Meilana Gillard Quartet and Nicholas Payton Trio
(Metropole Hotel (Gillard); The Everyman (Payton). Cork Jazz Festival, 28 October, 2017. Review by Peter Jones.)
Drummer Niall Marron has been playing Cork Jazz Festival for 38 of its 40 years. In conversation, he revealed that it all started in 1978 as a result of a cancelled bridge tournament. With the Metropole Hotel booked and nothing to fill it with, marketing manager Jim Mountjoy had the bright idea of holding a weekend jazz festival. Within a few days he managed to round up Ronnie Scott, George Melly, Kenny Ball and Louis Stewart.
Decades later, the Festival has expanded to 56 venues and hundreds of gigs, jams, talks and other events over the bank holiday weekend. On Saturday night, the streets of Cork were aswarm with festival-goers, bank holiday fun-seekers and Halloween celebrants alike. Every pub and bar was jammed: the ‘fringe’ part of the festival, centred on Oliver Plunkett Street, is now vast; music blared from every doorway, and even the hotels, restaurants and cafes that weren’t hosting live music were playing recorded jazz over their speaker systems.
The Metropole was hosting up to four gigs simultaneously, from a flute/guitar duo to a big band. Somewhere in between was Meilana Gillard, an American tenorist in the vein of Dexter Gordon. She has an encyclopaedic repertoire, and shares Gordon’s fondness for slow vibrato and the mellow lower register of the instrument. The room was too small for the numbers wanting to listen – people peered in from the adjacent bar and pounced upon every vacated seat. Gillard was accompanied by Niall Marron’s Trio, which included Alexander Bryson on piano and occasional vocals, and Darren McCarthy on bass. The material was often familiar – In A Sentimental Mood, This I Dig Of You – but spiced with trickier numbers like Benny Golson’s Stablemates
The Cork Jazz Festival has a policy at its larger venues of putting on double bills of full-length shows – a lot of jazz for your money. On Saturday the Everyman played host to a mouth-watering two-fer of Nicholas Payton’s trio and the Kenny Garrett Quintet. The sound engineer seemed to have mistaken it for an Iron Maiden gig: by the time Garrett’s band hit the stage, the volume level – already too loud – had risen to ear-gougingly intolerable, driving me out of the room. But beforehand one felt privileged to witness Payton’s full-length set drawn mainly from his latest double album Afro-Caribbean Mixtape.
Blessed with genius on both trumpet and keyboards, Payton played both at once for much of the gig, often switching between his battered Fender Rhodes Suitcase and the Everyman’s grand piano. Pre-recorded spoken-word samples were used in most of the numbers, sometimes chopped-up. Jazz is a Four-Letter Word, from the new album, included a sample of Dizzy Gillespie speaking those very words. The trio was completed by Eric Wheeler on double bass and the astonishingly good Joe Dyson on drums.
The set was satisfyingly varied, and always melodic, featuring groove (the title track to Afro-Caribbean Mixtape), ballads (Relaxin’ with Nick), funk (Kimathi), even disco (Junie’s Boogie). It was also consistent in the theme of black identity, which became apparent both in the chosen samples, and in the titles of certain tunes. One of these was Othello, a reflective ballad with a few lyrics sung by Payton himself. Payton’s trumpet tone is clear and bell-like, particularly on Kimathi, with wah-wah Rhodes and a fabulous horn melody.
This festival is now so well embedded in the city’s calendar that its logo can be seen everywhere, from the poshest hotel to the grungiest bar. It was heartening to see jazz embraced so enthusiastically, and I for one will be back for more next year.