Date: 2018-03-18
Author: Colin H
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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.