Wednesday, 7 May 2014

MUSIC REVIEW: City Of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival 2014

A Not-So-Dirty Harry makes our day and a crooner of corny ballads re-invents himself at the Derry-Londonderry musical showpiece

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Sort of. As one temporary tent was taken down in Derry-Londonderry’s Ebrington Barracks not so long ago, another smaller but arguably no less atmospheric tent of wood and canvas was on its way to the Guildhall Square. The world-famous "Spiegeltent", erected in the square for April's Pan Celtic Festival, has won admirers worldwide with its wide open "hall of mirrors" aesthetic and unique live musical experiences. Retaining its use for the city's annual jazz extravaganza was surely a given; and it is this venue which will host the two most high profile jazz musicians of another memorable weekend.

First on the "big names bill" is Kyle "son of Clint" Eastwood, who takes to the stage on Saturday evening. His musical talent leads compere Mark Patterson to intone that we'll "never watch the Dirty Harry movies the same way!" But first, we get to enjoy the winners of the recent Music City Talent contest: teen rockers The Kashmir Krows.

Lead guitarist Joseph Leighton, bassist Jonathan Black and guitarist Frank Duffy aren’t strictly jazz, either in hairstyle or music, but they are ideal for warming the cockles. On their menu is a steady, grungy jungle beat with shades of Black Grape, Guns 'N' Roses and Jamiroquai which often crackles with an early 1970s rhythm. It’s a truly appetizing smorgasbord which garners much applause in the Tardis-esque structure, especially when they sign off with a dash of Jimi Hendrix. With a little luck, these guys could go a long way.

Kyle Eastwood himself is a dominant presence. Like his father dearest, he lives and breathes his work, grimacing as his fingers visibly battle with guitar and cello strings. But this struggle only mirrors his concentration level, the standards he sets for himself and the quality of his music.

He hits a very high watermark early on with "Marrakesh". Aided by Andrew McCormack's tinkling keys, Graeme Blevins' saxophone, Chris Draper's drums and Quentin Collins' brass work, Eastwood creates an initially confusing but on the whole cinematic effect, the thunderous beats arguably reflecting the strife and culture of Africa itself. These beats then dissolve into a hypnotic rhythm with irresistible riffs from Blevins and Collins taking centre stage. The audience is entranced, and so, for a brief moment, is Eastwood.

Any jitters the star performer may have experienced to begin with are extinguished completely by the multi-layered "Big Noise", a typically loud, epic and kinetic instrumental concoction. Its slightly cluttered but thumping and euphonic groove is stylishly matched by the more polished but no less forceful "A Night In Senegal". Sandwiched in between comes the gratifyingly mild Herbie Hancock piece, "Dolphin Dance", in which McCormack's piano playing is at its very best.

The throbbing bass and escalating tempo of Horace Silver's "Blowing The Blues Away" leads into a classy finish and deserved encore for the remarkably expressive Eastwood. It has been a show where the performers and audience have felt wholly at one with the music;  this Not-So-Dirty Harry and his ensemble have literally gone ahead and made our day.

"The flowing locks have gone, but the music remains, and the swoon-o-meter's pretty high". As Mark Patterson speaks those words, it is expected that early 1990s icon Curtis Stigers will set numerous pulses racing on the Sunday. No longer defined by the crass, simplistic, dated but undeniably catchy balladry that initially made him famous - is there anyone who doesn't have "I Wonder Why" and "You're All That Matters To Me" burned into their memories? - he aims to establish himself as a confident, swinging lothario, complete with sometimes funny and sometimes not entirely appropriate references to love, sex, relationships and all that.

Backed by a very talented band, Stigers breezes by on a calm combination of his reputation, personality and undeniably impressive re-invention of himself as a "jazz man". He merges herky, jerky and oddly robotic swing movements with human beatboxing and funky calypsos, in an always interesting performance that justifies at least a portion of the acclaim that's gone his way throughout the past decade. The Guinness-drinking and Terry Wogan-impersonating interludes, to name but a couple, aren't fully convincing, but they don't need to be; Stigers has the requisite charisma to paper over the cracks. The audience's favourite songs are performed, and not quite as we know them. And love songs like Steve Earle's "Valentine's Day", "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "The Way You Look Tonight" are delivered with soulful melancholy. That he succeeds to this extent in a field you wouldn't have thought was his cup of tea is commendable.

And yet, is that enough? When you compare Stigers with the best this festival has had to offer in recent times, particularly the magnificent Pink Martini, he falls more than a little short. If this set is diverting and entertaining, it is rarely absorbing - it is not the sort of set that makes one want to rush out and buy the record afterwards. Polished though the music is, it is more admirable than likable. Perhaps it is his general approach; whereas Kyle Eastwood carefully caresses his guitars and cello, treating each string and note like it genuinely is all that matters to him, Stigers goes laid back and the end result teeters a very fine line between slick and irritatingly nonchalant. In my eyes, Stigers is less than the sum of his parts because he allows the personality to take over the artistry; a mistake that The Kashmir Krows, Kyle Eastwood and especially Neil Cowley do not make.

For this is one of those rare evenings where the support act outdoes the star. The rapport that City Of Culture 2013 Musician-In-Residence Neil Cowley and his Mission Impossible troupe strike up with the Derry-Londonderry crowd is far more homely. The boisterous, booming voice and powerful presence of singer Bernadette Powell is the pivot around which a short, simplistic but riotously rhythmic showcase emerges.  It's a cheerful reminder of the endlessly enduring Motown effect; the sort that just makes you want to get up and dance, as Martha Reeves might put it. When they sign off, the Spielgeltent genuinely feels like the "Land Of A Thousand Dances": and with that, Mission Impossible have captured a spirit worthy of any jazz and big band festival.