Diverse and diverting

 

This year’s Guinness Jazz Festival brought an exciting mix of styles to Cork and showed a musical event can be esoteric and accessible at the same time, writes KEVIN STEVENS

‘JAZZ,” DRUMMER Art Blakey said, “washes away the dust of everyday life.” If so, then the streets of Cork must be glistening today after a long weekend of occasional rain showers and constant music. This year’s Guinness Jazz Festival featured, as it has for many years, a huge range of musical options, some of which satisfied jazz purists and many of which did not. But as you would expect from a festival that attracts 50,000 attendees and over 1,000 musicians from all over the world, the emphasis is on diversity: geographic, ethnic, musical. And diversity, as this festival has proven time and again, is the lifeblood of jazz.

The main venue continues to be the Everyman Theatre, which kicked off the music on Friday night with an inspired pairing of The Bad Plus and the Sun Ra Arkestra. Both bands combine respect for tradition with mischievous musical humour and a fearless assault on mainstream sensibilities. A piano power trio known for versions of very non-jazz material — Nirvana, Blondie, Black Sabbath — The Bad Plus ran against expectation by presenting a set of originals spiced with three compelling classical pieces by Stravinsky, Gyorgy Ligeti and Milton Babbitt. Though the rock-inspired playing of drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson isn’t to everyone’s taste, pianist Ethan Iverson always keeps things harmonically interesting, and his rhythmically intense exploration of Ligeti’s Fem was a highlight.

Unfortunately, the Sun Ra Arkestra’s capricious blend of Fletcher Henderson swing, polyrhythmic free playing and urban sci-fi theatre has been around far too long at this stage to make any real impact. It is 50 years since the band released its masterpiece, Jazz in Silhouette, and 16 years since the death of its eccentric genius leader. It’s nice to see 85-year-old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen still playing with frenetic inspiration, but this is a band that is well past its sell-by date.

Also performing on Friday were the past and future of Irish jazz guitar – though both Louis Stewart and Mark McKnight (winner of the festival’s Best Young Irish Musician award) are also very much of the present. Backed by drummer David Lyttle and the fiery Dublin tenor saxophonist Michael Buckley, McKnight presented a solid show at the Triskel at Jury’s Hotel, while the evergreen Stewart played a sublime set of standards with the fine young English vibraphonist Jim Hart at the Festival Club at the Metropole.

On Saturday night, jazz fans were spoiled for choice with a range of enticing double bills: Kurt Elling and Monty Alexander at the Everyman, François Bourassa and Akain Bedard at the Triskel, and the Bjorn Solli Trio and Anthony Pinciotti Ethertet at the Festival Club. In keeping with the theme of diversity, I went along to the Firkin Crane to hear the Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi and the international all-women Nikki Iles Quintet. Iles is a sure-handed English composer and pianist who assembled this young group at the instigation of Dublin jazz promoter Allen Smith. Their mix of originals and classic tunes by Wayne Shorter, Kenny Wheeler and others displayed some excellent musicianship, particularly from Iles and trumpeter Ellister van der Molen, though the arrangements rarely strayed from the predictable, probably as the band was performing as a unit for the first time.

Roditi has impeccable Latin jazz credentials and effortlessly blends the sweetness of samba with hard-edged blowing in the tradition of Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan. He was backed by his long-standing drumless rhythm section of Klaus Ignatzek on piano and Jean-Louis Rassinfosse on bass. Though this veteran group moved with polish and considerable showmanship through a reliable set of standards, blues and Brazilian tunes, the all-too-comfortable performance did not rise above the tried and tested.

Sunday afternoon’s shows at the Everyman, however, provided an object lesson in how jazz is being kept vibrant in the 21st century. Israeli reedman Gilad Atzmon, these days more widely known for his anti-Zionism than his music, is a rare example of a musician whose political passion enhances his playing. His love-hate relationship with America fueled a remarkable sequence of tunes: Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood(lovingly played on clarinet) and Hoagy Carmichael’s Everything Happens to Mebracketed a blistering original on alto saxophone, Liberating the American People, which blended phrases of the American national anthem with ferocious Middle Eastern grooves that echoed the chant of the muezzin. The political message was heavy-handed, but the music it generated was as fierce and uncompromising as anything by Charlie Parker or John Coltrane.

Atzmon was followed by Jack DeJohnette, one of the finest drummers in modern jazz and a composer who never stops searching for the musically new and unexpected. Nearly 70 now, DeJohnette’s latest project is Ripple Effect, a fascinating hybrid of electronica and African and Brazilian Indian folk music, compellingly underpinned by his groove-

heavy rhythmic patterns. John Surman’s reeds and Marlui Miranda’s ethereal vocals contributed to this unique soundscape, which recalled Weather Report’s innovative world music stew. In recognition of this exceptional band, the festival named DeJohnette its Jazz Legend while Surman won the Jazz in Europe award.

This year, the festival’s fringe activity was more formally organised, and included lectures, poetry sessions, master classes, jazz films, and a sold-out jazz church service at St Anne’s in Shandon. On a weekend of inspired cultural blends, perhaps the quirkiest was the music of James Brown performed as gaeilge at Club Daon-Phoblacht. There was also an exhibition of artist photos from the festival’s 32-year history and a well-attended forum on women in jazz, where members of the Nikki Iles Quintet discussed the challenges facing the working woman musician.

The weekend’s mystery guest was the Chicago violinist Diane Delin, whose swinging sensibility was capably backed by a local trio led by pianist Myles Drennan. Other Irish performers included guitarist Mike Nielsen, who led his power trio at Triskel, the Phil Ware Trio (on its own as well as backing singer Honor Heffernan), and Justin Carroll’s Togetherness, who made the best of an afternoon slot at the Metropole Festival Club with a forceful set of originals that showed why it is one of the brightest bands on the Irish scene.

More than ever, this year’s festival showed a cultural event can combine broad appeal and esoterica, the traditional and the innovative, the purely entertaining and the artistically challenging. And that jazz continues to enrich itself with forms and influences from all over the world. Long live diversity.