SENSUAL, gritty, raw, real — you could literally smell the soul in Counihan’s pub where Mary Stokes, arguably Ireland’s best blues singer, took to the stage several times over the weekend in a traditional series of free gigs as part of the Cork Guinness Jazz Festival.
If anything embodies the festival, it must surely be this kind of atmosphere — hot and sticky, where bodies are pressed up against each other, bumping and grinding to the passionate performance.
Soul, blues and jazz, whatever you want to call it, was alive and well when Stokes — looking suitably ungroomed — and her endlessly energetic band played.
Forget Mac the Knife and generic jazz, this is old school stuff.
And while many bemoan the fact that there’s just not enough of it, Rory Sheridan, Guinness Jazz manager, maintains it is a deliberate strategy to keep the festival viable in tougher economic times.
“There has been a drift away from hardcore, purist jazz to other kinds of music,” he said. “It has been a trend to widen the appeal in the past number of years so as to attract the masses and not just strict jazz fans.
“Obviously, we still have gigs for the jazz aficionados but they are in places like the Opera House, and that’s where real jazz fans will go specifically to listen to the music.”
In places like the Metropole Guinness Jazz Club, where seven stages offer an array of music — not always jazz, it is more a social gathering.
And this was certainly evident from the large crowds who did not seem overly interested in listening to the music — there was chatting, meeting and greeting to be done. “There is good jazz there too, but it is more of a backdrop to a social occasion.”
All things considered, though, the festival manager feels it was a successful year.
“Obviously there was a little bit of doom and gloom around, but it hasn’t had a serious effect on the festival,” said Mr Sheridan. “This year we conducted research with Bord Fáilte to see exactly where people are coming from, and how the festival is performing. It will give us a good indication in this transition year as to how exactly things are faring.”
And although heavily criticised by Irish Times jazz reviewer Ray Comiskey as “a dinosaur in an environment where other, livelier species now rule”, Mr Sheridan said there were no plans radically to change the formula for next year.
“It works. We are trying to get the right balance for everyone.”
Indeed, Mary Stokes and her band are proof that if you are willing to sniff it out and stand in a packed and sweaty venue, the good stuff is still there — and for free too.
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