It was fitting for the 40th instalment of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival that there was rather more of the titular music to be heard in the Metropole Hotel, where it all began, than in recent years.
This was in large part due to a Ronnie Scott’s strand, part of a new link-up with the famed London club run by the late saxophonist who also played Cork’s first jazz festival at the Metropole back in 1978.
Among the acts at the hotel over the weekend were sax player Andy Middleton who was joined by the Mike Nielsen/Ronan Guilfoyle trio, and Belfast-based sax player Meilana Gillard.
Things kicked off at the Everyman on Friday with the Australian piano player Sarah McKenzie and her guitar-led group. In a show mixing the old and the new, ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ was apt. McKenzie is talented but rather conventional. Her own composition, ‘That’s It, I Quit’, has the style and wit of the age she draws heavily on, but a song like ‘Paris in the Rain’ veers towards cliched pastiche.
There was a feeling of apropos-of-nothing in particular about what followed – Gary Crosby’s Nu Troop, playing Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. On ‘So What’, the opening brass lines were so bright and clear you heard it would be the wrong colour altogether. But things settle down after that, allowing Denys Baptiste, in the Cannonball Adderley role, shine through in particular with a rich, broad sax sound. At the drums, Sam Jones was cool and composed. A pristine and gorgeous ‘Blue in Green’ made the exercise worthwhile.
On Saturday at the same venue, the multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Payton was joined by Eric Wheeler on bass and Joe Dyson on drums. Payton is principally a masterful trumpeter — his tone and control are incredible. On the night, he was also at piano and organ.
A more wide-ranging show might have been allowed if he’d had a quintet, rather than this multitasking role, but, as it was, the show, based in his Afro-Caribbean Mixtape album, was a carefully crafted and engrossing performance, drawing intelligently on his views on black culture, history, and society.
In Payton’s world, jazz, gospel, blues, hip-hop, soul and funk are all part of the same family — and he is true to that idea here.
After that, headliner Kenny Garett took things up a notch, his group launching an immediate, full-on assault that was pulsating and propulsive. Vernell Brown’s piano lines were insistent, Garett’s solos virtuosic, the drumming was furiously crashing, the percussion adding yet another layer. And under it all Corcoran Holt’s bass remained strong and commanding and clear. It was wondrous to behold a group of such power and control.
It did not last however, as, the choice of music veered more toward’s the more straightforward, clear style of Garret’s Do Your Dance album, culminating in a long and repetitive call-and-response breakdown that had the people out of their seats, yes, but was of less interest musically.
On Sunday, tenor sax player Scott Hamilton was joined by the find of the festival (for this writer at least) Champian Fulton. A piano player of bright, fluid energy and astounding technique, Fulton also has a rich, assured singing voice – by turns velvety and sibilant, with a feline Billie Holiday-esque sharpness adding another dimension. The daughter of a trumpeter, Stephen Fulton, and a one-time child prodigy, Fulton is jazz to her fingertips, inhabiting a string of standards — ‘He’s Funny That Way’, ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’, ‘I Cried for You’ — with fidelity and playful originality.
At the Triskel on Sunday, Dublin singer Sue Rynhart was flying the flag for the Irish jazz scene, with a beguiling performance. Rynhart’s songs have a solid poetic quality to them. They are full of evocative images, and create their own folklore-tinged worlds, as in Foxed, where Rynhart emphasises Irish pronunciations (“black oiyes”, “stones in moi bag”) with a little bit of Janis Joplin thrown in. Foxed and others songs were originally backed largely by Dan Bodwell’s bass, but here they get a full quartet setting, with Rynhart occasionally using a mbira.
The much-anticipated visit of Michael Woolly’s trio followed, rounded out the group’s Irish tour. The band are just out of the studio and mixed new work with compositions going back over a decade. The first tune was by drummer Eric Schaefer, and was a showcase of Woolly’s talent, building to an astounding piano solo that drew widely, and reached back into the classical tradition too. The group, with Christian Weber on bass, do swing, but theirs is a very European sound.