Island Arts Center
Lisburn, Northern Ireland
April 26, 2013
Lisburn isn't a name that rolls off the tongue in jazz circles, or most other circles for that matter. The small Northern Irish town of 71,000 souls was granted city status in 2002, when it may have enjoyed the unique distinction of being the only city in the world without a hotel. Times change, however, and now the city has quite a nice one. Lisburn can also boast the Island Arts Centre, a truly fine promoter of local and international art in all its manifestations, and it may be the arts that finally put Lisburn on the map. What is more, Lisburn is now home to a jazz singer of real note in Dana Masters, and her performance at the Island Arts Center, heading a thoroughly impressive sextet, will long be remembered for the exceptional quality of her voice. Admittedly, Masters is originally from South Carolina, but she's made Lisburn her home.
New York saxophonist Meilana Gillard has also dropped anchor on these shores, enlivening the local jazz scene and raising the bar a notch or two. This mightn't seem that newsworthy, but it is for the small Northern Irish jazz community, which hasn't produced jazz musicians/groups in the past the way it has pop or rock bands. In fact, the influx of foreigners to Northern Ireland in the last decade is one of the greatest of the peace dividends that have come with the effective ending of the armed conflict. This greater cosmopolitanism not only signals the ongoing process of normalization/rehabilitation but enriches the fabric of society, and jazz is just one of the arenas that has benefited.
Trumpeter and acting emcee Linley Hamilton knows all this to be true: "We have a very special
sextet," he told the packed Studio Theater, "all naturalized or renationalized Northern Irish
musicians from foreign parts who we've claimed as our own. We've either got them married off or we've got them going out with someone from here and we're not going to let any of them ever leave the county with their passports." Having safely kidnapped the Americans, the set began minus Masters, with the quintet launching into pianist Scott Flannigan's "N Eleven."
With saxophonist Wayne Shorter an obvious blueprint, this post-bop workout bristled with collective energy. Impressive opening statements from trumpet, saxophone and piano, swung hard by drummer Steve Davis and bassist Carl Harvey, set out markers for the rest of the evening. Masters' arrival took the band back a couple more decades to Louis Jordan's 1944 hit "Is You Is or is You Ain't My Baby." From a gently swinging opening that featured Linley and Flannigan, Masters steered the band into bolder territory, her voice full of the gospel blues of Nina Simone. A set of jazz standards sung by a lesser vocalist might have seemed a little staid, but Masters possessed refreshingly original interpretive skills in addition to a voice to die for. A deliciously infectious drum and bass into to "My Funny Valentine" set the course for a modern take on an old chestnut, with Masters shifting effortlessly through the gears, her voice a melting pot of jazz, soul and R&B.
"Summertime" was given a similar facelift, the straight-ahead solos underpinned by Harvey's
less-is-more funk bass lines and Davis' snappy back beat. Equally comfortable on the ballads, "The Nearness of You" and "The Very Thought of You," Masters' warm tone and nuanced delivery was lent sympathetic support by the soloists, with Davis switching to brushes and mallet. Often seen in an improvised music context, notably in the Bourne/Kane/Davis trio, Davis showed that he's also a highly attuned accompanist. Even the best singers only sound as good as the musicians around them, but Masters has aligned herself with some of the most talented musicians in the UK and Ireland and sang with the relaxed confidence that comes with complete faith in her sextet.
Heavily pregnant with twins, Masters slipped off stage for a breather—or breathing exercises
—leaving the quintet to blow hard on Gillard's swinging "Identity," from her Day One (Inner Circle Music, 2008). Masters then returned to give a soulful rendition of "Georgia," her voice climbing to a storming climax. Vintage jazz standards like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia" and Shorter's wickedly catchy "Witch Hunt" rubbed shoulders with more soulful repertoire such as Charlie Chaplin's dreamy ballad, "Smile." A stirring version of singer Etta James' signature tune, "At Last," closed the set with Masters in commanding form.