, it’s his and Storaas’s first-ever performance of ‘The Maid of Bunclody’. “It’s your song,” he says, “I’ll need your permission to do it.” Permission granted, anytime.

MICA PARIS, Everyman

By Alan O’Riordan

London songstress Mica Paris’s show might be a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, but she isn’t at all interested in delivering an Ella Fitzgerald impression. Her tone and voice are completely her own — a deep, gospel-tinged voice, redolent of her roots in the Jamaican Pentecostal church.

Paris, in other words, comes with energy, and finds an audience in similar mood. They don’t have to be asked twice to get on their feet, and are ready with full-throated call-and-response choruses throughout the night.

Mica Paris performing at the Everyman;
Mica Paris performing at the Everyman;

In Paris’s approach, ‘Summertime’ is a richly soulful epic; The Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ sounds like it could have been written by Cole Porter; ‘Love for Sale’ is a slow-swinging shakeout.

A funked-up version of ‘A Night in Tunisia’ is a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and his era, backed by a tight trio of piano, double bass and drums.

The only quibble is that the players only have rare moments to explore and improvise around the songbook classics. That said, the Cork crowd came to swing, and Paris delivers. “I didn’t even have to warm you up!” she says, sincerely pleased, you felt, with the welcome.

HYPNOTIC BRASS ENSEMBLE, Cyprus Avenue

By Des O’Driscoll

The appeal of afternoon and early evening gigs could be seen by the long queue outside Cyprus Avenue for the first of three gigs over the weekend by the Hypnotic Brass ensemble. An added bonus for the €20 (€10 for kids) was the curtain-raiser from Rebel Brass, a 15-strong group of local teenagers who lean towards the New Orleans-style brass band tradition.

Formed from a project involving the Barrack Street Band the U2-funded Music Generation, they showed some serious talent as they let loose with a lively set of covers and an original composition paying tribute to Cork’s famed Sir Henry’s night-club. It was also a reminder of how important the Cork Jazz Festival is in providing an outlet for local talent.

The Hypnotics themselves set the bar for which the young Corkonians can aim. Formed by the seven brass-playing sons of late Sun Ra Arkestra trumpeter Phil Cohran, as kids they’d show up at 6am for music training before regular school began.

In Cyprus Avenue, one recalls how the words “Sound, rhythm, form” were written on the board by their father, and how he’d also espouse the concept of ‘now music’ that informs their approach.

Joined by drums, bass, and guitar, there’s obviously a strong jazz lineage at play here, but the addition of funk and hip-hop gives it all a very contemporary feel. Barely 4pm on a sunny afternoon and the jazz fest party was already under way.

KURT ELLING, Cork City Hall

By Des O’Driscoll

Kurt Elling describes the 1940s and ‘50s as a time when “good taste coincided with popular taste”, and it was mostly songs from that rich era he performed at Cork City Hall the Saturday night of the Guinness Cork Jazz festival.

The likes of Nancy Wilson, Frank Sinatra, and Count Basie are mentioned in a ‘Century of Heroes’ show that partly-pays tribute to Elling’s predecessors, but also attempts to breathe new life into some classic songs.

As he tips the hat to these heroes, we hear anecdotes from his own childhood, featuring long drives in the family car with his church-music arranger father, the radio playing in the background. It never feels like a nostalgia-fest, however, as Elling keeps it fresh with the improvisation and occasional scat flourishes that have established the 51-year-old’s reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists of our times.

A sneeze from the audience even brings a mid-song ‘Bless you’, without skipping a beat.

Kurt Elling on stage during the Cork Jazz Festival at City Hall, Cork. Picture: David Keane.
Kurt Elling on stage during the Cork Jazz Festival at City Hall, Cork. Picture: David Keane.

The five-piece band — double bass, piano, drums, tenor saxaphone, trumpet — are as accomplished as you’d expect, never crowding the vocals, while effortlessly sliding into the spotlight for unfussy solos whenever required. Jazz festival audiences love a good clap-along, but nobody was brave enough to attempt the intricate pattern Elling and his group laid down for a song he later revealed to be in a time-signature of eleven. “Don’t try this at home... or on stage!” he quipped.

Other highlights included a couple of songs from Billy Eckstine; as well as Duke Ellington’s ‘Tutti For Cootie’, a tune the legendary band-leader created for his trumpet player Cootie Williams; and ‘All the Way’, the Cahn/Van Heusen song that won an Oscar for Sinatra.

For his encore, Elling returned to the stage alone, and stepped to the side of the microphone to perform an unamplified, a capella tribute to his mentor Mark Murphy, who passed away in 2015. The singer didn’t explain the context of the song, but it still felt like an emotional punch had been added to a concert that already had no shortage of technical brilliance, and had even managed to provide an enjoyable musical educational along the way.

Green Room, Opera House

By Alan O'Riordan

At the Green Room in the Opera House, programmed for a third year by leading local light Paul Dunlea, Paul Booth’s saxophone-led quartet explored his latest album, Travel Sketches, inspired by his time touring with the likes of Steve Winwood. A punchy Medina Scuffle is a highlight, complemented by a bright-toned Ryan Quigley cameo on trumpet.

Later on Friday at the same venue, bassist Ronan Guilfoyle brought together a talented ensemble to explore the many musics of Brazil. Chris Guilfoyle stood out on guitar, while Venezuelan Leopoldo Osio’s fast-fingered piano playing was a treat.

Aleka Potinga provided the Portuguese lyrics with aplomb, while drummer Andre Antunes (an actual Brazilian) propelled a bright, ear-opening, transportive evening. It was cold and wet outside, but all sunshine and samba at the Green Room.

Sue Rynhart is accompanied at the Green Room on Saturday by Dan Bodwell on bass, but her own scat singing and improvisation is often like another instrument. In a beguiling performance, a solo rendition of the folk song ‘Lowlands’ is a highlight. Elsewhere, she reminds us that her song ‘Foxed’ deserves canonical status.

To finish, she sings ‘Viper’, with lyrics mixing facts about the life cycle of the titular snake with a send-up of personal insecurities. It’s funny and utterly original. Or, as she puts it, “bonkers”.

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