Live Reviews: Cork Jazz Festival

Various venues, Cork / 26-29 October 2007

The Cork Jazz Festival, held as usual over the October bank holiday weekend, celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, giving jazz fans and more casual attendees its customary selection of challenging new music, mainstream jazz, and other acts chosen for broader commercial appeal.

The success of the festival cannot be denied; while providing a €30 million boost to the local economy, it brings hundreds of international musicians to the four-day event, including many of the world’s most innovative jazz composers and performers. Nevertheless, several festival programming decisions this year begged fundamental questions about the role of sponsorship, the commitment to local talent, and the delicate balance between art and commerce.

But first to the music.

The headline venue this year was the Everyman Theatre, which featured five double bills between Friday and Sunday nights. As might be expected from such a dense programme, the result was mixed. However, the less successful shows were not, as some festival critics pre-judged, American grandees such as Phil Woods and Mose Allison, both of whom delivered sets that, though hardly ground-breaking, showed that neither advancing age (80 in the case of Allison) nor illness (Woods suffers from emphysema) necessarily diminishes jazz feeling or, more importantly, the ability to execute.

No, it was a couple of young Turks who failed to live up to expectation. The bassist Avishai Cohen brought admirable energy to his set, and his trio hit some crowd-pleasing moments, but the playing often felt superficial and rhythmically one-dimensional. Another technically gifted bass player, Geoff Gascoyne, succumbed to over-ambition, adding to his jazz quintet a string quartet and two vocalists, Trudy Kerr and Jamie Cullum. Their bland version of Charlie Parker’s ‘Scrapple from the Apple’, neither bebop nor contemporary, summed up the stylistic confusion.
The bands that did succeed were either solid proponents of the mainstream, such as the fiery Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias – backed by two of the best in the business, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Adam Nussbaum – or those artists with the willingness and ability to cross boundaries and challenge conventions.

Most impressive was the star pairing of Gary Burton, an accomplished jazz educator as well as a fine vibraphonist, and French accordionist Richard Galliano. Something of a tribute to the tango genius Astor Piazzolla, their set featured no less than five Piazzolla compositions, including the sublime ‘Milonga Is Coming’, a melancholy ballad that showed how fruitfully jazz can be enriched by other traditions. Though both are virtuosi, Burton and Galliano resisted the temptation to show off their chops, allowing themselves to be seduced by the complex rhythms and dynamics of the tango form. World music at its best.

Miroslav Vitous is a jazz veteran with experience in the tradition (he has played with Miles Davis and Chick Corea) who has also mined his Slavic roots for fresh melodic and harmonic approaches. His quartet, which featured the fine Italian trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti, presented a haunting sequence of compositions, cinematic in their atmospherics, in which Vitous’ bass featured as a lead instrument in a series of conversions with his quartet colleagues as well as taped symphonic sounds.

Preceding Vitous on Saturday afternoon was the American clarinet and saxophone master Don Byron, over recent years a unique voice in an astounding range of musical contexts. Byron thrives on the exploration of widely different traditions while continually searching for what he calls ‘a sound above genre.’ His trio’s tribute to Lester Young, Miles Davis and John Coltrane was elegant and inquisitive.

In other headline events, the Esbjorn Svensson Trio delivered their usual rich blend of funky grooves and satisfying solos, while the all-star American band The Leaders, featuring Chico Freeman and Bobby Watson, was, as these ensembles tend to be, less than the sum of its parts. But taken together, the international acts gave Everyman audiences plenty of memorable performances.

So, with such great music in the air, where was the controversy? For the first time in over 15 years, the Triskel Arts Centre was not a festival venue. Under the recent stewardship of artistic director Tony Sheehan, the Triskel has solidified its reputation as one of the most progressive arts centres in the country, yet the programme it submitted was rejected by the festival as too expensive. When the Triskel questioned the alternate programme then offered by the festival, the venue was axed. Festival organisers claimed that without Arts Council funding, it could not continue to support Triskel’s uncompromising programming.

Whatever about the money or politics (and clearly the right people need to engage in a discussion of these issues), loss of the Triskel had a big impact on the festival, not only because it has, over the years, offered programmes that complement and enrich those at the Everyman and Opera House, but also because its absence deprived local musicians of their traditionally most supportive location.

There were some excellent Irish musicians at the festival, but apart from Justin Carroll’s trios, which ably supported alto saxophonists Greg Abate and Jesse Davis at successive late-night shows at the Half Moon Theatre, all the Irish performers were at the Metropole Festival Club. The Metropole’s seven stages do not, let’s say, encourage careful listening, and the contributions of local artists such as Hugh Buckley (playing music from his new CD), Fuzzy Logic, Jim Doherty and Louis Stewart, did not always have the serious attention they deserved.

There is certainly a role for the Metropole in the festival, but it needs the balance of a location like the Triskel, if only to give serious musicians, Irish and international, an alternative quality venue. The festival is too valuable a resource to suffer from such disagreements, so let’s hope for the sake of the music that this issue gets solved within the coming year.

Published on 1 January 2008

Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.

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