AT THE end of an enthralling session in the company of Ireland’s best side men, Dave Redmond (bass) and Kevin Brady (drums), and joined by US guitar great Peter Bernstein, pianist Phil Ware delivered a polite cri de coeur to a packed Triskel Christchurch.
He finished by inverting Frank Zappa’s famous quip about jazz (“It’s not dead, it just smells funny”), to proclaim, “It’s very much alive, and it smells lovely”.
Would that the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival had the same faith in its namesake musical style. It’s now established at the festival to headline with acts that are bafflingly superfluous (The Coronas), tiresome (a Relish yawnathon at the Opera House during Jerry Fish’s Electric Sideshow), anachronistic (The Boomtown Rats) and just plain head-scratching (Gary Numan).
Yet, if you’re willing to look there is still enough to remind one of the festival’s glorious artistic heritage, one that has proven, if anything, that if you book them, the people will come. You don’t need to be populist and anti-jazz to please crowds and live up to a fine, near-four-decade tradition.
Take Marcus Miller. His band raised the roof at the Everyman, and could easily have fitted in at the Opera House. Miller was joined by Mino Cinelu of the 1980s Miles Davis band, but, really, every one of the band member’s was a world-class musician, down to the absurdly talented 23-year-old keyboardist Brett Williams. Miller’s group had spent the summer playing his latest album, Afrodeezia, one of his best, and it showed. This was a group of musicians honed in what they were doing, free to range, interact and create a rich soundscape that took us from West Africa to Detroit via South America, the Caribbean and New Orleans. Superb.
Miller showed the benefit of booking a real band. Other Everyman choices, alas, showed the misguided tactic of booking a virtuoso and coupling them with four strangers. This was the case for the young Korean-American Grace Kelly (her name comes via her stepfather’s Cork ancestors). Even talents like Myles Drennan (piano) can only do so much, and it was a performance of safe, polite turn-taking that gave space for Kelly’s undoubted technique but offered little depth.
The festival opened at the Everyman with Paul Dunlea’s newly created Irish Irish Jazz Orchestra, a showcase for Dunlea’s range of compositions, with cameos from local singer Laoise O’Hanlon.
More interesting was the Triskel’s Friday programme, an exquisite combination of violinist Sarah Neufeld of Arcade Fire and sax player Colin Stetson. It was a good festival for Plugd, the record store housed in Triskel, which presented this gig and Masayoshi Fujita, the disarming Japanese solo vibraphonist.
The Saturday afternoon choice was very limited, but we did get a free concert by the RTÉ Contempo Quartet. While the place of classical might be quibbled at, cellist Adrian Mantu did live up to the context by discussing the protean ‘jazz’ elements in a Beethoven quartet, the musicology of Bartok, and in scores by Philip Glass.
The Opera House drew a big crowd at midnight on Sunday for the inexplicably popular Booka Brass Band. Opening up for them were one of the finds of the festival, Zaska, a young Dublin funk band playing their own joyous compositions, completely outshining the headliners.
The Everyman’s audience had a charming host in Darius Brubeck on Sunday night, playing a selection of standards, and works by the likes of Abdullah Ibrahim, and, inevitably, his late, great father.
The night’s highlight came from Gogo Penguin. The young Manchester trio thrilled a packed Triskel with tunes that ranged easily across references to drum’n’bass, 1990s-era Massive Attack, and four-to-the-floor house music.
The stated aim of this band is to be something other than a piano-led trio, and their set has drive, and great tunes aplenty, but perhaps it might benefit from a little more extemporising.