550 applicants is distilled down into 12 acts performing at 12 Points – the acclaimed jazz festival which highlights new wave and experimental European jazz sounds of now. Its artistic director Kenneth Killeen lends us its groove.
“For Irish audiences, the cliches that spring to mind when people mention jazz is something rooted in a different time. It’s more dynamic and exciting than that. I think most people would be surprised.” So says Kenneth Killeen, artistic director of the Improvised Music Company (IMC), ahead of their tentpole 12 Points Festival which returns to the city next month.
Drawing on the American heritage of what is classically understood as jazz, but also on the traditional music of their own countries as their source material, the young innovators at the heart of this nomadic festival uniquely create a new and surprising sound.
Having hosted 12 Points in Aarhus, Denmark, and San Sebastian, Spain, they’re returning back to its roots for their twelfth anniversary, bringing twelve emerging European acts from twelve different countries in tow.
Ensconced in their Dame Street office, Killeen believes that “there’s a new identity constantly morphing or reshaping itself in Europe which is distinct from what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic and while both are equally valid and important, going forward, I think you’ll start to see more of a distinct European jazz language. That’s the direction it’s going in.”
Part of that evolving language, Killeen says, is the definition of jazz itself. The guiding ethos of the 12 Points festival is to push the boundaries of the genre and celebrate up and coming musical innovators. One of this year’s acts, for example, features Swiss harpist Julie Campiche and her band’s ‘electro-acoustic’ sound. It’s a great example of the festival’s rejection of more traditional notions of what limits and defines jazz. The music that the 12 Points artists are creating “is based on the jazz sensibility or based in an improvisational context or based in all these things. But their output is influenced by their peers — it’s more porous now.”
Killeen chafes at the potentially-limiting quality of labelling music as one thing or another. “The great thing about jazz music is that the artists are not afraid to experiment with genre. The artists, the great creators, they don’t think in terms of genre stereotypes — they think in terms of what they want to create and it’s up to the people who write about it or promote it to put labels on it.
Ireland, he says, has an evolving relationship with music and musicians that goes back centuries. “When it comes to traditional music I think that it’s a huge export for the country and we’re well known for that, so you can argue that it’s an easier sell because there’s a long association there.”
Jazz, as opposed to trad, is not such an easy sell. The domestic jazz scene is fraught with difficulties. “To be honest with you, infrastructure for jazz and creative music is dire right now in our capital city. J.J. Smith’s was the unofficial home for the music for over thirty years and a regular space for musicians to perform and hone their craft. Without that, we’re missing a vital part that sustains a scene.”
Killeen is full of praise for Irish artists, but, he says, they’re at a disadvantage compared to their continental peers. “If you go to a lot of cities in Europe, you will find at least one jazz club which everybody can point to as where the music is happening, five, six nights a week. Dublin really really needs a dedicated space for this music. A space that is new for audiences, one that isn’t encumbered by time or tradition or association with being another type of venue. Lack of infrastructure is retarding the development of music, simple as that.”
In the absence of infrastructure and the collaborative community atmosphere fostered there, IMC sees 12 Points and other festivals as having a part to play in nurturing local talents by offering the context of other people’s work. “It’s really instructive for Irish creators to hear twelve different bands from twelve different countries over four nights because they can then take all of that information on board and it kind of validates their work as an artist, seeing the resonances and similarities to what they’ve been thinking about,” he says. “It puts the work that Irish musicians are doing in context.”
Creating context and community for musicians is a large part of what 12 Points seeks to do, and that’s why it follows such a different model, that of the ‘mezzanine festival’ — a step between the local gigs and the international touring megastars. “In the absence of physical infrastructure, you need to create tangible steps for an artist’s career — 12 points is a European facing one, and it’s about exporting talent.”
The ‘export of talent’ sounds like it takes the creativity out of the equation, bringing things back to a matter of economics, but Killeen doesn’t shy away from vigorously rejecting the ‘starving artist’ model. “Musicians need work. Constant work, and to be paid a wage that accurately reflects what they’re doing and we simply do not have that economy to sustain artists here in Ireland, that’s the crux of the problem.”
12 Points, he says, works to not only sustain artists but also the music scene they’re creating. “We intentionally pick 12 very diverse bands, and we want that diversity to come through so it’s exciting for the audience.” The selection process is extensive, drawing on the connections that they’ve built over time. 12 Points is part of the Europe Jazz Network, an association of 135 organisations across 35 countries. “It helps our process.” This year around 550 acts applied for the 12 places in the festival. Dowry, aka Éna Brennan, who was featured in our pages last month is representing the home turf.
Each of the chosen bands is “distinctive and compelling in some way, creating work that is new and exciting. And we firmly believe that they are going to be key influencers in the next 15-20 years.” In essence, “we’re painting a picture of the future of jazz. Every year, there’s something surprising.”
That future of jazz is built not only in the evening concerts, but also in the late-night jam sessions and the daytime conferences held with musicians and the delegates invited from across Europe that include festival directors, promoters and journalists. “We invite a lot of the festival programmers from around Europe to come to 12 Points and hear the bands because ultimately what we want to do is secure more work for these bands.”
Unlike the traditional model, 12 Points encourages everyone involved to stay for the full four days to connect, network and collaborate, and that’s good for everyone. “Having all these people in Dublin for four days means we can have a proper discussion, and really start to build relationships,” Ken notes.
12 Points Festival will run September 5-8 in The Sugar Club.
Weekend festival pass €59, Individual day tickets €18/€20
Words: Maia Mathieu