Irish Times writers review the Bray Jazz Festival and the Kilkenny Rythm and Roots Festival

Bray Jazz Festival

To judge by the headline concerts at the event's main venue, the Mermaid Arts Centre, this year's Bray Jazz Festival maintained its reputation for quality. And the programming, too, was a microcosm of the diversity of musical language that is now the norm within the idiom.

That was evident on Friday night, when the Phil Ware Trio - Ware (piano), Dave Redmond (bass) and Kevin Brady (drums) - opened for the Andrew Hill Quintet. Despite a slightly nervous beginning, they quickly settled to gave a fine demonstration of ebulliently swinging mainstream jazz, notably with It Could Happen to You and, notwithstanding a slight hitch, a beautiful exploration of Blue in Green.

As might be expected from one of jazz's great mavericks, Hill and his quintet - Hill (piano), Charles Tolliver (trumpet), Jason Yarde (alto/soprano), John Hebert (bass) and Eric McPherson (drums) - presented altogether more challenging music. Rhythmically complex, its often angular and harmonically open themes presented no comfort zones to either players or audience.

It was meat and drink to the authoritative Tolliver, whose cliché-free playing was striking, particularly on the second piece, Pinnacle, where his interaction with Hill was impressive, and on the lovely ballad, Malachi, where his forthright solo was an ideal contrast to Hill's loving, melancholic statement.

Hebert and McPherson, too, were astonishing in their ability to provide a complex carpet for the others, while, surfing on their energy, Hill coloured or altered the thrust of each performance with deftly arresting, deceptively simple interjections. The one weakness was Yarde, who seemed in over his head.

If Hill's group sharply divided the audience, Saturday night's performers drew a rapturous response. Opening was pianist Gwilym Simcock's superb quintet with Stan Sulzmann (tenor/soprano), John Parricelli (guitar), Phil Donkin (bass) and Martin France (drums), for whom Simcock provided a harmonically rich, rhythmically flexible environment full of surprise and diversity.

Solos which became joint improvisations, free playing, tempo and metre changes managed with magisterial aplomb and some inspired rubato playing were typical of their approach. There were no weak links; Simcock showed why he is regarded as the wunderkind of the piano in Britain, Sulzmann and Parricelli are simply outstanding soloists, and France and Donkin offered a superbly pliant rhythm section.

Saxophonist Andy Sheppard's quartet, with Parricelli, Dudley Phillips (bass) and Kuljit Bramra (percussion), provided a delightful contrast.

Sheppard's spare themes were mostly modal in character, depending for their interest and appeal on their qualities of line and rhythm, as well as the individual and collective imagination the group could bring to bear on them.

And that was considerable. Whether on tenor or soprano, Sheppard is a remarkably fluent and melodic improviser, and his time, regardless of the complexities of the Indian rhythms played by the brilliant Bramra, was impeccable - and swinging.

Equally at home in this setting, Parricelli supplied both solo and textural colour to great effect and all four were adept at the kind of delightful rubato playing that is now so thoroughly a part of jazz.

Standouts for the group, which could groove with the best and got a standing ovation, were the gentle Diana in the Autumn Wind and a lively Dancing Man and Woman.

With the closing concert on Sunday came further engrossing contrast. Ronan Guilfoyle's Simulacrum is an eight-movement suite for violin, viola, cello, guitar, bass guitar and drums, played respectively by Dominique Pifarely, Tanya Kalmanovitch, Vincent Curtois, Joe O'Callaghan, Guilfoyle and Sean Carpio. It's a striking piece of writing, with skilful use of motifs, variation and reference points which sustain coherence and direction and give the soloists freedom within structure.

And what soloists. In particular, there was a compelling contrast between the almost monastic severity of Pifarely and the wit and exuberance of Courtois, both virtuosi unfazed by the challenging music and indeed thoroughly at home within it. O'Callaghan, though with less opportunity to solo, did so spectacularly well, while Carpio was magnificent.

Closing the evening, the guitarist Nguyen Le led a trio completed by Renaud Garcia Fons and drummer Patrice Heral. Their music, a mix of Vietnamese, rock and jazz influences, immediately struck an absorbing groove and maintained it to the finish. This was music of great virtuosity where technique was only a means to an end, with Fons especially memorable; whether bowing or playing pizzicato, he was pitch and articulation perfect regardless of tempo. The standing ovation, again, was well merited. Ray Comiskey

Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots Festival

"Anyone for another foot stomper?" This question was asked more than several times during the ninth Carlsberg Rhythm and Roots Festival; indeed, it became the mantra for the weekend, as most pub venues on Kilkenny's main drag (and quite a few off it) throbbed to the sound of strummed guitars, plucked banjos, scorched vocals, scraped drums, scratched surfaces and - yes, but of course - stomping feet.

The event swung into its stride on Friday with the likes of the Deadstring Brothers, Elliott Brood, and Gina Villalobos. By Saturday it was Full Country Jacket territory: the aforementioned Elliott Brood and Gina Villalobos proved worthy of their respective reputations; Elliott Brood are white-shirt/black-tie boys from Canada, and are adept at creating moods, shapes, shades and all manner of untoward but welcoming angles. They term their music "Death Country", which is, perhaps, more an awkward branding than the truth, but it nonetheless gives a flavour of the type of serious soul shaking music they play. New Orleans based band Grayson Capps provide light relief with their tight mix of Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar-swirling rock and downhome roots; it's clearly derivitive but it's also as sincere and honest as it is gritty and wholesome.

Just as sincere, but far more fragrant, is Gina Villalobos. Each year at this festival there is at least one act you know won't make a return visit because the increase in their popularity dictates that any subsequent fee will be too much for the event's relatively modest budget.

Such an act is Villalobos, whose crossover potential (like erstwhile festival acts Ryan Adams and Kathleen Edwards) is immense. Her naturally bronchial voice guides acoustic/electric Americana material to a highly satisfying conclusion; her songs of painful memories, emotional loss and a rootless lifestyle yearning for some kind of romantic structure are simply fabulous. Imagine a dirtier, grittier, rougher'n'tougher Sheryl Crow and you'll have some idea of the potential and promise involved.

If Villalobos was the heretofore unknown quantity made good, then the festival's undisputed headliner - Alejandro Escovedo - was the known quantity made even better. A major health scare (followed by a lengthy recuperation period) prevented Escovedo from appearing at this festival three years ago, but it was clear from the outset that he was eager to make up for lost time.

Joined on stage by a guitarist, a violinist and two cellists, Escovedo concentrated on playing songs from his forthcoming album, The Boxing Mirror. The influence of the record's producer - former Velvet Underground member, John Cale - was such that for most of the time the music sounded like VU raised in the barrios of Mexico rather than the bars of Manhattan. This was a very good thing, as the instrumentation veered between tempestuous and bucolic, mellow and quite unhinged.

Escovedo seemed at ease with each, his apparent willingness to go with (indeed, direct) the flow a

testament to his unswerving, uncluttered sense of originality and vision.

Indeed, Escovedo's novel approach mirrored the aesthetic of the festival, which next year celebrates its 10th anniversary. You are hereby advised to wear in your foot stompin' bootsin time for it. Tony Clayton-Lea