12 Points festival is ‘a long way from three chords and the truth’

Jazz has become a ‘super-broad church’ and is no longer the preserve of middle-aged men, says Kenneth Killeen, the director of the four-day Dublin festival

 

In the ever-bulging calendar of festivals offering musical gratification, a unique programme is likely to grab the attention. So you would imagine that a new music festival focusing on emerging European artists who are exploring new frontiers in contemporary, electronic, post-rock, soul, punk and improvisational music would be overrun. The 12 Points festival, which returns to Dublin next week after last year’s edition in Sweden, is that festival. The catch? It’s a jazz festival.

Except, as festival director Kenneth Killeen explains, jazz is a “super-broad church” and it has moved on, even if the stereotypes of the genre don’t reflect that.

The 12 Points festival, which is now in its ninth year, may take its name from a cheeky reference to the Eurovision, but it is far removed from douze points, spandex and breathless, bearded drag queens.

The festival takes 12 young music acts from around Europe and brings them to Dublin (or an alternating European city) for a week. From Wednesday, April 15th, to Saturday, April 18th, three bands a night will perform in Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar. In between, there are rehearsals, jam sessions, talks and networking.

It’s a little like a jazz version of Eurosonic, the annual new music festival in the Netherlands that presents the cream of Europe’s talent and encourages festival and gig promoters to book them. As the emphasis for 12 Points is on emerging talent, the festival acts as “a gateway festival” for the live jazz music machine in Europe. The festival is as much about encouraging young talent as it is an industry showcase.

“Irish artists feel like they go so far and then hit a wall,” Killeen says. “A lot of them emigrate or go to Berlin or New York for a summer and end up staying there. We want to hold on to the talent that’s here, and 12 Points is a way of showcasing what their peers in Europe are doing, and that makes Irish artists feel less insular and more open to possibilities.”

 

Entry criteria

From the 500 entrants to the festival’s open call, 12 Points looks for certain criteria. “We look for a high level of musicianship, a good concept around the music and a band identity, which is something that is hard to find in jazz,” says Killeen.

So what is European jazz in 2015? Certainly not the golden age of jazz performers: there is no Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. Young musicians are finding different reference points, and that makes for new forms.

“They rely more on what their peers are doing,” Killeen says. “There could be a strong electronic scene in Trondheim, there could be an underground scene in Berlin and that could be the starting point. We look for people who push stylistic boundaries that need to be acknowledged and rewarded.”

These are young artists who are as comfortable with Flying Lotus and Fuck Buttons as they are with Chet Baker. As an example of the festival’s cutting-edge tendencies, last year’s Irish act, Alarmist, who mix math rock, synthesisers and taut jazz textures with a high level of musicianship, were a big hit in Umeå, Sweden. They are now due to play the Ottawa International Jazz Festival this summer. In today’s constrained climate for young bands, such career opportunities are to be celebrated.

“A band like Alarmist can play a jazz festival, a math-rock night or an indie venue and they can fit into all of them,” says Killeen.

Evidence of younger Irish audiences embracing both instrumental music and acts with jazz in their veins could be seen inrecent sold-out Irish gigs by jazz/hip-hop Canadian trio BadBadNotGood and the jazz-funk-world fusion of American band Snarky Puppy. Both Dublin gigs in the Sugar Club last year were word-of-mouth triumphs that were packed with an audience in their 20s who wouldn’t normally be seen dead at jazz gigs.

Audiences here, buoyed by a healthy post-rock scene in the past 20 years that has given us bands such as The Redneck Manifesto, And So I Watch You From Afar, God Is an Astronaut and Enemies, have perhaps developed more discerning and appreciative ears.

“We’re a long way from three chords and the truth,” says Killeen. “The audiences are up for more than that.” Having said that, he agrees that most gigs under the jazz umbrella are still occupied by middle-aged men. “That stereotype is still there to a large extent. It is changing but slowly.”

Still, jazz gets a hard time, which creates problems when trying to bring in a new audience, especially when you consider the image created by films such as Whiplash, with its terrorising jazz band leader. “They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but in the case of Whiplash, which reinforces the stereotypical view of jazz, then that’s not good,” says Killeen. “I wouldn’t be upfront with calling all our events ‘jazz gigs’ as there can be an automatic response which is hard to get around.”

The 12 Points festival appears to be more on the cutting edge of jazz and it’s also more open and friendly than the scene depicted in Whiplash. Killeen cites the night-time jam session as one of the festival highlights, and it has become a meeting place for new collaborations.

 

Collaborations

“When we bring musicians for the festival, it’s not a fly-in-fly-out festival, we want them to stay here for the week so they get the full experience,” Killeen says. “The jam session is where they get to play together and hang out. Through it, musicians realise their music doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the jam can be a catalyst for new projects and collaborations that reach across Europe.”

As for the impact of 12 Points in Ireland, Killeen says there are healthy scenes in Cork, Limerick, Sligo, Galway and Belfast but that the Irish scene is disconnected.

“Perhaps a national version of 12 Points which tours the country is needed,” he says. As for Dublin city, does it need a dedicated jazz venue like London’s Ronnie Scott’s or New York’s Village Vanguard?

“Yes it does,” says Killeen. “What does jazz mean? That’s the bigger question as a jazz club in the 21st century shouldn’t be the stereotypical notion of jazz.”

This festival, for its part, is attempting to change that perception.

 

12 POINTS: THREE TO SEE

  • Club & Jam Session Sweeney’s Upstairs Bar, Free, 11pm, April 16th-18th This could get rowdy. After the main event, there will be three club nights kicked off by a different local band. Thursday features the post-bop contemporary jazz of The CEO Experiment; on Friday it’s instrumental funk-soul quartet Bunk; and on Saturday it’s prog synth-rockers Leo Drezden. Afterwards, the 12 Points bands are free to jam with each other on stage.
  • Alarmist, OKO, ReDivideR Smock Alley Theatre, admission free, 6pm, April 17th Three 12 Points alumni come together for a special performance. There will be 13 musicians on stage at once, including three drummers. Expect a Venn diagram of improv, math-rock, jazz and contemporary classical.
  • 12 Points Project Arts Centre, €12/€15, 7.30pm, April 18th The last night of the festival’s main proceedings features the Swiss theatrical jazz group Hildegard Lernt Fliegen, Chris Guilfoyle’s quintet Umbra, and the intriguing punk-jazz style of Sweden’s Black Dough.
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