Once more with feeling
About 1,000 international acts from across a broad vocabulary of jazz, made for some memorable moments at the Guinness Jazz Festival, writes Kevin Stevens
Jazz is the original world music. With origins in the slave fields and churches of the American South, it took shape in the international gumbo of New Orleans before flowing northwards in the path of the Great Migration of African-Americans and coming to maturity during the age of radio, which brought this new music to a worldwide audience.
A century later, this musical diaspora continues, though now, as ever, conservative listeners resist the growth so crucial to the genre. Wynton Marsalis's definition of jazz as "blues and swing" is the most recent example of this resistance. And while blues and swing are certainly wonderful, for many years now the Guinness Jazz Festival has been showing international audiences that the vocabulary of contemporary jazz has a global breadth and richness, true to the spirit of its roots, far beyond such narrow definitions.
Now in its 30th year, the festival convened in Cork over the bank holiday weekend with typical internationalism: performers included a French accordion player influenced by Clifford Brown; a Bronx-born clarinetist who has collaborated with Daniel Barenboim and the Kronos Quartet; a Brazilian pianist celebrating the music of Bill Evans; an Israeli bass player who loves West African rhythms; and many more - a thousand musicians from more than 30 countries.
The spirit and quality of the festival was best captured by Sunday night's magnificent performance by the accordionist Richard Galliano. A frequent visitor to Ireland, Galliano's appearance was enriched this time by his partnership with vibraphonist Gary Burton. The bright, ringing tone of Burton's vibes is a perfect match for the swirling pools of sound Galliano creates on accordion, though, more importantly, Burton's musical curiosity and careful structuring framed the music to great effect.
Both musicians have a deep affection for the music of the late Astor Piazzolla, whose tangos featured prominently in the set. A compelling improviser, Galliano manages to use his instrument's minority status to advantage, combining a clear jazz heritage in his solos with an inevitable suggestion of Paris dance halls. This creative blend works in both directions - jazz is enriched and Galliano's native bal musette tradition is equally deepened.
The sold-out audience at the Everyman Palace Theatre was enchanted throughout the gig, but never more than during an achingly intense version of the Edith Piaf song If You Love Me, where Galliano's technical brilliance and improvising genius were channeled powerfully into the emotion of this beautiful ballad.
The Everyman was the festival's headline venue this year, at least for jazz (the Opera House featured ska, hip-hop and gospel). The absence of the Triskel as a venue was disappointing, though compensated somewhat by imaginative late-night programming at the Half Moon Theatre.
As you would expect from a programme of such breadth, the result was mixed. The Friday night double bill of the Esbjorn Svensson and Avishai Cohen trios at the Everyman set the tone - high energy, virtuosic, with an emphaasis on insistent grooves and musical tension.
But the pairing also revealed differences. EST has been a unit for 15 years now, and their almost telepathic interplay allows them to build solid musical structures from their drum and bass grooves. Cohen's trio did not have this assurance, and though warmly received by the audience, often retreated to near-histrionics and a narrow musical pallette.
FANS OF ALTO SAX legend Phil Woods looked forward to his Saturday night gig with more than the usual interest. Suffering from emphysema, Woods is dependent on supplemental oxygen prior to performance. Flying in to Cork from Athens that day, how would he manage? After some trouble in sourcing oxygen (his drivers came through for him), he managed fine. Though appearing in some physical discomfort onstage, he betrayed no weakness in his playing. His tone was as bright as ever, his phrasing sublime. Supported by his usual rhythm section of Jim McNeely (piano), Steve Gilmore (bass) and Bill Goodwin (drums), as well as the peerless Brian Lynch on trumpet, Woods delivered a tight, driving hard-bop set, highlighted by an inventive version of Benny Carter's People Timeand Woods's signature tune, Willow Weep for Me. Appropriately, Woods received the festival's Legend Award.
The Jazz in Europe Award went to the no less deserving Miroslav Vitous, the Czech bassist whose resumé includes stints with Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Weather Report. His band - grounded by his beautiful, singing bass lines - played an uncompromising collection of carefully composed pieces blending taped orchestral passages with the distinctive voices of Franco Ambrosetti's trumpet and Gary Campbell's tenor and soprano saxes.
The festival programme was so rich in innovation that awards often seemed beside the point. Don Byron's Sunday afternoon show at the Everyman was a remarkable excursion into jazz history, updated with vision and verve by Byron's musical curiosity and prodigious skills on clarinet and tenor sax. His bassless trio format and quirky, leisurely soloing were fresh and absorbing.
The Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias, who preceded Phil Woods on Saturday night, brought huge skill and intensity to her show, a tribute to piano master Bill Evans. Her set's theme was a curious one - Elias's playing owes much more to the muscular, linear style of Bud Powell than the delicacy of Evans - but who cared? The power and finesse of her playing were extraordinary.
Now 80 years of age, Mose Allison is still crafting world-weary songs that he sings in a wry voice and underpins with idiosyncratic piano rhythms. His Saturday afternoon performance started hesitantly, but gained strength as it went along, and long-familiar blues tunes such as Fool's Paradiseand Ever Since the World Endedfound their mark with the audience and confirmed Allison's status as one of the great creators and interpreters of the American blues tradition.
By contrast, the The Geoff Gascoyne Project, which followed Allison at the Everyman, was a musical hodge-podge that wasted some fine jazz talent in its attempt to be all things to everyone. With vocalists Jamie Cullum and Trudy Kerr on board, as well as a gratuitous string quartet, bassist Gascoyne's programme was under-rehearsed and over-arranged.
Dizzy Gillespie's daughter, the singer Jeanie Bryson, was the Personality of the Festival and brought an endearing sparkle to her press conference and performances at the Half Moon and the Firkin Crane.
Her energy and sense of swing made up for the occasional uncertainties of her voice, and the reliable New York trumpeter Ray Vega helped tremendously as Bryson affectionately covered songs made memorable by her famous father.
Unfortunately, the Everyman's deep programme closed with an overly relaxed performance by The Leaders, a jazz supergroup led by tenor man Chico Freeman. These star-studded line-ups tend to produce performances that are short on creativity and long on extended soloing. This set had its moments (bassist Buster Williams and trumpeter Eddie Henderson were consistently fine and Bobby Watson blew the roof off with his alto, as he does), but coming as it did after the Richard Galliano show, this band's casual approach and over-the-top blowing failed to do justice to the American mainstream.
THOUGH THE CONTRIBUTION of Irish musicians had a lower profile than in previous years, Louis Stewart, Cork native Cian McCarthy, Hugh and Michael Buckley, guitarist Phil McDermott and others helped keep the energy level high at the Festival Club at the Metropole Hotel. This year's Young Irish Jazz Award went to Justin Carroll, who was busy with his trios throughout the weekend, ably supporting the American alto saxophonists Greg Abate and Jesse Davis on successive nights at the Half Moon.
For a festival with complex corporate and marketing interests, this year's version managed to put together a fine and representative line-up of talent, proving once again that jazz continues to absorb new forms and influences with a speed and global reach appropriate to the internet age.