The closest festival of jazz in the South East of Ireland is not Cork but, in fact, 45 miles to the east, at the small but inestimably hospitable port of Fishguard, which annually hosts Abjerjazz, now entering its second decade.
Courtesy of Stena Line at Rosslare, you can be in Fishguard within three and a half hours, time enough to catch the first of many gigs which kick off at lunch, and zigzag through the afternoon and night in various venues.
The Wexford party (myself, Senan O’Reilly and Jackie Hayden) were there for two and a half days of the five day programme, which comprised almost 60 gigs in a scattering of venues, some of whose names – The Ship, Yacht Club, Skirmisher, Railwayman’s Club, Hope & Anchor – reference the village’s relationship with the sea.
Lower Fishguard, as beautiful an inlet as you will find anywhere along this sumptuous coastline, was the location for the first film adaptation of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, whose house and writing shed is under an hour away by car, and which starred the most famous trinity of actors in the world at the time: Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
As Fishguard hugs the west coast of Britain, it has to be the most isolated festival of its kind, and yet some of the most revered jazz acts will travel several times the distance of Wexford to Fishguard to play at Aberjazz.
So, it is not unusual to see bands, which may have been on the road for seven hours, scrambling their instruments and amplifiers moments before they are due on stage.
However, the atmosphere at an average Aberjazz concert is distinctly relaxed, an ambience encouraged by the hard working and very visible committee. Our first evening concert, by the excellent Emily Saunders ESB, featuring Courtney Pine session trumpeter Byron Wallen, in Theatr Gwaun, was delayed by 45 minutes, but the audience was unfazed.
You have to pinch yourself that artists of the calibre of Emily Saunders and Wallen are giving it their all just feet away in a quaint venue, which also doubles as a busy cinema, and it was in Theatr Gwaun that we also saw the rather serious and experimental jazz band, Polar Bear, led by Seb Rochford. Because their songs are lengthy, Polar Bear perform only about four or five, but they are magnetically cryptic, with two excellent sax players, Pete Wareham (baritone) and Mark Lockheart (tenor).
An average day at Aberjazz is bookended by a workshop at 11 a.m. and a gig at 9.30 p.m., or later, with the music still ringing in your ears just short of midnight. The prices for the more mainstream jazz bands are very reasonable (£15 for Polar Bear, £8 for the Nicola Farnon Trio) but the majority of gigs are bucketed, which means a voluntary donation, though the soliciting is never in your face. It is not the Aberjazz way.
Aberjazz is also a light blues festival: the majority of the blues gigs are scheduled for the capacious hall in Ffwrn, which has a communal feel to it, and the jazz, which has an eclectic appeal, is largely confined to Theatr Gwaun and Pepper’s, one of the best restuarants-cum jazz venues anywhere in the western world: with a five day turnaround, it hosted the Huw Warren Trio, Pete Oxley and Nicolas Meier, the Coltrane Dedication Quintet, the Dave Jones Quartet etc.
Wexford’s Kevin Lawlor was the only musician, a testament to his versatility and pedigree, to guest with three different acts in a 24 hour period: Seven Steps – a Miles Davis Tribute, the Dave Jones Quartet and the irrepressible Rusty McCarthy. Besides the music, Lawlor is drawn to technically adept musicians, and his gigs at Aberjazz were with front men with whom he has guested in Wexford: Tomos Williams, Dave Jones and Rusty McCarthy. Jazz followers will remember Williams and Jones’ many fine sets at Wexford Arts Centre.
Highlights, of which there were many, included Oxley and Meir duetting with two acoustic 12 string guitars (Meir’s was fretless), glissandi flying left, right and centre; double bassist and vocalist Nicola Farnon plucking her way through songs from American musicals with verve and elan; spine tingling horn playing from Byron Wallen and then, echoing the intensity of Coltrane and Saunders, Polar Bear’s sax duo Wareham and Lockhart, and finally, in the soft August sun pouring through Peppers, four musicians on top of their game – Kevin Lawlor, Tomas Williams, Dave Jones and Aidan Thorne – revisiting early Miles Davis. Critic Jessica Duchen, who wrote that ‘the music world’s most creative thinking often occurs in unlikely spots far from the madding crowd,’ would approve of Aberjazz.