A taste of soul, rock hip-hop and... jazz

IN ITS 35 years, the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival has grown and broadened so far beyond its roots that it’s possible most years to preview it on two fronts: from the point of view of the jazz aficionado, and the perspective of the general music fan.

A taste of soul, rock hip-hop and... jazz

You could even throw in a third outlook: the revellers who pack the music-filled pubs — ‘going jazzing’, in the local parlance. But sticking with the first two criteria, it seems that, this year, the general music fan is doing a little better than the jazz aficionado.

Take the Opera House, in previous decades a barometer for how well, or not, the festival serves the jazzheads. In vintage years, you could find the likes of a Chick Corea or a McCoy Tyner in the Opera House — straight-up jazz legends.

In other years, the Opera House has embraced dance and popular music, admittedly often of a kind rooted in African-American music, like jazz, soul or gospel. This is not a complaint. De La Soul were an excellent addition to the festival last year, a hip-hop band rooted in jazz, whose sound could not exist without those foundations.

This year, the Opera House has both feet planted firmly in the popular-music camp. Topping the bill are Chic and Nile Rodgers. There’s probably no band with more of a dancefloor following in the city of Cork than Chic. Songs like ‘Le Freak’, ‘I Want Your Love’, and ‘Good Times’ have a sure place in the ideal Saturday-night soundtrack for many, thanks to their heavy rotation from local DJs like Stevie G.

There will be more dancefloor memories from Soul II Soul, who perform as part of a double bill on the Sunday alongside neo-soul crooner Bilal. So, fuelled by Chic nostalgia, or the formidable combo that is Jazzie B (at least the word “jazz” is in there somewhere) and Caron Wheeler, the punters at the Opera House are going to raise the roof.

Nile Rodgers and Chic have already sold out their Opera House gig

But jazz this ain’t. And, it’s not like the venue can be accused of being populist: it kicks off the weekend with genre-defying Danish outfit Efterklang, as talented a group of musicians as you could see. But surely the glory of any festival is the permission it gives venues to push boundaries, to aim a little closer to the heart of an art form it might feel nervous about representing at another time of year.

That aforementioned bellwether of the festival’s jazz credentials, Courtney Pine, appears in the Everyman. Since the Metropole dropped any pretensions of being a serious part of the festival’s music line-up, the Everyman has hosted many memorable concerts. There have been great performances from young, up-and-coming artists, such as last year’s wondrous show from the Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan. Audiences can look back on the late Esbjorn Svensson in his prime, a young Brad Mehldau on his way to fame, or to paying homage to another late great, the Hammond supremo Jimmy Smith. Against this recent form, the appearance of Pine – such a groovy performer, known to integrate contemporary dance music in his shows — is a sign of the wider populism evident this year.

Also at the Everyman, drummer Billy Cobham carries the ‘legend’ mantle for 2013. His work with Miles Davis and recent Cork visitor John McLaughlin puts him at the centre of the jazz-fusion school.

It’s a divisive and often critically derided offshoot from jazz’s mainstream, but it has survived, been rehabilitated, and continues to attract audiences, particularly among those who think the wail of a rock guitar has its place in jazz. The pity is that Cobham appears in a year so full of funky, fusion-y sounds.

Sharing the Saturday evening bill with Cobham, the UK’s Portico Quartet are an interesting band, their minimalism and electronic loops set against the steelpan-like sound of the hang drum.

Yet more funky fusion follows in the shape of Snarky Puppy on Sunday at the Everyman, though they are paired with the straight-ahead legacy act, the Mingus Big Band.

During last year’s festival, there was a sense that the centre of gravity was shifting from the Everyman towards the Triskel. This was helped by the overall vibrancy of a venue that has become a complex in its own right, comprised of the airy Christchurch, the black-box auditorium, and Gulpd café-bar. There were lively early evening gigs in the latter, and a quartet of concerts programmed by Gerry Godley under his 12 Points rubric, which addressed a legitimate criticism of the festival in recent years — that it did not sufficiently represent young talents from Ireland and Europe.

This year’s Box Set programme of late-night gigs at the Triskel picks up on the theme of young Irish talent. Pianist Paul G Smyth leads two ensembles on successive nights. First up on Saturday is Omen III, an improv trio in which he’s joined by saxophonist Alan Wilkinson and drummer Charles Hayward. On Sunday, Smyth is joined by John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums.

Bugge Wesseltoft is at Triskel

A European flavour also, thankfully, remains. Bugge Wesseltoft is a Norwegian pianist in the spacey, lyrical style we have come to expect from that part of the world. His experimentations with electronic music make him an intriguing live prospect. He shares a double bill with the reliably gifted young artists of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute.

Against the trend of this year’s programme, Perico Sambeat is a welcome addition: a straight-ahead post-bop saxophonist leading an old-fashioned quartet. He shares a double bill with the chamber trio of Argentinian bandoneón player Dino Saluzzi — not quite jazz, but an interesting mix of South American and European influences.

The Triskel line-up also includes the vocal talents of Melanie O’Rielly, and the ever-intriguing Ronan Guilfoyle Quintet.

A notable inclusion in its afternoon series is the young Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda. The best performance of the 2012 festival came from Tigran Hamasyan, an extraordinary solo talent. Castaneda might just be this year’s answer, given his prodigious skills.

In addition to the main venues are the usual host of fringe events, the free-music trail, and a series of concerts in the Music Xtra strand. Of these, the Pavilion’s offering is particularly strong.

There is plenty of excellent music on offer this year, in one of the most eclectic line-ups the festival has seen. It’s the kind of programme that comes along every so often, and will no doubt please many. But if it’s the shape of things to come, there is the danger that the festival could lose its unique character, which derives from a small word in the title: ‘jazz’.

*For full listings and booking, see guinnessjazzfestival.com

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