What started off in 2000 as a small little festival has blossomed into what many regard as one of the friendliest jazz festivals on the circuit. And while the organisers are in many ways battling against the odds without a sponsor with deep pockets, the seaside venue seems to be more than capable of punching above its weight.
Over the years Bray has attracted big names such as pianist Andrew Hill, Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, saxophonist Andy Sheppard and Norwegian pianist Tord Gustafson.
After seeing an item on the news in which the late Séamus Brennan, then Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, was in charge in 2000 of a €30 million Millennium Fund, the man behind the festival, George Jacob, put together a proposal and received a €25,000 grant which helped leverage support from other sources. A couple of years later Jacob and his crew got support from the Arts Council and, now in its 14th year, the festival continues to fly the flag for jazz every May Bank Holiday weekend.
This year’s offering will see more than 40 concerts, recitals and jazz trail gigs over the three days starting on May 3 and kicks off on Friday night with a European double-bill that includes French trumpeter Mederic Collignon’s Le Jus De Bosce and Swiss-based guitarist Christy Doran’s New Bag, who will bring a unique and energetic jazz/rock vibe to Bray’s Mermaid Arts Centre.
Saturday starts off with some free jazz on Bray’s Civic Plaza, where visitors will be able to enjoy four different bands with an emphasis on ‘the craic’, Balkan style. Adding to the party atmosphere will be Dublin-based specialists Yurodny who, with their particularly irresistible blend of Balkan beats, are guaranteed to lift the spirit of even the most world-weary.
Later that evening one of Norway’s finest bassists takes to the stage at the Mermaid Arts Centre. Joining Mats Eilertsen are his Skydive group, which includes the wonderfully-gifted saxophonist Tore Brunborg and young Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila — expect some Garbarek-like sounds and echoes of Avishai Cohen on the interplay with Eilertsen, Tuomarila and Brunborg.
In keeping with most music festivals these days, Bray doesn’t confine itself to jazz. As well as the afternoon’s Balkan bash, Saturday night at the Martello Hotel looks set to become party central when the high-octane sounds of Cajun rock/jazz/blues outfit Mama Rosin will help raise the temperature even higher.
In keeping with the Festival’s ability to attract big ticket stars, Sunday night is as big as it gets: Brazilian-born and New York-based pianist and vocalist Elaine Elias will deliver her trademark sensuous and sophisticated sounds to the audience at the already sold-out Mermaid Arts Centre.
As well as top notch piano, expect more than a nod to the music of Chet Baker after Elias’s release of I Thought About You (A Tribute To Chet Baker) on Concord Jazz. A real coup for Bray.
It’s worth remembering how, despite the small beginnings and recent Arts Council cutbacks, a small festival such as Bray can, with clever programming and an enthusiastic team, grow from humble beginnings to attracting top-notch acts such as Elaine Elias. Emerging festivals like Ballydehob — also on this coming weekend (with the Neil Cowley Trio taking pride of place) — can take a certain degree of comfort and maybe a few lessons on how to grow into another small, secure and friendly festival.