Internationally acclaimed musicians ‘breaking down disability barriers’ at Derry Jazz Festival
20 April 2018
For the first time this year an ensemble of disabled and non-disabled musicians will perform together at the City of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival – taking to the stage on Sunday 6th May at the newest venue on the 2018 programme – the Jazz Hub at Ulster University’s Magee campus.
Located in the Great Hall, the Jazz Hub has been newly redeveloped and boasts the very latest state-of-the-art sound equipment – making it the ideal performance space for world renowned drummer & master beats composer Darren Beckett, saxophonist Lewis Smith and a group of five disabled musicians from ‘Acoustronic’.
In the summer of 2015, under the direction of composer and Ulster University Professor of Music Frank Lyons, disabled and non-disabled musicians began to meet regularly in Magee to improvise and compose music together – using accessible music technology (AMT) and more conventional musical instruments. The ensemble quickly established itself as ‘Acoustronic’ and within weeks was creating their own original music.
‘Acoustronic’ rehearse every Thursday night with under-graduate & post-graduate students from Ulster University – composing new music which they will then take to performances – including at recent concerts in Dublin, London and Lisbon. Indeed, two internationally acclaimed musicians who have teamed up with Acoustronic at rehearsals this year and are studying for their Masters degree in Music at Magee are Darren Beckett and Lewis Smith.
Darren started playing the drums when he was only four years old, after his father gave him his first pair of drumsticks, and was playing in the Empire Music Hall in his home city of Belfast at the tender age of 12. After winning the prestigious Bass Ireland Arts Award as a teenager, he left Ireland to study Jazz at ‘The New School’ in New York.
Darren's unique sound as both a drummer & master beats composer has made its mark on world famous tracks – including on the former ‘Killers’ front man Brandon Flower's single ‘Can't Deny My Love’ which Darren co-wrote.
He was also a part of the early 2000’s New York City music scene that spawned The Strokes – and as well as touring the US with Brandon Flowers, Darren has gigged with R&B icon Lauryn Hill from the Fugees. Indeed, when he was granted American citizenship in 2012, ‘The Boss’ Bruce Springsteen himself gave Darren a special gift to congratulate him.
Darren has also composed music used in advertising (Sprint, NASCAR), television (Grey’s Anatomy, The OC, CSI) and film (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, PS I Love You) and has toured all over the world, playing everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Royal Albert Hall.
Lewis Smith has been a well-known saxophonist on the Irish jazz scene for over 20 years. As a 19 year old he joined the ranks of the Brian Irvine Ensemble as the soprano saxophonist. Working with Brian took Lewis all over Europe – performing at many contemporary music and jazz festivals. This was a partnership that lasted 11 years and included performances for BBC Radio 3 with the Ulster Orchestra.
Throughout many years, Lewis has been the leader and composer for various outfits and projects. In 2004, while on tour in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan with the Drum 'N Bass band Spree, he found a passion for the indigenous music there. Later he would return to research Kazakh traditional music for compositions that he would later write.
Lewis continues to perform and write – not only in terms of composing production music for television / film, but also for his own performances – including on the Jazz World stage of the Glastonbury Festival.
Ulster University Professor of Music Frank Lyons says that this year’s concert is a ‘tremendous statement of hope’ which powerfully strengthens the call for social inclusion. He is also extremely proud of the members of Acoustronic who have worked so hard to develop what he describes as ‘an amazing artistic ability’ – not least during recent ‘intensive’ rehearsals in the run up to this year’s City of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival.
“The effects of music on the lives of every single member of Acoustronic is extraordinary," says Professor Lyons. "We see people who were wary of speaking a number of years ago, never mind stand up in front of an audience and improvise on the spot."
Professor Lyons’ pioneering project is called ‘Inclusive Creativity’ – a perfect term, he says, for what happens at the weekly rehearsals in Magee.
"There is no hierarchy here. We have musicians in attendance who can guide the process, but we don't prescribe what happens. We allow it to unfold in an organic way. This is a collective of people who have amazing artistic ability and we give them a framework to express themselves.
"Stylistically, it is a diverse blend of people with interests in pop, jazz and other kinds of music, and they're constantly challenging themselves. They create dark and light sounds, and what astonishes audiences is the complexity of the thought processes, and the improvisation involved.
"When people hear the music for themselves, their perceptions of those with disabilities is brought to a whole new level. This is excellent, high quality work, which has been marginalised for far too long.”
Professor Lyons is in no doubt that the audience will take strong encouragement from the concert which he believes sends out such a positive message – ‘respect for diversity and more importantly its celebration!’
“Music not only unites people – but also transcends differences in a special way” he said.
“I have been delighted to have had the opportunity to work with Darren and Lewis as mature students at Magee – high-profile international musicians in their own right – which has been ‘spectacular’ for us – not only in terms of assisting in the creation of new musical compositions but also because of their personal engagement with all of the members of Acoustronic.
“Indeed, it is really fantastic that we will be showcasing our work together at this year’s City of Derry Jazz Festival – and I’d encourage everyone to come along and enjoy what will be unforgettable performances.”
Louise Boyce, Access and Inclusion Co-ordinator for Derry City and Strabane District Council says that as part of the City of Culture 2013 celebrations, funding was made available to music, disability and technology events – and Professor Lyons was commissioned to organise a showcase of cutting-edge, creative work by composers and performers with disabilities.
“I am delighted that as an outworking and legacy of the City of Culture year that this has led to the establishment of ‘Acoustronic’ – which not only facilitates but enhances inclusive participation in music-making for artists with disabilities” she said.
“Indeed, Acoustronic are a really amazing group of musicians who are helping to break down disability barriers and promote diversity within the arts and society as a whole.”
Lewis Smith and Acoustronic will share the billing with Darren Beckett Trio and guests on Sunday May 6 from 2pm to 5pm at the Great Hall in Magee – price £5.
The City of Derry Jazz Festival is organised and funded by Derry City & Strabane District Council with support from Diageo and Tourism Northern Ireland.
For further information on all the events taking place throughout the Jazz Festival, 3rd – 7th May 2018, visit www.cityofderryjazzfestival.com