Review: Brilliant Corners Festival, Belfast

Trevor Hodgett sees the Dublin City Jazz Orchestra, Troyka, Meilana Gillard, Fred Frith, Get The Blessing and more

The third Brilliant Corners Festival (25-28 March) was opened by the 17-piece Dublin City Jazz Orchestra whose mainstream to modern playing delighted a capacity audience in the Crescent Arts Centre. On a repertoire that largely comprised material associated with the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras the musicians played with great verve and the ensemble and section work were meticulous. Much of the soloing also was outstanding from great Irish musicians like saxophonists Derek O’Connor and Ciaran Wilde and trumpeter Linley Hamilton. Highlights included a lovely, genial version of Tall Cotton, written by Sammy Nestico for Basie, a high-spirited version of Oliver Nelson’s Hoe-Down, a satisfyingly elegant interpretation of Ellington’s In A Mellotone and When Wes Was, a tribute to Montgomery of that ilk, composed by the band’s unobtrusively impressive guitarist Hugh Buckley. Bass trombonist Paul Frost added variety by transforming himself into a convincing and extroverted blues shouter on several songs, including Every Day I Have The Blues.

Attempts by critics to pithily describe the extraordinary music of Troyka are often simultaneously amusing and reeking of desperation. “Mingus meets Motorhead” was one such effort; “King Crimson for the iPod generation” was another. But one can sympathise with such struggles to label and pin down the trio for in the Black Box (26 March) their music consistently wrongfooted, consistently unsettled and consistently intrigued with its ambiguity. Ornithophobia, inspired, explained guitarist Chris Montague, by a disturbing childhood experience of encountering a decomposing seagull on a beach, was discomfiting and disorientating, evoking the horror that haunted Montague thereafter and which has left him suffering from, yes, ornithophobia, an irrational fear of birds. On another bird-themed number, Magpies, Montague, with organist/synth player Kit Downes and drummer Josh Blackmore, created a tense, ominous soundscape, based on a five-note motif which was repeated and repeated, becoming ever more insidious, ever more unsettling. The tune ended with a moment of tranquillity so strange, so unexpected and so fragile-seeming that it actually disconcerted. Troyka’s playing contained elements of free improv, jazz, hard rock and blues. But in a set of bracing, cutting edge adventuring, perhaps the most surprising moment occurred when Montague announced “a smoochy ballad for all you lovers out there”. Assuming mischief-making, one anticipated some savage shredding or such like, but, blow me, what followed was gently romantic and dreamlike and, I kid you not, the couple in front of me really did begin to smooch. Sweet, huh?

Alto, tenor and soprano saxophonist Meilana Gillard was born in England, grew up in Ohio and worked for years in New York where she recorded a much-admired album, Day One, produced by Greg Osby. Subsequently she moved from the Big Apple to Belfast - surely the first jazz musician in history to make that particular move - where she has become a key figure on the scene. She played the Crescent Arts Centre on the same night as Troyka played in the Black Box and the frustratingly short portion of her set that I was able to catch showed her to be, on original compositions such as Chrysalis, a lyrical player with a beautiful melodic sensibility and a lovely tone. That most musical of drummers, David Lyttle, accompanied with remarkable empathy while the English band members, pianist Jamil Sheriff and Laura Jurd bassist Conor Chaplin, played with notable sensitivity.

Northern Irish drummer Steve Davis is best known for his work in Bourne-Davis-Kane but appeared in the festival (Upstairs at the MAC, 27 March) with his own band, Human, which featured Alexander Hawkins (piano), Alex Bonney (trumpet) and Dylan Bates (violin). Wrong Car, for much of its length, conveyed a sense of turmoil and anger but as the tune evolved a kind of exhausted calm was suggested. The composition, Davis then explained, had been inspired by an argument with his wife! In many of Davis’s compositions a tension is established. In Frozen Goat, for example, a long frenetic section was set against a sedate piano break and elegiac trumpet. But the encore, a tune inspired by the beauty of Spain, was performed with more straightforward exuberance. Throughout, the level of communication between the musicians and the speed of their reactions were exceptional.

Playing barefoot, the better to manipulate the 16 or so pedals and other contraptions arrayed in a semi-circle around him, Fred Frith (Upstairs in the MAC, 28 March), played his guitar both flat on his lap and held conventionally. A master musician, Frith (pictured) extracted extraordinary sounds from his instrument by variously using on it a violin bow, tin boxes, a crocodile clip, chains, handfuls of rice grains, a clothes brush, a pair of paintbrushes and various other objects unidentifiable from my seat 10 rows back, treating these sounds electronically to create multi-layered music of challenging complexity. At moments the abstract soundscapes Frith produced were almost overwhelming in their intensity, at other times the sounds surprised with their beauty and delicacy. The only words spoken were “Good evening” at the start of the performance. Forty-five astonishing minutes later Frith rolled a circular tin container slowly and noisily across the stage, followed by its lid, and the gig was over.

“Most of you will experience an orgasm” promised Get The Blessing’s bassist (and occasional guitarist) Jim Barr before one of their tunes at the festival’s final gig, in the Black Box. Well, sadly, that didn’t quite happen for me (I can’t of course vouch for everyone in the audience) but the band’s performance, with its fusion of jazz, rock and electronic elements, certainly sent me and everyone else home smiling. On relatively short, concise tunes like Antilope (“the opposite of a lope,” explained Barr helpfully) the musical themes were strong, clearly stated and accessible, Barr and drummer Clive Deamer were a massively powerful rhythm section and played with great precision and the jazz soloing from trumpeter Pete Judge and saxophonist Jake McMurchie was expert.

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