Date: 2018-03-18
Author: Colin H
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Colin H on Linley Hamilton

Of all the great characters I’ve met in the music game, trumpeter Linley Hamilton is among the greatest – and one of the funniest. A master of shaggy-dog stories and witty remarks, a brilliant onstage raconteur and entertainer, and a man always ready to help fellow musicians in any way possible. He’s also among the greatest musicians I’ve met. For many years, Linley himself might have replied, ‘You don’t get out much, then?’ – his own harshest critic. Recently, though, it seems to me that he’s become more assured about the quality of his own playing – and very definitely an artist deserving to be heard around the world. If I was to boil Linley’s story down to one sentence, the mid-90s Belfast bar-band hustler became a mid-2010s international jazzman, regional BBC personality (with a weekly jazz show on Radio Ulster), session man supremo, Irish jazz facilitator, music college tutor and inspiration… and still a bit of a bar-band hustler and casual comedy king.

No doubt all local musical scenes have individuals within them who are characters, scenesters, larger-than-life people who make things happen and get talked about. Linley was certainly one such in Belfast in the 90s. There were always stories. Indeed, I recall one of his associates once telling me, ‘Even people who’ve never met Linley have stories about him…’ For some people, remaining a local ‘character’, until it becomes a caricature, is the sum total of their achievements, but Linley Hamilton has managed to negotiate the ups and downs of years as a jobbing musician in a relative backwater, while creating a lot of fun in the process, to become a European-level touring musician and create a small but superb body of recorded work under his own name and to earn the respect and affection of musicians of all genres, but most especially jazz, up and down Ireland. He is someone who simply makes things happen and, if you book him on one of your gigs or one of your records, he is someone who makes it better. And you’ll have a good laugh with him being around as well.

Being a humble hobby musician, I’m blissfully ignorant of the blood, sweat and tears (no pun intended) it takes to become a jazz master, and I’m unable to articulate the differences in the man’s playing between, say, 1995, when I first heard him – leading a soul band fronted by Foy Vance (plucked from hairdressing obscurity, taking the first steps on a long and winding road to becoming a Celtic Soul sensation) – and the present. I can hear that it’s become somehow more sublime, but then to my ears it always was sublime. I can vividly recall Linley literally stealing 10 minutes in the middle of a studio demo session with his soul band back in 1995 to throw down a flugelhorn solo on a recording of my own. It was brilliant. It was so brilliant that 20 years later I created a standalone instrumental track based around that solo and resurrected it as the title track of my (mostly newly recorded) 2016 album ‘Sunset Cavaliers’.

Linley has always been incredibly generous with his musicianship since then, creating solos or horn parts for a handful of further tracks on various Colin H projects – for very modest fees, if any – and compering and performing at an event/podcast to promote my first book on John McLaughlin. ‘If I dry up when speaking,’ I thought, ‘I’ll need someone who can tell a few jokes…’ The fact that I didn’t probably deprived the audience of a great comedy gig.

Next month, Linley releases his most ambitious album to date: ‘Making Other Arrangements’, an amazing, luxuriant, glorious, richly textured, 50-minute analogue-sounding fairy-tale world for seven-piece jazz ensemble plus string orchestra. It’s Linley’s ‘big album’. He likely won’t record another like it, and in the interests of doing whatever I can to get the word out, I figured an interview was in order. I won’t review the album here because I don’t have the ‘chops’ to do so – the specific influences Linley is drawing on for the album are largely outside my area of knowledge. And knowing that most of his bank account has been drained in its creation, it seems wholly unreasonable for an ill-informed amateur to pass any kind of judgement on it. It did, though, immediately bring to mind the sound of New York in the late 70s or early 80s – a big-budget, big-label sound world you rarely hear in recordings these days – and it seems, from what Linley had to say about the album’s inspirations, I wasn’t too far from the source. All I will say is this: I love it and I urge you to buy a copy!

The interview transcript below (in the comments) is verbatim, and the course of our chat conveniently followed a path of background stuff and then talk about the new album. Hence, I’ve split it into two parts. During the interview, a couple of Friday evenings back, my friend Mark Case – an award-winning graphic design mogul – popped round for a whisky. By chance, not through me, he had designed the CD package for Linley and after a few whiskies and bonhomie, he had agreed to create a montage video for one of the album tracks specifically to accompany this interview. He’s done a rather good job…