Date: 2018-03-18
Author: Colin H
Author URL: http://theafterword.co.uk/author/colin-h/

Article Index

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…


PART 1: A BIT OF HISTORY

CH: What came first – loving jazz or learning the trumpet?

Oh, learning the trumpet and loving the trumpet. I do love jazz but I actually love a lot of non-jazz as well. I learned the trumpet at primary school, playing in an orchestra, but we did manage to successfully negotiate ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, and that allowed me to do a few ‘bah-da-ba-daps’, and I thought, ‘I like that!’ And then I went to Inst [Belfast Academical Institution, grammar school] and played in the school band there and in a brass band – the Ballyduff Silver Band – at about the same age, 11 or 12, and then got into this thing called the Bob Dixon Jazz Band when I was 14 or 15. So I ended up playing loads of different things from early on.

CH: Was that a mainstream-type act?

Dixieland. I was playing Harry Gold’s ‘Pieces of Eight’ with a lot of older men and then eventually I got my lucky break, when I was about 20 – I got into the Irish Youth Jazz Orchestra (IYJO), conducted by a legend called Bobby Lamb, who’s the father-in-law of Gerard Presencer, one of my favourite musicians on the planet.

CH: When you were playing with the Dixieland act presumably you were getting into listening to jazz?

No. No, I didn’t know anything about jazz really until I got into the IYJO.

CH: Some wags might say that most Dixieland players don’t know anything about jazz…

Yeah, yeah! Well, I was interested in sport, I was into rowing, and a whole lot of active other things – the trumpet was my interest rather than jazz. And then I got into the IYJO and everybody around me knew everything about people I’d never heard of, and they’d been doing advanced listening for years. So, it was a learning curve for me from that point on.

CH: When you were a teenager were you buying any records at all?

No. My brother was five years older than me. He was at university, at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, and he went to see three or four bands that shaped my teens, because he had the records. One was – still my favourite songwriter of all time – Joe Jackson; another was a band called After The Fire; and another was a Mod band called Secret Affair. Those were the first records I really listened to…

CH: And they influenced your music?

Well, I just sang along, knew all the lyrics! 

CH: It sounds to me that, with the rowing, Bob’s band, and so on, that it was more about the activity for you – the social thing:

It probably was. The music didn’t bite as a bug [at that time]. I was competitive because I was in the brass band and brass bands are competitive. With the old Dixieland band, I actually got cash for it and I thought, ‘This is outrageous!’ I couldn’t believe it – so I had to keep that going. But the whole awakening came with Bobby Lamb and the IYJO – that was incredible; that was it. I was about 21/22 at the time. It’s big band jazz but improvisation and instruction was part of it.

CH: Was it classic big band repertoire – Duke Ellington et al.?

Well, it was, yeah, but also the band had people like Brendan Doyle and Michael Buckley in it. It was a cracking band. The repertoire would have been mostly classic stuff though we had some things like when we played with Lee Konitz at the Cork Jazz Festival, so you’re being exposed to a more contemporary kind of playing. But I was still very much a novice at the whole thing, in terms of jazz, at that stage.

CH: We’re talking about the late 80s here?

Yeah, we probably are, about ’88.

CH: You spent some time in the civil service…

Yes, I did.

CH: How did you get into playing professionally and leading a band?

Leading a band? What’s that?! (laughs) Leading my own band was called self-employment. Basically, what happened was I was doing a Strabane flood wall as a civil engineer – quite a high-paid contract – and it came to an end, and I was due to go into a design office then, which didn’t appeal greatly to me. And whatever happened, I had somehow got a phone call from the Hubbard Casting Agency the previous year – it didn’t mean anything to me, but they were the programmers for ‘The Commitments’ [film], and they asked me did I know any musicians who could act in this movie. One of the names I gave was a fellow called Félim Gormley, who was in the Jazz Orchestra with me, and he ended up getting a big part in the movie. But none of this meant anything to me. I probably didn’t know much about it – the making of the movie was kind of underground. But they made a note of it and, if I remember rightly, it was them who asked me to [play in] the Commitments at the St Patrick’s Day Ball in New York, and we did a gig on Broadway as well. I think it was ’92. And shortly after that I took a career break and played music, and that was it. So, with bandleading, it wasn’t a question of ‘I’m leading’ – it was a question of ‘gig fixing’, creating my own opportunities so I could afford not to be a civil engineer. That meant doing a whole lot of things like setting up a teaching organisation, setting up an agency a few years later, fixing my own gigs – and, of course, fixing my own gigs meant me leading the band on those gigs. 

CH: Necessity was the mother of invention…

Absolutely, yeah. It wasn’t any great plan. I was still developing at this stage as a jazz musician, and I only did jazz because I was good at it – I’m not trying to be big-headed about it, but basically there was a small number of players here who played jazz and I actually was quite good at it. So, it seemed natural that I would do jazz gigs – and the fabulous thing about jazz gigs is that they happen at very unusual times, like Monday night, Sunday lunchtime, things like that, whenever other gigs don’t happen! So, if you get two or three weird jazz gigs – Thursday 5–7, Sunday 12–2, Monday night 9–12 – if you pick up any other gig at all you’ve got a hell of a week going on. 

CH: Indeed. I first came across you in 1995 running a soul band, presumably a band aimed at getting weekend gigs…

Yes, and Foy [Vance] was in that. I think what happened was that [local 60s soul legend] Sam Mahood had approached me to put a band together for him – he’d come back after a long time away – and he played for about a year and it was great fun. And then he stopped again. But I had the band in place, and I knew Foy’s girlfriend’s dad, or something like that, so Foy came into the band. But apart from me helping him on his way and getting a wee bit of singing experience, I didn’t contribute to his incredible career – because he had his career as a songwriter after he left the band, really. I was involved in his early template and the beautiful conclusion to that happened a few months ago when I proposed him for an honorary doctorate and he became Dr Foy Vance through Ulster University. So that was a nice bit of closure on all that – but Foy’s his own man, and a genius.

CH: There was a time in the 90s and 2000s when you were doing an awful lot of work – was there a point when you felt you had transitioned from a local-level bar musician to a national or international level jazz artist, recognised as a peer by other great jazz players in Ireland?

No. No, definitely not. Where I got my jazz credentials was just being an ex-member of the IYJO, because so many of those guys had gone on to achieve great things in jazz – like Michael Buckley and Brendan Doyle – so my association with them helped me get a leg up so I became quite well-known in the industry. But what I would say happened as a consequence of being a jazz player was that I got an awful lot of opportunities to record, whether it be rock or pop or jazz or whatever. That’s what gave me ‘the name’ – it wasn’t because I was ‘the best trumpet player in Ireland’, because I was nowhere near that in terms of being a *complete* musician. Jazz was ‘my thing’ but something like playing in the RTÉ Orchestra or Ulster Orchestra would have been completely beyond me in terms of my technical training. But in terms of my ability to hear a pop tune, or whatever, and then write out the brass parts for me and a sax and then pick a sax player and both of us being able to take solos – that just meant that the door was open for me in a way that it wouldn’t have been open for many others.

CH: So, like most self-employed people your policy has been ‘never say no’…

Yes – never say no.

CH: As a result, I believe you have quite a substantial discography…

I’m on an awful lot of records. I did a PhD and once I’d got it one of the things I had to do, in preparing an application for [a teaching post at] the university, was to do a CV of my performances, which included recording. From what I can remember, and this was three or four years ago, it was about 85 albums, not counting other things like singles. Luckily [for the CV], some of them were really nice, like Paul Brady – I did a lot of things with Paul, like ‘Top of the Pops’ and a really big single for him, ‘Hawana Way’, and then things like ‘The World is What You make It’ and ‘The Paul Brady Songbook’. He did this month in [Dublin venue] Vicar Street [in 2001] and one of those gigs involved Van [Morrison], and whenever Paul put his ‘Vicar Street Sessions’ CD out a couple of years ago [2015], I discovered beautifully that I was playing trumpet on one of the tracks Van was singing on, so I was really pleased about that. So, the recording thing was always really important for my career, though I didn’t realise that at the time. As I started to go down an academic route, those things became really important.

CH: But you must enjoy recording. It seems to come so easily to you. I mean, I know my music is hardly the most challenging to learn and play but anything you’ve been involved in with me, you come in and do it just like that [clicks fingers] and it’s been brilliant…

Well, that’s good of you… Er, I think I hear lines. I’ve always been good at appreciating musical construction and therefore I haven’t seen myself as someone who felt the need to superimpose myself on a piece of music or to use the music as a vehicle to show off my ability. I’ve always felt, ‘If I’m the trumpeter on this piece and this is a singer-songwriter piece, or if I’m part of a section and it’s a soul band piece…’ – I’ve always understood what my role is. I’ve understood when not to play fast, when not to play high, when to use dynamics, when to use space – and even when to recreate my base. So rather than being inventive and doing something super-spectacular, playing a simple line then playing it again to make it a melodic hook, and that kind of thing makes the song sound better, whereas I guess there are other people who’d use the recording to show how damn good they are.

CH: There are some jazz people who would turn down some of the recordings you’ve done, and I’ve first-hand experience of that…

Well, the thing is, you’re asking ‘jazz musicians’ to do a non-jazz project that they’re not comfortable with, but I’ve never really thought of myself as a jazz musician until the last seven years, because I’ve thought of myself as a ‘musician’, and an all-round one, who would do whatever he was asked – apart from orchestral music, because I wasn’t trained in it. Rock, pop or jazz and I’d be very happy to do it and it’s not that I would enjoy one more than the other, whereas I know some jazz musicians who don’t really enjoy anything that’s not jazz and that doesn’t give them a chance to ‘do their thing’. For me, doing my thing is putting the song first. I think that’s what the definition of a musician is.

CH: Tell me what your own discography, under your own name is. I have three of them…

Well, ‘Up To Now’ (2001) was the first one I did and that was with my mates in Dublin who I was doing a lot of work with. Some of them, actually, made it on to the new album – Guy Rickarby did drums on both. Brian Byrne, who’s living in America and a huge arranger now, working with, as far as I know, Streisand and certainly Kurt Elling, people like that [is on ‘Up To Now’]. And then my best friend Derek O’Connor is on sax. So that was a real treat. Then I did ‘My Heart’s Desire’ (2011), which was the first album in the PhD process – it was a performance-based PhD – and I really enjoyed that one. It was with my Quintet – Johnny Taylor (piano) and people like that. And then I produced and recorded an album for Gay McIntyre, which was more or less my album as well as his, called ‘The Music Within Me’ (2011). I was the MD and put the whole thing together for him. Gay’s a legendary [Northern Ireland] sax player, in his 80s, and he did that when he was 77. He hadn’t a recording and part of the motivation for me is that, having a radio show, I wanted to have him on it! So, I consider that one of mine as well – my ‘standards album’. Then I did one with Dana Meilana, [a band] which was Dana Masters (voice), Meilana Gillard (sax), Scott Flanigan (keys), Steve Davis (drums) and myself and I’m pretty sure it was Carl Harvey on bass, and it was just basically the McHugh’s band [a Belfast bar residency they had]. We gave a few copies to people who came to the gigs at McHugh’s but the idea was really that I could use it to chart some of my transcriptions for my PhD. 

CH: Is that album available?

Not really, no. It wasn’t ever supposed to be, but I think I gave out around 50 copies to regular fans. The next one I did was ‘In Transition’ (2014), again with my Quintet – Johnny Taylor (piano), this time Julian Colarossi on guitar, Damian Evans on bass…

CH: Being a critic of your own playing, would you say there’s been a fairly steady growth along those alums?

I think the one I’m most proud, of the one’s I’ve mentioned there, as a product and in terms of my playing as a product, was ‘Taylor Made’. Because I picked music and I played the way I hear music in my head, whereas ‘In Transition’ – which was my last album for the PhD and according to the academic analysis, which I did myself, was definitely my most ‘complete’ playing. There was a big step up in the efficiency of my note choices, etc – I was working on vertical improvisation techniques and methods of creating tension and releasing it, and I was kind of experimenting with it on ‘Taylor Made’ and whenever I did transcriptions of my solos on ‘In Transition’ it was complete – a lot of the techniques had crystallised into the real thing. But I preferred my playing on ‘Taylor Made’. 

CH: People reading this might wonder if those albums were mere exercises in ticking boxes towards a PhD – were you still able to play with soul on those recordings?

Yes. What I was doing was practising techniques and devices and practising them in all 12 keys and practising elongated versions and shorter versions so that whenever I play reflexively – in the moment – they would be starting to formulate on my fingers. Once I transcribed the recording of the playing then the evidence was there. I could have a look and say. ‘Oh, that’s a flat 9… that’s a sharp 11… oh, I resolved that 9 there…’

CH: So, you weren’t thinking while playing, ‘Right, I’d better stick in one of these devices…’?

No, I was playing reflexively.

CH: So, the process of the PhD widened the scope of your playing?

It’s made me more of an individual player and it made me be able to turn on or turn off or increase or decrease that individuality through a series of technical devices, which I had eventually turned into language. For example, if you’re talking to someone and you’re getting your point across terribly well with sentences with one comma and two stanzas and then two or three years later you find that you’ve replaced that with maybe two or three or four stanza sentences and your language and grammar are much more developed and your clauses more developed within the sentence and are connected to each other rather than being separate messages… I guess that’s what the comparison is. My use of language and grammar in terms of jazz language was more crystallised and more advanced by the time I finished the PhD.

CH: To use a more ludicrous analogy, you’ve moved from writing Mills & Boon to writing Thomas Hardy?

Yeah, probably. (laughs) And whenever you say ‘writing’ I’m so glad you’ve given me the chance to put the record straight, because jazz improvisation the way I do it and I believe the way most players do it is compositional. People say to me, ‘Do you not write any of your own stuff?’ And I say, ‘Every tune’. You’re writing on a subject and the subject is the [musical] theme, and the environment is the chords, and therefore I’m composing. Maybe my approach is like one of those Nashville songwriters who gets a call saying, ‘Right, you’ve two days to write a song about…’ whatever. Maybe that’s what I’m doing, but I’m definitely composing, improvisationally, whenever I’m playing.

CH: You sound a lot more confident about your own playing than you used to. Has doing this PhD exorcised that demon?

Well, I had a bit of luck. My strange musical background is that I didn’t do music at school as a subject. My first ever music exam of any kind was a Master’s. Whenever I did that I was 43 and I got a hundred as my performance mark. So, there was a bit of an exorcising of the demons then – and the demons just came from the fact that everyone I worked with had qualified, and I hadn’t.

CH: So, you can now look people in the eye and know that a jury of your peers has said you’re as good as them?

Well, I don’t think about it that way. If I’m in a room with those sort of people, I…

CH: …get out of it?

Yes. Music’s about love and music’s about taking care of the weakest link, because no matter how good a player you are, if you’re playing with people who aren’t as good as you then you’re not that good a player – because they’re going to pull you down. You’ve got to approach them in a more positive way and bring them with you – encourage them, caress them, say something positive to them after that’s going to bring them with you. So, music’s about love. It’s not even that [a qualification] gives you confidence, it’s the learning that you have to do that helps you negotiate the hurdles – it gives you the knowledge. 

CH: You’re the hardest-working musician I know – three or four gigs a week, full-time teaching at a college that requires four hours commuting five days a week, a jazz radio show on the BBC every week, and you never say no to anyone’s recording project. What drives you?

Emm…. It’s always been that way! I remember when I was at school, in second year, being involved in the rowing club, the chess club, the school band and a brass band. It was just the way it was, and I got relaxation by doing something different. If I thought I’d three nights in a row to watch TV that would make me tense, because I’d be wondering how effective I was being with my time. I’d rather be doing something constructive. People talk about ‘10,000 hours’ – do your 10,000 hours at something and become an expert or whatever…

CH: …Well, I think you’re into extra time now!

Well, maybe I am in playing but maybe not in teaching or broadcasting, and I’m trying to get as good as I can at all those things. And also, I think, when you talk about what drives me, I do feel a responsibility for the jazz community here [in Northern Ireland] – I’ve been a lynchpin for quite a while.

CH: You have – and you’ve always made a point of featuring young players at your gigs, giving them experience:

Yeah, I’ve always tried to bring them through because it wasn’t that easy for me as a youngster trying to get playing with the older jazz guys. And there weren’t that many of the older guys that played modern stuff [as opposed to Dixieland]. Now that I have established myself and I *can* fix gigs and make things happen, I try and bring the younger ones through and that’s something, I think, that’s really good for the scene.

CH: You were saying before this interview that after your two-hour commute home, you go and play a gig and it relaxes you…

Well, you’re doing something different, you see. You’re not under pressure to do a presentation or a seminar – you’re just switching off and following the musical environment that the other guys are laying down for you. The beautiful thing about music is that if you manage your musical career correctly then most of the people you play with are your friends.

CH: Is it nice to think now, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a body of work, I’ve been a professional musician for 20-odd years…’?

Well, I’m hoping I’ve got another 20-odd years – I’m hoping my best is ahead.

CH: The trajectory of jazz over the past century can be more or less boiled down to this: hard drugs to Arts Council grants. And you’ve managed to avoid both of those things.

Yes, I have! 

CH: No plans to go down either of those routes?

No. But I think the Arts Council grants are very valuable to give young players a leg up, to create opportunities for composers and musicians who do a non-commercial thing that wouldn’t happen otherwise. So, I think there’s a place for it.

CH: Diplomatically put. But you’ve always paid your way – you’ve had complete freedom, you’ve never had to tick boxes…

Yes, but in saying that, whenever I do have that freedom it’s not that I go out of my way to do something controversial with my playing or anything like that. It’s just, I can afford to do it because I’ve worked hard. But I don’t think of it necessarily as a freedom. The guys who get the grants are sometimes much braver with the concepts that they would have, and they would take more risks than I do. And I don’t really record albums because I think they’re going to be commercially viable; I just record them because that’s the music I’m really into.

CH: Yet the funny thing is, within the broad church of jazz your albums *are* at the commercial end – they’re very listenable, very accessible, there’s good jazz on them but it’s not going to frighten the horses. Your instincts musically are in the mainstream of jazz. Is that fair enough? I think it probably is. I don’t think that’s the reason the albums sound that way, though. I think it’s because my listening, the stuff that I’m really into – Leonard Cohen, Billy Joel…

CH: You’re a melody man… Yes, I’m a melody man…

CH: …and it would be unusual to find a Linley Hamilton album with a 30-minute free improvisation workout on it.

Yes, it would be *highly* unusual – probably because I don’t have the technique to play a 30-minute free improvisation. (laughs) But also because I’m not hearing it when I’m playing…

CH: You don’t feel it…

I don’t feel it. I feel melody, I feel the construction of how the melody’s developed.

CH: Have you ever had to turn down gigs or recordings because you’ve felt what was required was outside your area?

No, I’ve been really lucky in that people seem to know to book the right horses for the right courses. It’s very rare that I’d ever be given a call to do something that was beyond me or outside my remit, very rare.

PART 2: MAKING OTHER ARRANGEMENTS

CH: Which brings me to the new album, ‘Making Other Arrangements’ – it’s obviously a huge labour of love for you, a huge project for you in many ways, and it can’t have been cheap…

Well, it was very expensive. I didn’t get any sponsorship or anything and it’s cost me over 25 grand to make but it’s been something I felt had to be done at this stage of my career, because I’m 53 in a week or two and with the pressure of the day job – being a university lecturer, and it really is full-on – I’m probably not going to get technically better on my instrument, although my ideas might develop. I’m probably not going to have the range, tone, sound, agility in the finger-work and so on in two or three years’ time that I do have now. So, I thought, ‘This is the time to do it, when I’m still ‘hot’ in terms of my technical ability to play’. So that was the first consideration. The second consideration was that my whole career has been inspired by seven or eight different musical events – usually [vinyl] records, sometimes CDs. The most significant one ever for me was a Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet that I saw in Cork and an album called ‘Sprint’, and that was the one that changed everything for me, ‘cos I had to be a musician – and unconsciously or subconsciously, one of the earliest things I did in jazz was put together a quintet, and that became what my normal thing would be. Looking back now, I realise that subliminally it was the impact of ‘Sprint’ by the Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet, which I’m sure I’ve played in excess of two or three thousand times. I can still now sing you every single solo on that album. That album was from 1983 and at that stage Red Rodney was quite old but the playing… Garry Dial on piano, Jeff Hirshfield (drums), Jay Anderson (piano), who I met in New York over the summer [past] and fulfilled a life’s ambition… So that was a really big thing. The other big thing was an album by Freddie Hubbard called ‘Ride Like the Wind’ (1982), and one of the things I really like about Freddie Hubbard is that he was not someone who just played jazz – he played, for example, the solo on Billy Joel’s ‘Zanzibar’, and he had a pop sensibility to his playing, even though he was a real serious bop head. And, you know, I like to think I’m quite a good bop player but I’ve also got a pop sensibility…

CH: Absolutely – ‘The Sidewinder’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ on your first album…

That’s it. So, whenever I heard ‘Ride Like the Wind’ with Freddie Hubbard on it with a large ensemble, woodwind and strings, I thought, ‘Okay, this is really interesting…’ There’s a tune on it called ‘Brigitte’ which I rearranged for this album, so I could safely say that that was the album that inspired what I’m doing now.

CH: So, recording a large ensemble album must have been a dream for years?

It has been but I was wise enough to wait until I could play properly, because basically there’s a different approach…

CH: Really? If you’d had the money 10 years ago you wouldn’t have risked it?

Well, if I had it would have been a mistake, because there’s a lot more goes on with a soloist in front of a large ensemble than there is with a soloist in front of a quintet. The key component for success is patience. On an album like this the melody has to survive….

CH: It’s a very melodic album…

Well, the arrangements were done to create the bed for the melody and although I do use some bop language and I do improvise with some approaches where informed listeners would say I’m using a language which is outside that, there’s still a very, very strong respect for the arrangement in the improvisation that I do. 

CH: Tell me how you worked with Cian Boylan, the arranger:

Well, I gave him very strict parameters to work to, because I knew what I wanted – I had stuff in my head – but he still managed to surprise me. He’s a great friend. He did the Master’s with me in 2008.

CH: So, he caught what was in your head?

Yeah – that was his big success in this project, he got exactly what I was looking for. To be fair, he only played the arrangements to me the week before we started recording…

CH: Wow. That must have been quite scary…

It was, actually. They might not have been as good as I wanted them to be, and that was a risk, I guess, but I trusted him. People have asked me, ‘Why didn’t you do the arrangements yourself?’ And it’s a great question. The only way I can answer it is to say that it wouldn’t have been true to my career, because my whole career has been based on doing stuff in teams, where I book people to do things that they do best.

CH: You would never have a dog and bark yourself…

Well, this is it. So, Cian was a great arranger who had done lots and lots of arrangements, of pop and jazz, and a lot of orchestrations. And I thought, ‘Well, I haven’t done any. So, wouldn’t it be much better if I give the template to him to do what he does and then I can do what I do?’ I can book the sax players and let them do what they do, and I can book the strings and let them do what they do – and it kind of worked!

CH: Given that it was such a long-time dream project, and quite an expense, was it nerve-wracking to be in the studio actually doing it?

I was teaching in Sligo, as I do every year – the Sligo Jazz Project, the last week in July – and I’m quite a big part of it, because I do quite a lot of the entertaining at night in terms of introducing the acts on the main stage, etcetera, and giving information out, so I’m quite a big personality in Sligo and this year was my fifth or sixth year doing it. And on the second day I had what can only be described as the nosebleed from hell, and I was hospitalised. My wife [Maggie] had to come down.

CH: Some kind of psychosomatic reaction to the impending studio sessions?

No, I think it was quite simply a burst blood vessel. I’d been doing a gig with the Commitments the weekend before and I’d had a nosebleed then…

CH: Must have been some blistering playing…

Well, the Commitments is a beast of a gig – it’s all high, loud and fast. It bled quite badly during their gig but I thought it was okay [after that]. But the second day in Sligo my nose burst, literally, and I was hospitalised. I had to pull out of Sligo and I was actually back in the hospital for a few days. So, whenever I got back, I hadn’t played for a week and I thought, ‘My God, I’ve got this album at the end of August – let’s get myself sorted out’. So, I actually went back to basics again and did little flexibility exercises and warm-ups, being careful not to burst anything again – and then built myself into a really heavy routine. So, for three weeks before the album I was literally either gigging or practising eight hours a day. Even the weekend before the recording started I deliberately scheduled lots and lots of gigs, and I think I did a recording [for someone else] as well – just so the mouthpiece was on my face more or less all my waking days.

CH: But you can overdo it, surely…

You can, but whenever I walked into the studio on Monday morning my lip was just so well-tuned. I guess it must be what these great athletes feel on the day of a big race, when they’re ready to go – track suit off, fire that gun, let me at it! It felt a bit like that. But I have to say, a lot of the players that I’d picked for the record are people that I love very much – they’re very, very close friends, who’ve been with me for many years on different projects. And it was a really emotional thing to be in there with Cian and the guys and achieving what we were doing as we went along. The vibe was just phenomenal. There was a guy called Conor Brady and he was the engineer, and he *made* it. The planets aligned. Two weeks later was strings day. We did everything else [first] – four days of drums, bass, guitar, keys, saxes, woodwind, singer and me and then the fifth, two weeks later, was the strings. And I’m not ashamed to say that a lot of that day I was crying…

CH: Wow – it was that bad?

No. (laughs) It was just emotional watching all the string players getting their instruments out, and then all the chaos, this awful noise of a big string section as they tune up – every player managing to switch off from even the person next to them as they blarge through whatever warm-up they do, and it just sounds like a whole sack of cats! And then the conductors says, ‘Okay, bar one…’ and whatever you imagine God would sound like – if he played the violin – happens, and tears begin to flow. Most of the day I was like that except for one track, track 4 [on the album], which is an Earth, Wind & Fire song we’d arranged, and it’s just trumpet and strings.

CH: Did you record that live with the strings?

We had two or three goes at it. The strings were in one big room and because of the mic sensitivities I couldn’t be in the same room as them, and I couldn’t get a clear line of sight [from another room, with headphones]. So, after two or three attempts at that we abandoned that idea and, for the sake of time as much as anything, Cian conducted the strings and within minutes I threw my part on top.

CH: When you say you ‘threw’ your part on top…

‘Blew’ my part on top! (laughs)

CH: Was it a few takes? Your playing on that one sounds really controlled and measured…

No, it was just one take, if I remember rightly. This guy Conor Brady, whatever way he did it, the setting in the cans was just so real… The chairs were still set up for the strings, I’d moved into their room – they’d gone home – and I was still in the presence of them in my head, it just felt like they were still there, and I just nailed it.

CH: Brilliant. Tell me about the song choice for the album…

Well, this is where you’re going to get the coup, because nobody’s going to ask me that question – and I’m not going to answer them if they do! You’ve asked the correct question in a more amazing way than you know, in that they are *songs*. Almost every single song that I decided to do was because I was inspired by a singer singing it – ‘What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?’ by Liane Carroll, James Taylor’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’ – James Taylor did that one with Brecker and Herbie Hancock…

CH: They weren’t available for your session…?

They weren’t, no – but I was quite happy with who I got! The one that Dana Masters sings [on the album], ‘Louisiana Sunday Afternoon’, that was a Diane Schuur thing that I was inspired by. So almost in every case except for ‘Brigitte’ the songs were inspired by somebody else [singing them]. And then there was this magic thing that happened… Basically, I’d bought my wife a guitar a couple of years ago and she’s really into it. She’s an editor for music on BBC Radio Ulster and is surrounded by music. She’s dedicated most of her life to making musical events happen for people in general – whether it a Hugo Duncan thing [Country’n’Irish], a jazz thing, an orchestral thing. She’s been behind outside broadcasts bringing big events to Northern Ireland and she’s got an overview for music. So, the music is very much in her and whenever I bought her a guitar it came out. I think whenever she knew I was doing this project she had it in mind to write a song for her sister [titled ‘Carmel’]. She didn’t put lyrics to it but she did write a melody and a chord sequence and she let me hear it. I played it and said, ‘Actually, I really do like that…’ And then she did a tiny bit more work on it than I’d expected her to do – she formulated where she thought an arrangement would go; she had an idea what instruments would do what. And she was able to articulate it sufficiently for Cain and I to arrange it and put it on the record.

CH: Her tune is very redolent of Bacharach – which is meant as a great compliment, especially for someone who’s just written their first song…

Yeah, I think you’re right. The thing I like about it is, for someone who’s not as musically trained as Cain and I would be, she’s managed to find a melody that is quite active intervalically – it’s not just something that moves between simultaneous notes a tone apart; it’s quite an active melody in terms of its construction and there is a resolution. I’m sure she wasn’t thinking of that when she presented it, but when she did it felt like a very natural thing to put it on the record.

CH: Fantastic. Will you get an opportunity to present this music live?

Seven dates in the book already. Four with the full orchestra. The first is the Bray Jazz Festival, May 5, and then May 9 in Belfast at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, and then September 22 at Limerick Jazz Festival and then October 27 Cork Jazz Festival – so there’s four with the full band. And there’ll be three in England, which will be Cain and I working with musicians who are over there.

CH: Are you hoping for more opportunities in Britain?

I think there’ll be limited opportunities for me to put the full Irish ensemble out – I’d say maybe once or twice a year after this year. But there’ll be opportunities for Cain and I and possibly one or two or the album players joining us. It’s always been about playing it not recording it, for me. Recording it is just a way of getting it out but, yeah, I intend to play it a lot, hopefully, over the next 10 years. I still think my small band stuff is good and I’ll probably do something [on record with it] again – I have some very special friends who I’ve met through Sligo: Adam Lisbon, a drummer, would be one; Jay Anderson, who’s my all-time hero – the guy who took the bass solo on that ‘Sprint’ album that made it all happen for me, because I fell in love with music through his bass solo. So, I think I’ll be working with them in the next couple of years and that’ll be a different kind of project, a much smaller ensemble. 

CH: So, you’re creating a repertoire of projects to keep dipping into periodically in live performances?

Well, I’ve always done that. I’ve always been looking for opportunities to play.

CH: Given that you now have a solid income with the university teaching, that gives you the summer free, and the resources, to consider higher-profile projects…

Well, that’s one way to look at it. I think the other way to look at it is that lecturing at university has a research requirement, and this is research for me – this is very, very much research into methodologies to develop not just me but other players. A lot of the methodologies I’m developing to make these projects happen are methodologies that could be applied to other players, so they become part of a big research pedagogy that I’m feeding into. 

CH: So, really, the people at Ulster University who monitor what the staff are doing – they won’t be listening to this album and thinking, ‘Linley Hamilton – he’s just sitting at home watching ‘MasterChef’ all day…’?

(laughs) No!

CH: Final question, maybe for a bit of a laugh: your best and worst gigs?

(ponders for a minute) Best gig ever… I was doing a gig at Jenny Watt’s in Bangor in the, let’s see, late 80s – I’d have been 23 or 24. It’s still running, believe it or not. It was a Sunday lunchtime gig and I’d replaced Dermot Harland. He was still alive but had decided not to do the gig anymore, so I was covering him on the gig. And there was a guy…. I can’t remember his name, but he was quite an unusual character, maybe 15 years older than me, and loaded. He was like an adventurer. Where most people would play golf on a Saturday, he would fly to Nepal and do an 800 metre stretch of Everest and then come back – he was that kind of a guy. I remember him coming up to me as I was packing my instrument away, on a Sunday in Jenny Watt’s, and he says to me, ‘Are you free next week? Can you put a band together for 4 o’clock on Sunday?’ And I said, ‘Er, what kind of thing are you after?’ He says, ‘It has to be really heavy jazz’. So, I said, ‘Well, this band isn’t really heavy jazz…’ He says, ‘No, I have people in mind, like Neil Everett (piano)…’ So, I said, ‘Okay, let me sort it out’. So, I booked the best people I knew – Neil Everett, John Trotter (trombone), myself, a guy called Charlie Burton on drums and Trevor England on bass, a guy who was very generous to me and instrumental in my development.  To cut a long story short – and it *is* a long story (laughs) – the guy said to me, ‘Meet at Donaghadee Harbour at 3.30 – but it has to be formal attire’. So, I made it clear to everybody they had to bring tuxedos and bow ties. I had a PA, and I had a butterfly collar and shiny patent shoes – and this guy arrives at the harbour in his shorts and rather expensive-looking summer boating shoes and a magnificent rugby shirt with a very fancy collar. He says, ‘Right, this way…’ and we all hawked everything out of the cars and headed down to the harbour thinking ‘Where’s the gig?’ And he says, ‘Load the stuff on to the boat’. There was a cabin cruiser that just about held us all, so we packed our stuff into the thing and sat out on the cab – and he never said anything at all. And we took the boat to one of the Copeland Islands [uninhabited islands off County Down] and he moored the boat off one of the islands, because of the propeller, and we formed a line, rolled up our trouser legs and handed all the gear over to the island.  He had a generator and he had a number of poles and people’s coats on a tarpaulin thing to block the sound of the generator – and nobody said ‘boo’; not one of us said, ‘What the hell’s going on mate?!’ We were just in such shock that we went and set up in front of this generator, in tuxes, and there were eight or nine of his friends in shorts and T-shirts and swimming costumes eating a barbecue while we were playing ‘Impressions’ and ‘Giant Steps’ and stuff like this, and really knocking the stuffing out of it, taking no prisoners, in tuxedos. We did they gig, they said, ‘Here’s the cash’, we said, ‘Right’, they said, ‘Do you want to have some barbecue?’  So, we were eating this barbecue, and then we loaded our stuff back on to this rowing boat to get back on to the cabin cruiser – and Neil Everett, a lovely guy, phenomenal player, but quite small muscles, let me put it that way, decided he wanted to row the boat. And he had to be rescued, because he was rowing the boat in circles and the tide was taking it out. I think it was John Trotter who swam out to rescue Neil, to then row the boat over to the cabin cruiser. And then the guy drove the cabin cruiser, we all loaded our stuff into our cars and said goodbye, took the cash and drove home. I lived in Bangor at the time and I remember being in the house about half an hour when the phone rang and it was Charlie the drummer: ‘Hi Linley, how’s it going?’ ‘Great Charlie, did you enjoy that today?’ He said, ‘I just wanted to confirm that it happened’. And I got a second call for the same reason, somebody asking, ‘Did we just do that?’ ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I was just a bit shy about saying no…’ 

CH: And the worst gig?

I don’t think there is a worst gig – but there is a ‘special’ gig, which most people would think was really bad. For me, it’s a special place in my heart. I used to row at Queen’s [University]…

CH: Hang on a second – why weren’t *you* rowing the boat back from the Copelands?!

Good question! I rowed at Queen’s, played in that Bob Dixon Jazz Band with these older men, all in their 60s and 70s and I was like 21/22. And I put this jazz band on at the Rowing Club on a regular basis, because I was in it, and they got it cheap and they all danced and we did fundraising and so on. There was this particular gig where we were setting up – we’d done it seven or eight times that year and people loved it – and there were these two hairy DJ types who were just the salt of the earth, and they had big beards and long hair. They had their DJ system set up and we’d set up our gear alongside them, with music stands, cos it was six horns and a four-piece rhythm section doing kind of Jimmy Lally arrangements – it was great stuff, really great craic. But this day the drummer never arrived and he was always on time, normally the first there.  He wasn’t there… he wasn’t there… and the guys said, ‘He’ll be here any minute’. I started to panic and rang his house. He says, ‘How’s it going?’ I said, ‘What? What do you mean how’s it going? Why are you in your house?’ ‘Is it not next week?’ ‘No, it’s this week…’ So, he couldn’t have made it in time. We had six horns, piano, bass, guitar… and no drums. The lead singer/clarinet player, who was around 73, called Bob Dixon had a leather bag which he brought to every gig, and in the bag were six plastic hats that we put on during one of the numbers, and two maracas and a tambourine and, I swear to God, these two DJs played these maracas and tambourine till their fingers bled. (laughs) They played them for two hours, and every time I looked round at them they were crying with pain and too embarrassed to stop ¬– a bit like us on the Copeland Islands. They played for the whole gig. There was just something about that – I thought it was epic. A great example of how musicians just get on with it and do their thing. If you’re a pub-type musician, there’s honour in delivering your gig!