Tuesday, 22 May 2012

FESTIVAL REVIEW: City Of Derry Jazz And Big Band Festival 2012

Si's Sights And Sounds looks back on the Maiden City's annual jazz extravaganza...

I’ve always seen the City Of Derry Jazz Festival as a great way of making “the capital of the North West” stand out on the musical map. And from the opening of The Jive Aces’ set, when sax man John Fordham’s solo dissolves into a delicious take on “In The Mood”, absolutely everyone, tourists and citizens alike, is entranced. You don’t need to be a local to enjoy the undoubted talents of the Men In Yellow.

The Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalists quite literally bring us sunshine (there’s even an Eric Morecambe dance on stage!) before taking the audience on a trip through the ages of musical cinema. If it’s not “Too Darn Hot” one moment, they’re telling us “You’re The One That I Want” before delivering an interactive rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You”, complete with monkey noises. With “The Bare Necessities” to follow, it’s like classic Disney on stage. Add the stage presence and glamour of the lovely Miss Rebecca Grant, and you get a performance full of fun, something that’s terrific in its charming simplicity.

The Red Stripe Band’s slower, smoother, more easy-going groove, while appealing in its own right, initially feels like a step down. It’s all change in the second half of their set, though, as the band incorporate elements of Benny Hill, Henry Mancini, Johnny Cash, “Route 66” and even the BBC’s famous cricket theme to discover a winning joie de vivre. Throw in their unforgettable in-the-crowd rendition of “Tequila”, and you’re glad you stayed to watch them. If a sing along at the end doesn't quite work, it's a minor chink in the armour.

Now, imagine the Londonderry Musical Society’s “Showstoppers” concerts in a more intimate venue. Next, reduce the sixty strong choir to a couple of soloists, one male, one female. Then throw in some unique instruments and specialist musicians, and you’ve got the Brass Impact Big Band virtually down to a tee; a good old fashioned tribute to all kinds of music for all ages. It’s like a tour through a library of ten decades of music, ranging from Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra to Van Morrison to Michael Buble; and both soloists shine, with Iain Ewing’s deceptively nonchalant, effortlessly smooth vocals a perfect counterpart to the boisterous and impressive delivery of Pat Keating.

If some songs suit the band far more than others, the standouts in this set – “Mack The Knife”, “Green Onions”, “Rocky Robin” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” will not be easily forgotten. As Ella Fitzgerald sang, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it – and the good nature, humour and kinetics of this performance carry it through to a deserved standing ovation at the end of it all.

Just as I am ready to call it a day on the Friday, I hear an excitable commotion coming from the Millennium Forum. It’s the recently formed eight-piece band The Euphonics. Their range and youth make them an easy draw for the Forum’s Piazza, which is packed with dancers young and old. Lead singer Michelle McCarron catches the eye; for someone so small, she is remarkably energetic. Neil Hannon once said, “Don’t blame the young”, and if they keep performing with as much spark as this, then why should we?

Derry jazz legend Gay McIntyre, along with Linley Hamilton, provides a gentle alternative on Saturday afternoon. It’s a privilege to hear McIntyre’s remarkable range on the sax and clarinet in tandem with with Hamilton’s innovative trumpet-playing. Their chilled out music is a real treat for the weary, but happy, bodies and souls in the Playhouse Theatre.

To wind off their Saturday evening, punters have a choice of the old school swing of The Jazz Lads in the Monico Bar, or the more modern ensemble funk of Portobello. Both bands play to a crowded house, but don't dream it's over... the best is yet to come.

Sunday afternoon. And, after recovering from the blues and soul of The Haciendas the night before, which keeps everyone going way beyond the midnight hour, it’s time to return to the Playhouse. Waiting for us are the “jazz hands” of the Paul McIntyre Quartet and their special guest, saxophonist Jean Toussaint. It’s a set which makes you think of the Jazz Festival as a whole, and even larger festivals like the Edinburgh Fringe; not only do people from all over the world come to see it, but there’s a surprise waiting for you no matter where you look.

Like Gay McIntyre before him, Paul McIntyre gives you ideal “matinee music”, a mellow set that suits weekend afternoons perfectly. But we get an added element of nostalgia here, coupled with a more rhythmic conviction that leaves most of the audience wanting to dance. The sight of a young woman, three rows from the front, effortlessly nodding her head during the final number says everything about the power of the music on the stage.

By the time we descend on Mason's on Monday night, for the Thumpin' Jellyfish, they assume that we  "might be as hungover" as them - and given what we’ve experienced this weekend, we’re all inclined to agree. Still, their mix of country rhythm and mod rock keeps a significantly smaller, but seemingly no less energetic Mason's crowd buzzing into the early hours of the morning.

It is left for me to reflect on what I think the highlight of this year's festival has been. And the answer to that is...

To be continued...

(Video courtesy of Caroline Gilliland.)