Review By Ian Patterson
Jazz In The Round
Belfast, N. Ireland
March 31, 2023

Sergei Rachmaninoff surely wouldn't have minded. As Chamber Choir Ireland was tackling the Russian composer's choral masterpiece All Night Vigil in a Belfast monastery, across town in Ballyhackamore another master was holding forth. Guitarist Tommy Halferty has been honing his craft for over fifty years, and when an opportunity to see one of the greats of modern jazz guitar comes knocking, it would be foolish to ignore the call.

Like Louis Stewart, whom the Derry man studied with in the late '70s, Halferty is not as widely known as he should be. But collaborations with Benny Golson, Stephane Grappelli, George Mraz, Lee Konitz, Martial Solal and Norma Winstone, amongst others, attest to his pedigree. Often reductively referred to as the greatest jazz guitarist in Ireland, Halferty is in fact, near the top of the tree wherever you care to look for comparisons—past or present.

Bassist Cormac O'Brien and keyboardist Greg Felton—no slouches themselves—have played with Halferty in various settings over the years, but surprisingly, this concert marked the trio's debut. Over the course of two sets, the trio dusted down old standards and shone a light on compositions of more modern vintage. Felton's dancing arrangement of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and an equally lively romp through "Angel Eyes" established the trio's straight-ahead bona fides from the get-go. These meaty, ten-minute workouts were as notable for the impetus of the comping as for the flair of the solo flights.

Halferty's own "Fluide" lowered the flame seductively, the quasi-bossa nova tempo inviting beautifully measured solos from all, before collectively taking "I'll Remember April" by the scruff of the neck. Watching Halferty in full flow, exploring the dynamic range of his Gibson 355 with spidery runs of tremendous clarity and emotive heft, was an exhilarating experience.

While the format of head-solo-head was unwavering, the trio's adroit variation in tempo from one song to the next maintained the music's allure for the full two-hour duration. A racing version of Miles Davis' contrafact "Dig," based on the chords to "Sweet Georgia Brown," saw Halferty's Gypsy-jazz-style strumming underpin a Felton solo marked by an explorer's joy of discovery.

There was an unspoken subtext to this performance. If popular music of the first half of the twentieth century has provided most of the codified jazz standards, another hundred years of jazz may tell a different story. As jazz schools expand the pool of composers deemed worthy of study, and as more jazz musicians find common currency in the music of, say, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Nick Drake and Radiohead, the Real Books of the future may look quite different.

In Halferty, O'Brien and Felton's hands, heartfelt interpretations of tunes by modern trailblazers Ralph Towner, Wayne Shorter and John Abercrombie were reminders of the music's ever-broadening cannon, while also underlining the continuities at play as jazz has continued to evolve.

Abercrombie is another whom Halferty collaborated with. In recent years following Abercrombie's passing, Halferty has dedicated whole gigs to the American guitarist's music. This time, the Scott's Jazz Club audience had to settle for just two, but the second of those, the sunny "Jazz Folk" spoke volumes about Abercrombie's influence on Halferty, and the musical affinity they shared.

Carla Bley's "Lawns" provided a set highlight, drawing caressing solos from Felton—his dappled touch on electric keys evoking early Bob James—followed by Halferty and the ever-lyrical O'Brien. It was a tough act to follow, but a sprightly reading of Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" served up some arresting contrapuntal interplay.

Two highly contrasting tunes closed out the set; the outlier mystique of Ralph Towner's ambient adventure "Nightfall" cast a brooding spell, while Steve Winwood's anthem "Can't Find My Way Home" featured gently persuasive solos from all three musicians. The applause had barely died down when Halferty launched solo into a bebop burner, inviting a fast-walking bass line from O'Brien and some lively trading to end the evening, much as it had begun, on a high.

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