Jazz fest plays off key

IF you chose your concerts wisely this past Cork jazz weekend, your experience would have belied the negative media previews, which focused on the dilution of jazz in favour of a mélange of soul, rock and pop.

Jazz fest plays off key

The excellent, sassy Rene Marie kicked things off on the Friday night; Billy Cobham performed an epic homage to his Spectrum album on Saturday night; harpist Edmar Castaneda was a ray of sunshine on Sunday afternoon; the irrepressible aural assault of Snarky Puppy followed the raucous Mingus Big Band, on Sunday evening; a session of free jazz followed in the Triskel.

The problem was you had to willfully ignore how the Cork Jazz Festival was presenting itself and recreate your version of what the festival should be.

A casual punter, with an interest in jazz, wouldn’t have got beyond the landing page of the website. There, you were greeted by an abuse of language: “Jazz 2013 line up”, it said, and below were listed, in order, Efterklang, Chic & Nile Rodgers, Soul II Soul, Bilal, Primal Scream and Courtney Pine. Then, at last, came Rene Marie, and, below her, the great Billy Cobham. Just a single act from the Triskel line-up made it to the front page.

What message does this send about jazz, for which the festival is named, other than that the organisers have no faith in it?

This populist facade, which conceals the artistic integrity of the festival, was dispiritingly echoed by Bernard Casey, the chairman of the festival committee, who said we had to move with the times, but Primal Scream and Chic peaked, respectively, in the early 1990s and late 1970s.

The implicit corollary of this nonsense is that jazz does not ‘move with the times’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hip-hop is a moribund, misogynist, vulgar imitation of its golden years; pop music is a cesspit of corporate promotion and recycled blandness; indie rock is a hypocritical, twee, middle-class, folkie parody of its former self. But jazz? Jazz is vibrant, ever-evolving music. In Europe, there is a genuine, continent-wide subculture of jazz that is far removed from the doldrums of mainstream popular culture. It is a music of educated, enthusiastic and open practitioners, treating the great heritage of jazz as one source of inspiration. It is a world that anyone who has spent a week in Dublin during the 12 Points festival will know; it is a world that the Cork festival should be lifting a lid on, but sadly isn’t.

Instead, the Cork jazz festival’s message seems to be “look, there’s jazz there for you sados who want it, now don’t bother the rest of us while we’re on the lash.”

And yet, it was still possible to have a weekend of exceptional music. Rene Marie was a revelation. She brought her big, playful, sassy personality to bear on the repertoire of Eartha Kitt songs, reinventing a mix of classics and lesser-known tunes, such as ‘Peel Me a Grape,’ ‘C’est Si Bon,’ ‘I Wanna Be Evil,’ and ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy.’ In the sophisticated arrangements, the exquisitely toned alto-sax of Perico Sambeat (who played with his own group in the Triskel, and starred in some late-night jam sessions) was a treat.

Courtney Pine was next. He talked a good game: spoke informatively about his West Indian roots, but also those of jazz, in that the early practitioners in New Orleans were originally from that part of the world. It seemed like a good idea, to explore this root of jazz, but musically it was undercooked. Pine’s seemingly excellent (from scant evidence) supporting musicians were reduced to providing repetitive calypso backing to his hyperactive, spiralling sax — always an impressive feat of circular breathing, but here of negligible musical merit. It was all too easy for Pine, and the audience, in a gig that quickly descended into happy-clapping and clichéd call-and-response shtick.

The Saturday began slowly: there were no afternoon gigs at the Everyman. The reason given was the time pressure on the house crew in doing sound checks for two back-to-back double bills. It’s a valid reason, but it dented the festival feeling, and took away those golden afternoon hours that are frequently the most memorable.

Saturday’s highlight was Cobham’s epic tribute to his classic Spectrum album. This was fusion with control and precision and finesse, affably hosted by Cobham.

Sunday, thankfully, did have an afternoon session, in the shape of Edmar Castaneda, the Colombian harpist. Castaneda is a virtuoso, as well as an utterly charming and life-affirming host. He wrings an entire ensemble’s worth of music from an unlikely instrument. His music is awash with South American influences, provoking wonder and curiosity, and just plain awe at his outrageous talent.

For something completely different, there was Snarky Puppy, at the Everyman. The wonder with them was how they drew such differentiated sounds out of what could have been a wall of noise, given their eight-strong line-up of multi-instrumentalists. Their interactions were deft, their solos beautiful, their crescendos awesome. The pity was they only had an hour in which to share their remarkable musicianship.

The Mingus Big Band almost looked staid as they sat in neat rows, after the clutter of Snarky Puppy. That impression didn’t last long. The Mingus bring that vital ingredient to big-band settings: big personalities who can rise to the raucousness and negate any threat of blandness.

This was most evident when Ronnie Cuber dragged his baritone sax in front to bark out the irresistible intro to ‘Moanin’. Mingus’s elegy to Lester Young, ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’, was an exquisite quieter moment, while the piano of Helen Sung is a feminine grace note amid all the testosterone. Yes, these boys shriek and wail and rumble, but they can whisper, too.

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