Brilliant Corners Pushes Boundaries

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With the wind whipping up along the river Lagan, Thelonious Monk would have worn a long coat and hat to wrap up had he played Brilliant Corners, the new Belfast, Northern Ireland, festival on March 21–23 honoring the great composer and pianist’s classic album. Festival Director Brian Carson presented the event in three venues: the Belfast barge, an old converted cargo boat moored on Lanyon quay, the newly opened Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in the Cathedral Quarter and the nearby Black Box on Hill Street, all of which are blessed with excellent sightlines.

The Confiance, the barge’s real name, couldn’t have been a more fitting site for this adventurous program. The fest served as a stage for fresh talent such as post-rock duo The Continuous Battle Of Order, who performed on opening night. Over on the barge near Belfast’s landmark Waterfront Hall, saxophonist Meilana Gillard’s Fine Print outfit also made a confident start. Gillard, who now resides in Northern Ireland, was joined by bassist and film composer Marcos Varela, who appears on Gillard’s Greg Osby-produced quintet album Day One (Innercircle Music). Sounding like Christian McBride at times, Varela pushed the band hard and tastefully as Gillard’s tenor saxophone probed and darted with a salty edge, especially in her cultured reading of Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By.” Irish drummer David Lyttle, best known for his work with altoist Soweto Kinch, rounded out the trio on “Rear View” the big highlight of the first set.

A short distance away at the MAC, saxophonist Mark Lockheart’s Ellington In Anticipation band was already burning. A superb septet, which features Lockheart’s fellow Polar Bear band mates, drummer Seb Rochford and bassist Tom Herbert, the band reinterpreted Juan Tizol’s classic tune “My Caravan” with very advanced harmony and an open feel. A talking point of the first set was how pianist Liam Noble, plucking the strings inside the piano, achieved a melodic and percussive effect syncopating pungently with Margrit Hasler’s violin lines. Rochford’s choppy beat was carefully measured throughout, and Herbert took it deeper time and time again with immaculate poise and timing. Lockheart blew wildly on “Jungle Lady” in a reedist lineup that drew out the best from altoists Finn Peters and Golden Age of Steam’s James Allsopp.

Free improvisation at the Black Box venue rounded out the opening evening. Decoy, the organ trio of Alexander Hawkins, best known for his work with Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke, reunited with Mulatu bandmate bassist John Edwards, and completing the trio here with drummer Steve Noble for Hawkins’ first Northern Ireland appearance. Hawkins told Downbeat later that the organ had given him some problems during set-up in the afternoon, but that didn’t seem to hamper the Oxford- based musician much. With a taste for Sun Ra, the nihilism of Edwards’ nourishing fast anti-beat sustaining kinetically charged chords, and Noble’s ping-ponging rhythms all contributed to an aggressively satisfying attack. Hawkins more or less kissed the keys of the organ at the end, the instrument having responded at last. Monk would surely have warmed to Hawkins’ attitude.

Stephen Graham

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