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Review: Brian Irvine Ensemble – Brilliant Corners 2019

Another year of Belfast’s only jazz festival, Brilliant Corners, is in full swing. This, the second week, kicks off with the triumphant return of the Brian Irvine Ensemble that ended their 6-year hiatus with a performance at last year’s festivalHailing from Belfast, Irvine’s gift has given him wings to fly far from our humble city, leading him to cultivate an already incredibly storied career. He’s collaborated with artists of every discipline you can imagine, be it film, sculpture or notably working with the late great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. 

On this project, Irvine has assembled a dozen risk-taking virtuosos from across Europe for what’s been described as “a traveling explosion” of music. With his unconventional (to say the least) conducting style, the man leads the band on rambling flights of fancy that seem to fountain from the very depths of the eccentric man’s psyche. Welding together contemporary classical with everything from “cartoon, punk, jazz, thrash and trash,” the collective promises a 100% unique auditory experience every single time. 

“Tonight’s concert will follow themes of how things are connected, and love, and all that stuff,” Brian utters into the mic, eyes gleaming mischievously as the mini orchestra mount the Black Box’s suddenly dwarfed stage. “You might not be able to tell that from the music.” This comment perfectly sets the tone for the performance, which would to confuse, amuse, thrill, chill, and even inspire more than one audience member to walk out long before the end of the set. I guess that’s par for the course when you’re a band known for pushing the boundaries of aural correctness and musical sanity. 

 

The band is mere notes into “Strange Beauty 1 (Life is Beautiful if You Leave It Alone)”and Irvine is on the prowl. He strolls on the floor in front of the stage, one side to another, seeming to follow his own conducting hand, somehow imbued with its own sentience. His digits swerve in waves like a spawning salmon, no wait perhaps it’s the flapping of a bird, or maybe a buzzing bee hovering around its hive. It is with this fascinating display of shadow puppetry that the man coaxes innumerable tones out of the brass, strings, and percussion sections. A funky bass line underscores a calamitous chugging refrain, equal parts jarring and inviting. 

Without warning, the strident paces slow, providing the effect of one going home after the hustle and bustle of the city. As everything winds down, the song melts into a soundscape of odd little animal effect created by the mouths of the many on stage. As if moderating a parliament of frogs, Brian takes to isolating individual players’ unique calls, pulling great giggles from the packed house. Irvine undoubtedly expects his audience to be just involved as his band, so wastes no time in drawing out participatory noises from the crowd as well, pushing the fun just to the limit, and then back into another zany tune without missing a beat.

As the set carries on Irvine seems to be out to prove that one can use music to interpret almost anything, from gestures to visuals, and he keeps the audience involved throughout to prove just that. I begin to forget that I’m at a concert as opposed to a mad science experiment as Brian pulls someone up front the front row. As the guy mimes jumping rope and running on the spot, the band improvised appropriate accompanying music, as if stuck in a cartoon. Irvine extracts a large sketch pad and draws cryptically, finally revealing arbitrary symbols which the band must then interpret mid-song. He hands the pad to the front row to do the same. At the height of his relinquishing control, Irvine assigns each section on stage an individual member of the audience and lets the baffled concert-goers conduct the proceedings. It doesn’t really get more experimental than that!

Even when Mr. Irvine is in control, the music is as capricious as an Irish wind storm. Brian toys with the listeners. As his composition reaches terrifyingly rising volumes in a heavy metal posture and the bass clarinet is wailing with reckless abandon…suddenly the music transitions into a saccharin sweet oldies interlude. Before you can even pause to wonder what just happened, the tune morphs back into the earlier chaotic melody. Brian take this opportunity to burst into a traumatic monologue about how his brother locked him in a room for four days with nothing but a George Clinton record. The band then, as if possessing a direct link to the man’s life force, reconfigure into a schmoozy jazz pit on the floor. 

This musical whiplash occurs again and again, to the delight of most but the dismay of some. It’s like a commentary on channel flipping culture and the distractibility of the human mind. The music is extremely challenging and moreover demanding—clearly not for the faint of heart. Mysterious piano keying lilts over erratic tapping on surfaces, discordant and unnerving, yet softly poetic. What is this trick of maintaining an otherwise unrelated drum beat and marrying it impeccably with instrumentalists off on another tangent? It’s nothing short of a miracle that it works at all.

As a fun little number entitled “Friday Night Superman” is in full stride Brian almost seems to be grooving to a beat that’s only in his head. Strains of Leonard Bernstein can be detected over Zappa-esque mutations. The instrumentalists begin to noodle haphazardly, creating tension that can only mean one thing: a bizarro twist or turn in just around the bend. What’s it going to be? Sure enough, the guitarist starts belting out on a honkytonk standard by Ed Bruce. Makes perfect sense, right? This then drowns in a flurry of horns and then everyone starts chanting a gentle hymnal tone. It is these odd moments of beauty amid madness that seem to sum up Irvine’s thesis on life.

Shock value and improvising aside, the bands is absolutely shining with artistic merit. On a couple slower numbers, the sweet bowing of the cello matched with a temperate flute and atmospheric percussion amounts to lovely enchanting pieces that could comprise a brilliant film score. A brassy salsa-inspired number dedicated to his brother wows, large-than-life, as trumpet and trombone stir the still air. 

Irvine knows exactly what he’s doing. He, and his fellows, could reach any lofty height in music that they please. Instead, he chooses to laugh in the face of stuffy classical conventions with stunts like having his band drag out the awkward act of turning the page on their sheet music, the sound of flitting paper harnessing a melody unto itself. Later he instructs the band to audibly wail and sob during an overly affecting violin tune. And as the night draws to a close, the band members softly start to yawn aloud.

A study in hyperbole and lunacy, Brian Irvine directed his ensemble to something really magical and unusual over the course of the evening. For those who really got on board, the night was a one-of-a-kind experience and a rare exposure to something truly on the cutting edge. Left in the hands of this eccentric genius, the audience were ensnared into whistling along to the man’s twirling fingers, made to simulate a thunderstorm (just like in Scouts!), and ended up hugging everyone in their general vicinity. Hey, he meant it when he said the night was all about love and connection, and he delivered on that promise!