AS Wallace Roney’s shrill trumpet faded away, the final curtain fell, bringing this year’s Guinness Cork Jazz Festival to a close ’round about midnight at the Everyman Theatre on Sunday.
For most people this was the traditional ending — apart from the final fling on Monday — to the jazz weekend on Leeside. But this year things were a little different. As trumpets, trombones and saxophones blew hard and fast in the city’s many bars and hotels, the winds of change that have been steadily building over the past number of years were more evident than ever.
Stealing a line from Gregory Porter’s song ‘Be Good’, festival organisers have “trimmed their claws and cut their mane” while dressing up a festival programme designed to appeal to almost everybody with the most eclectic mix so far in the event’s 34-year history. From Armenian mountain folk tunes and traditional Irish fiddle to beatboxing and electronic gadget wizardry with a little free jazz, the festival had it all.
Cork Opera House began on Friday night with the energetic and much-anticipated Taraf de Haidouks, a troupe of musicians from Romania who, with a mix of accordions and fiddles, deliver a highly-charged set comprising traditional and modern takes on folk music which leans heavily on the Roma tradition. It was fast and entertaining in the beginning but, as the musicians built up speed, the notes seemed to merge into each other and this high-octane mishmash was at times monotonous and about as far away from jazz music as Gregorian chant.
Meanwhile, down at Triskel’s smaller venue on Tobin Street, were the Parisian-based trio MeTaL-O-PHoNe, who definitely reside on the darker end of the jazz street, with Benjamin Flament’s vibraphone taking a slight lead while, with the aid of drums and bass, building up a terrific tapestry of sound and texture that is rooted in rock but unmistakably modern in its approach to improvisation. This 12 Points Plus element of the programme, where audiences get a snapshot of new jazz artists emerging in Europe, seemed to go down a treat at Triskel.
The weather gods looked down on Cork for the weekend, and as the city continued to bask in the glory of blue skies and autumnal sunshine on Saturday afternoon, Triskel Christchurch presented Thought-Fox. Led by singer Lauren Kinsella, the band began with Mick Coady’s lone bass leading into ‘Prime Of Life’, penned by Kinsella, an upbeat piece and the perfect vehicle for showcasing her alluring and at times Bjork-like voice, although I didn’t quite get to grips with the vocal acrobatics.
The contrast and interplay with Colm O’Hara’s trombone worked well, but the standout song, which did Kinsella’s voice most justice, was ‘Arrivals and Departures’, written by the band’s drummer, Simon Roth.
After the interval, Dublin-born singer Christine Tobin gave a masterclass in vocal technique and delivery. Commissioned by the National Library of Ireland to deliver a speech on the poetry of WB Yeats, Tobin set music to classics such as The Wild Swans at Coole, The Fisherman, and Sailing To Byzantium.
It was a tour de force where, along with pianist Liam Noble, guitarist Phil Robson, Dave Whitford on bass and Kate Shortt on cello, Tobin managed to make the words and music sound like they were written in tandem.
In an unusual opening number, the audience was greeted by the pre-recorded tones of actor Gabriel Byrne narrating The Lake Isle of Innisfree accompanied by the sound of gentle waves lapping on the shore. This was followed by When You Are Old, written by Yeats for Maud Gonne, the woman he was besotted with for practically all his life. A central theme in the works chosen by Tobin was love and nature, and this was beautifully captured in The Song Of Wandering Aengus, which was wonderfully introduced by Kate Shortt’s improvised cello solo. Liam Noble was at his most lyrical on The Wild Swans at Coole and displayed a true pro’s restraint while Tobin began “the trees are in their autumn beauty …”. It more or less summed up the afternoon, and the show was one of the highlights of this year’s, or any year’s, programme.
At every jazz festival, Cork seems to offer at least one really big emerging star and this year was no exception. Well sold-out before Saturday night’s performance, US singing sensation Gregory Porter took to the stage at the Everyman to a rapturous reception. An imposing figure, the dapper Mr Porter opened with ‘Painted On Canvas’ from his latest album Be Good (Motema Records). He pretty much stuck to the script, drawing from his debut release Water and his current collection, which last week was nominated for album of the year by the prestigious Jazzwise magazine.
Porter once trained as a professional footballer but, because of injury, “accidentally” drifted towards music. He is now one of the hottest stars around. Despite what he said in a recent Irish Examiner interview about playing with ‘his’ band, maybe he has now outgrown them: for all his brilliance as a singer, he looks to be in need of a companion in the group who can help him project more in the live arena.
There seemed to be too many interventions by saxophonist Yoske Sato, whose performance was blistering but riddled with cliché, while pianist Chip Crawford gave the impression he was a little world weary. That said, everything went according to plan, and after working through some of fine songs such as ‘Be Good’ and ‘On My Way To Harlem’, he finished up with ‘Real Good Hands’ and his signature tune, the fantastic ‘1960 What?’.
The lure of the big name in the comfortable surroundings of the Everyman is a big problem for the indecisive jazz fan. Clashing with the Porter/Roy Hargrove double bill was a gig at Triskel Christchurch headlined by Phronesis. So, owing to the predictability of Porter’s performance, a quick hop, skip and a jump to an almost packed house at Triskel allowed for the last couple of tunes by the UK-based trio.
Drummer Anton Eger was in full flow and soon the baton passed to Jasper Hoiby’s mesmeric bass, while the wonderful pianist Ivo Neame strutted his stuff on ‘Love Song’ from 2010’s Alive (Edition Records).
While Porter’s performance was a must-see, the clash with Phronesis surely was a programming boo-boo, such is the class of these three young musicians. The somewhat slower slog back up to the Everyman to catch most of the wonderful performance of Roy Hargrove was worth it: guest vocalist Roberta Gambarini was impressive and polished, but the trumpeter may have stolen her thunder when he sang ‘September in the Rain’.
After a thoroughly satisfying set, one by one the band left the stage, leaving bassist Ameen Saleem alone to bring the night at the Everyman to a close.
Sunday’s offerings started full of promise but soon took a turn for the worse: the inclusion of Polish singer Anna Maria Jopek and her band, like the weather, left me cold.
Everything was very loud and Jopek’s shouting and screaming was in contrast to that of Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan, who delivered a virtuoso performance earlier that afternoon.
Slumped over the keyboard, he looked like a man consumed by passion and intensity. The 25-year-old played folk tunes from his homeland and, with guest violinist Edel Sullivan, improvised on a traditional Irish tune, as well as using electronic gadgetry to build layers in a manner similar to the way a master painter might work a canvas.
He also engaged in some serious beatboxing. While his music couldn’t be described as jazz, one couldn’t help being moved by his artistry and passion.
Later that evening at the Everyman, drummer Chris Dave asked the audience to “open their minds and come on a journey” through what turned out to be a bit of a history lesson, with his band exploring the music with frequent visits to hip hop, R&B, soul and free jazz.
Their efforts were well received by an enthusiastic audience, and particular mention must be made of young sax player Kebbi Williams, whose obvious virtuosity and passion was evident in his confident and relaxed approach to what were at times mile-a-minute pieces.
Bringing the festival at the Everyman to a close were the Miles Smiles All Stars in what was essentially a tribute to the music of Miles Davis by a number of top musicians who played with the legendary trumpeter. Most impressive on the night were saxophonist Rick Margitza, drummer Omar Hakim and veteran master of fusion, guitarist Larry Coryell. But there was a real mercenary feel to the band, with even the solos taken in order.
To my ears, it was a similar situation to the night before: I should have rushed to Triskel to catch the incendiary playing of one of the top sax players of our time, Rudresh Mahanthappa, but the lure of the big guns proved too great.
All in all the festival must be considered a success: the many bars and hotels throughout the city were full to the brim with some outlets saying business was the best since the festival began. The inclusion of the Triskel’s Tobin Street was a masterstroke and, with the addition of the 12 Point Plus events, catered for the more adventurous jazzheads. If it’s a sign of things to come — and Uncle Arthur can continue the conversation with the weather Gods — then the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival may be greater than ever before.
Since its foundation, the Cork Jazz Festival has presented the cream of the world’s talent to appreciative audiences. Each year, Guinness present awards in various categories to recognise the very best of the festival’s performers. This year’s recipients are:
Guinness Jazz Personality of the Festival: Gregory Porter.
Rising Star Award: Tigran.
Jazz in Europe Award: Roberta Gambarini.
Best Young Irish Band: Mixtapes From The Underground.