Arthur Kell Quartet

The acclaimed jazz group wrap up the Brilliant Corners Festival on the Belfast Barge

From its inception, jazz has always seemed to have had a special affinity with water. From Dixieland bands playing rollicking rhythms to entertain gamblers on the Mississippi, to beautiful young things wildly doing the Charleston on the great Transatlantic Liners of the Jazz Age, the two have gone hand in hand.

The Belfast Barge may not compare with a New Orleans Riverboat, but the packed out crowd at this Arthur Kell Quartet gig, part of the inaugural Brilliant Corners jazz festival, can feel the room gently sway on the freezing cold Lagan, while the sound of running water provides nature’s accompaniment to the music.

It is the last night of Brilliant Corners, which was planned to coincide with the coming of spring but is instead clenched in the icy grip of an unseasonal deep freeze. Jazz fans are a hardy and intrepid bunch, however, and despite the power cuts, the 60mph winds and the horizontal blizzards, they come out in great numbers to support the gigs.

The only casualty is the Steve Davis’ Human concert at The MAC on the Friday, which was hit by a double whammy of half the band being stranded in Gatwick and the great Belfast Blackout of 2013.

The Arthur Kell Quartet, from the US, is a hardworking, touring band of talented, creative musicians and they produce a gig full of subtle interplay, cohesiveness, flowing with an abundance of ideas and effortless improvisation. They exude a New York-style cool.

Brad Shepik’s brilliant guitar solo kicks off the first set, with Arthur Kell on bass and Mark Ferber on drums joining in with intricate grooves, and Loren Stillman adding his distinctive voice to some lovely boppy alto sax.

The set is a mixture of tunes from the band’s highly acclaimed album, Jester, which was recorded live in Germany, and some new, untitled tracks, which Kell sprung on the band before their worldwide tour. One of the new songs, entitled simply ‘Number 17’, is a funky piece of free jazz featuring some soaring sax playing and symbiotic dueting between Shepik and Kell.

After a lively opening, the musicians show their softer side with a meltingly beautiful ballad, ‘Song for the Journey’, which open with some wistful Spanish style bass, followed by a delicate swish of brushes from Ferber and plaintively mellow sax from Stillmann.

The result is poetic, sublime, almost spiritual music that receives a rapt response from an appreciative audience. The next song can’t be more different – a wildly fast-paced piece of jazz rock full of great guitar riffs, furious bass soloing and Coltrane-style sax.

Kell explains that this song was written in tribute to ‘Dada’, a Good Samaritan Monk dressed in orange robes, who appeared magically at Valencia train station when the guards wouldn’t let him take his double bass on the train.

During the halfway break, a member of our party prophetically notes the lack of a drum solo, and Ferber puts the record straight thereafter, almost stealing the show with a succession of stunning solos. The first piece, another new untitled track, has a more avant-garde, experimental feel.

Next up is ‘Quarter Song’ from the Jester album, which begins with some atmospheric bass interspersed with funky, groove infused guitar riffs. Stillmann’s sax joins in – fast, furious and free – before Ferber takes over with an unusual, compelling solo that has elements of a march. The whole effect is incredibly cool and full of surprises.

The second half includes another wonderfully rich, multi-layered ballad followed by ‘Papa Abba’, a song that Kell wrote in tribute to a friend from the African state of Niger, which, he says, he used to visit regularly before the US opened a drone base outside the capital of Niamey in the middle of the Sahara.

The final song of the night, a short piece entitled ‘Speculate’ has a Spanish mood, full of great rock riffs and crashing waves of sound from the cymbals, ending with a dead calm, rather like the aftermath of a storm at sea. It seems an appropriate way to end as the Belfast Barge empties her super-charged cargo for the night.