In life, there are no overdubs or retakes. So what could be closer to lived experience than improvised music? The May installment of IMC’s Signal Series gives two very different answers to that question.
IMC’s been championing Irish jazz for over 20 years, and the Signal Series is a good way to appreciate just how varied the scene here is. In gigs in the Wild Duck on the last tuesday of every month, it’s showcasing everything from the folk jazz of Sue Rynhart to the more propulsive instrumentals of ReDiviDeR. Like previous instalments, May’s is a double header, this time featuring singer Cormac Kenevey and trombonist Paul Dunlea.
Kenevey released his third album after a long hiatus in 2015, and tonight’s set is mainly drawn from it. If that hiatus hints at the grown-up demands of life intruding on a career in music, something of it is also evident in Kenevey’s effortless but slightly worldweary crooning. His cool, unshowy arrangements serve perfectly to draw out the enervated melancholy of songs like Charlie Wood’s What You Will or John Williams’s The Long Goodbye: this is music that’s all regrets, and it sends a chill down the spine.
However, his versions of less substantial tunes like James Taylor’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight are not quite so successful. Taylor’s words are superficial to the point of meaninglessness, and when sung with Kenevey’s affectless precision, they seem to float away without a trace.
There are precedents for this in jazz: Chet Baker’s entire career was spent singing callow songs. But the pathos of Baker’s music comes from the contrast between the sweetness of those tunes and the chaos and desolation of his life. Though rock is strangely deaf to disparities of song and singer – Mick Jagger was born in Kent, not in a crossfire hurricane – context really matters in jazz.
Kenevey is on much more solid ground with Big Day, where he sets his own lyrics to a tune by Brad Mehldau. Here, the subject matter – Keveney speaking to his son – is authentic, the music heartfelt, and again there’s that hint of time passing, of a regret that only music can express or assuage.
Paul Dunlea’s quintet begins just as gently as Kenevey but quickly turns up the energy. Part of the fascination of improvised music is seeing how players react to each other, and Dunlea and sax player Ben Castle are superb sparring partners. Playing mainly Dunlea originals, they harmonize on the heads before splitting off into very different solos, with Castle’s sheets of sound seeming to spur Dunlea to new heights of virtuosity. His bluesy, melodic playing in the set’s early tunes becomes far more feverish in later ones, and the music has an urgency that was occasionally lacking on his laidback debut album, ‘Bi-polAr’.
On drums, the the omnipresent Matthew Jacobson shows once again how versatile he is. Playing with Anne Mieke, he’s understated and minimalistic; with his own ReDiviDeR project, he’s a rhythm machine; tonight he strikes a fine balance between the two styles, seeming never to play the same beat twice.
And that – the appreciation that no two moments are ever really alike – is what life and jazz is all about.