Martin Longley’s gig review: The Cork Jazz Festival

Martin Longley’s quaff-of-choice certainly ain’t Guinness, but he still ventured across the waves to drink in the Cork Jazz Festival…

Cork Jazz Festival 2012

Cork is Ireland’s second city, but it still doesn’t feel like too much of a metropolis. Its jazz festival has been running for 34 years, and is always scheduled to coincide with the national public holiday weekend at the end of October. There is no central location, the weekender operating all around Cork, with performances ranging in scale from big concert halls to tiny pubs. The starry bookings form a core programme, but it’s the vast free-entrance feast that resonates most profoundly amongst the local population. This is probably even more important given the current economic problems of Ireland, leaving vital funds free to spend on Guinness, Murphy’s, Beamish and Smithwick’s beer. Yes, the brews were definitely flowing around Cork’s prodigious spread of atmospheric and lively pubs and bars.

This is where the weekender’s chief weakness lies. The stellar acts were inexplicably bunched into a fairly tight evening slot, mostly beginning around 8pm. This left the potential punter with a frustrating choice over which big-name artist to catch. It was particularly difficult to jump from one gig to another, especially when some of them had a tendency to run late, or to unfold with an unpredictable running order. There were several late-night choices, but some of the earlier gigs ran much longer than expected. It was far more relaxing to ramble around the free-gig selections that were spread out all weekend, beginning around midday. Most other music festivals tend to range their high profile gigs throughout the day, allowing attendees to book a selection of tickets for separate shows.

The Friday evening opened at Cork Opera House with Taraf De Haïdouks, the famed Romanian gypsy ensemble. They are blessed with more than the usual number of accordions. Fiddles, double bass and cimbalom (hammered dulcimer), are also crucial to the sound. The venue’s stalls had seats removed, with mini-ledges dotted around for drinks and general leaning. There were some seats right at the back, and up in the circle, but the general set-up encouraged the audience to informally mill around at the front of the stage. Despite this prime circumstance, the gig didn’t really ignite in the way that might be expected from this masterful band. The connections just weren’t sparking. Nevertheless, even a standard gig by this crew possesses copious amounts of energy, virtuosity and emotional expression, not least when the vocal duties are alternated between such a communicative team of lead singers.

It took a much smaller gig to provide the evening’s consummation. The Triskel Auditorium is part of a multi-space arts venue, which also includes a café bar. This cosy joint closed each night of the festival with an 11pm set, exploring the dancier reaches of jazz. It was thrilling to discover Mixtapes From The Underground, an improvising hip hop group from Dublin. Surely this combo weren’t improvising completely from scratch (so to speak)? Their grooves sounded so well shaped that, supposedly, certain core elements were pre-existing, even if they were shuffled and combined, ditched or rearranged. There were two keyboardists, one of them doubling on trumpet. Darragh O’Kelley had supreme taste in his selection of distorto-bass sounds, often providing the hard body of each groove. Bill Blackmore married his trumpet to the synth-electronic palette, melding horn and keys. The frontline rappers Raven and MC Ophelia were more obviously free-forming, but their rhymes were so impressively tight that they also sounded pre-meditated, without being overly slick. The result was an uncompromising blend of hip hop, brutal funk and jazz licking.

Most of the freebie gigs involved lesser-known local talents, but there were also many multi-set appearances by more internationally famed outfits. Get The Blessing played on the Saturday and Sunday, firstly filling out the massive Bodega bar, and then doing the same for the more intimately bustling Crane Lane Theatre. It’s not really a theatre now, but a many-roomed pub creation. Part of each crowd visibly knew of this band’s existence, but many viewers were obviously experiencing something completely unfamiliar. Mostly, they appeared to be caught up in the spell of the English foursome’s weavingly intricate funk-jazz-rock complexity. Trumpeter Pete Judge and saxophonist Jake McMurchie specialise in closely cutting riff-figures, driven by the precision funk-punk cycles of bassist Jim Barr and drummer Clive Deamer, these last two also known for their work with fellow Bristolians Portishead. Barr’s extremely dry between-tune pronouncements provided a strong conceptual platform, jokily profound. Sadly, this was one element that sometimes didn’t survive in the rather lively audience pits at both joints.

Julian ArgüellesBack at the Triskel, there was a performance in its Christchurch space, a larger pew-stacked alternative where Michael Coady’s Synergy were playing. The Irish bassist leader was the least familiar member, surrounding himself with bigger names, not least the guesting altoman David Binney. There was also the late addition of Julian Argüelles on tenor saxophone, forming a harmonious front line. Ivo Neame was the other well-known name (pianist with Phronesis and the Cinematic Orchestra), and the line-up was completed by drummer Sean Carpio. Coady was also open to compositional contributions from the saxophonists. Mainline lyrical jazz was the major vibration, with a slight amount of hesitancy whilst negotiating material that might not have been too deeply rehearsed. Nevertheless, a sequence of sturdy solos were delivered.

The Roy Hargrove Quartet played the chief gig on Saturday night, at Cork’s ornately quaint Everyman theatre. The leader’s trumpeting was as crisply defined as ever, whether stinging brightly or burbling through his mute. Hargrove struck just the right balance between affable relaxation and smouldering tension. Saxophonist Justin Robinson was a revelation, setting a challenging and explorative tone during several striking solo assaults. He rose out of the general slinkiness, pushing the sound towards a more belligerent awakening. Passion went on a labyrinthine journey. Then, guest singer Roberta Gamabarini took a turn back to the jazz mainstream, an even more effective move following Robinson’s contrasting contribution.

One of the weekend’s most electric performances was on the freebie circuit, back at the Crane Lane Theatre. The James Taylor Quartet opened up Sunday shortly after 2pm, and swiftly established an atmosphere that was more suited to the midnight hour. Hammond organist Taylor always gives his all to a show, and he didn’t rein in for the early afternoon. There was a notably eager mood amongst the crowd, and the coiled retro funk-soul groove capitalised on this lust for dancing. After only a few numbers, there was a hardcore of movers down at the front, kiddies navigating between them, joining in with the mischief. The literal quartet core was expanded with a two-piece horn section, instantly magnifying an already heated situation. Taylor snapped from 1960s-style groove-jazz into 1970s disco stomping, then back to filmic go-go strutting, converting to soul when singer Yvonne Yanney stepped up. Taylor’s fingers (and entire locked hands) skated across the keys, creating vast ripples of Hammond bombast. The extended set ended with an audience chant that just would not cease, one of those rare moments when crowd participation takes over and becomes spontaneous crowd improvisation.

The excitement was sustainable by just crossing the small street outside. Grubby blues trucking could be heard emanating from the pub opposite. Irish singer Mary Stokes was resident at Counihans for the whole weekend, delivering multiple sets. She’s descended from the Janis Joplin school of soulful rockers, but the blues remained absolutely central for her fierce band. The harmonica player Brian Palm and the band’s lead guitarist were constantly jousting with a stream of powerfully articulate solos. Stokes imbued the songs with a gritty authenticity. A significant portion of the James Taylor audience had been lured in by the overspilling sounds, finding new energies in close proximity. This was the strength of the free part of the festival’s rolling programme.

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On the Sunday evening, The Everyman presented another double bill, opening with Chris Dave & The Drumheadz. Although technically impressive, this band exuded an almost barren aura, obsessed with technique, imprisoned by the flash and building a wall of insular self-involvement in front of the audience. Dave’s drumkit was augmented with towering spiral-cymbals, which this Texan tended to overuse when he wasn’t ramming, thundering or otherwise rattling off high speed, ultra-hardened snare-skin sounds. Likewise, guitarist Tim Stewart busily spiralled needlessly into his own innards. Kebbi Williams seemed strangely underused, downing saxophone for the flute, but often found lying dormant to the rear of the stage.

In the break between the two parts of the double bill, it was advisable to catch the climax of veteran Long Island hip hoppers De La Soul’s gig at Cork Opera House. Their set was literally reaching its apogee, with rappers Posdnuos and Dave bounding across the stage, their backing players in full flight. Then, the energy swooped even higher, as old member Maseo joined his co-founders, underlining that all’s well within their ranks, even though he’s lately been on hiatus from the band. Earlier in the evening, Maseo had been DJ-ing. Viewing from up in the circle gave a different perspective on the venue, as the whole spread of partying band and audience was laid out for our delectation.

Returning to the Everyman, the Miles Smiles All-Stars had just begun their set. The line-up was intriguing, binding together some less obvious player combinations. Despite the bandname, their orientation was more in line with the early-1970s electro-funk sound of Miles Davis, rather than their namesake 1967 album. Guitarist Larry Coryell contributed some of the most potent solos, tearing out some quite frighteningly atonal lead electric fireballs. Then, curiously, he entered a few bouts of seeming uncertainty, sitting down to play whispered rhythm, switching to acoustic, biding his time before the next scheduled eruption. His cohorts were trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Rick Margitza, organist Joey DeFrancesco, bassist Daryl Jones and drummer Omar Hakim. Coryell may have been the dominant presence, but all of his bandmates contributed frequent stand-out solos, with DeFrancesco rippling his keyboard muscles with particular relish.

The James Taylor Quartet play a mini-tour of the UK towards the end of this month…