As musician and Dublin jazz/hip-hop crew Choice Cuts’ promoter/booker Mark Murphy answers the phone on a Tuesday morning, the buzz heading into the Cork Jazz Weekend is growing - sold out headliners and the chance for gig-goers and casual revellers to put a cap on over eighteen months of uncertainty.
He’s on the train to Cork, one of a few he’ll be taking as the programmer of this year’s festivities, and he’s multi-tasking, chatting with your writer as he helps the finishing touches come together. Uncertainty over spikes in Covid numbers, or reopening of venues, is in the back of everyone’s mind, but as this interview happens, it hasn’t begun in earnest.
No stranger is Mark Murphy to Cork city, as Stevie G has outlined in recent times in his column for this parish - Choice Cuts have helped bring some top-tier gigs to the city over the years, and are responsible for Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s honourary Cork citizenship. Announced with a few weeks to spare, putting a programme together at relatively short notice for the Jazz presented challenges, he says.
“The decision made back in September about the October 22 re-opening date gave (Guinness parent company) Diageo the impetus to produce something, because there's definitely a pent up demand among gig-goers.
“After everything that’s happened the past eighteen months, we're obviously wanting to deliver something for Cork, because we missed out on last year. It was just all hands on deck, working around the clock since probably the 15th, 16th of September, when the news arrived.”
Whatever about the lead time that the festival’s committee has given itself this year, headline gigs are by and large sold out, and the city’s venues had no trouble lining up their entertainment for a weekend blowout set to fall on the weekend restrictions were long slated to be lifted. At this stage - before a spike in case numbers - Murphy is optimistic.
“Everyone's happy that there's something on, so I believe that Fiona Collins and the team, they're delighted, and the businesses and the venues on the music trail, everyone's really happy that there's something to look forward to, like we're getting back to some normality.
“We're delighted with being able to secure some top-line acts. The sentiment is good... we're preparing to exact our standards, and to make sure that it's a safe and enjoyable festival.”
The last eighteen months have been strange, as your writer is sure has been noted many times on these pages. And while uptake has been good, there had to have been trepidation about approaching the public with a lineup of gigs and events, knowing that live music and socialising habits may well have changed profoundly - from how word of mouth spreads, all the way down to the question of where you can hang physical posters anymore.
The big worry, however, was booking headliners at short notice.
“We were kind-of curtailed: artists could be on tour, so we can't just take them off tour, just to be part of our festival. So it was just about going through my book of contacts, seeing what was possible, what would suit the festival, and what I could do to deliver.
“We also had to deal with limited availability for venues, because a lot of venues in Cork already had bookings in place anyway, thinking that the Jazz wasn't happening, so there was other types of styles of music in place, as well.
“Really, it's just foraging through what we can or can't do, the possibility of doing something that's going to generate interest, generate ticket sales and have something that people can look forward to.”
The festival’s lineup is quite heavy on the good stuff - a mix of draws for dedicated music fans with crossover value, like Mos Def, King Kong Company and Mick Flannery & Susan O’Neill; as well as stuff for the purists, like Matthew Halsall and Kit Downes.
The debate about the Jazz Weekend lineup’s balance between jazz and the crowd-pleasers has raged the last few years in particular - but this year’s edition feels like a real breakthrough in that regard.
“My role is to be familiar with my work, very heavy on jazz and soul, and hip-hop and stuff, so for me to be engaged, like throughout the past 15 years on the Jazz as someone that supplies acts to venues and for the festival, that's always the kind of stuff we've done.
“It's a privilege to be able to work on this in an official capacity, as someone that works in the background.”
Murphy is also participating in MåsExödus, a musical collaboration with Max ZASKA and members of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble among others, at the Everyman - how has it been to get into that headspace as a performer in the run-up, and switching between those performing and booking hats - as well as preparing to reopen Dublin’s Sugar Club venue?
“It's been challenging because, y'know, I've really only had like two, three months to do everything.
“It's just heads down. We've gone from a standstill, being stuck in the mud, wondering when can we get back to work, what can we do, to be fortunate enough to get some funding to be able to produce this project, handpick these musicians and carefully produce a record that I hope will debut for the first time in Cork, before it's fully produced.
“I'm just really excited about this - it's a big dream to be able to do it.”
MåsExödus perform at the Everyman Palace on Friday October 22 and Saturday October 23. For more info and tickets, go to https://everymancork.com/events/masexodus-guinness-cork-jazz/.