The opening concert at the 14th Bray Jazz Festival
in May, just half an hour outside Dublin in County Wicklow, was something of a homecoming gig for Irish guitarist Christy Doran and his quartet New Bag. Doran was born 63 years ago, just a few short miles down the road from Bray, in Greystones, though at the age of 10 his parents relocated to his mother's homeland of Switzerland, where Doran has lived and made music for the past half century.
With drummer/percussionist Fredy Studer
, saxophonist/flautist Urs Leimgruber
and double bassist Bobby Burri, Doran created Swiss free-jazz history in the band OM, recording five albums, four of which were on the Japo/ECM label, in a 10-year period from 1972-1982. He has also taught jazz guitar in the Lucerne Music School, in Switzerland, for over 40 years, though this hasn't stopped him from pursuing a busy recording and touring schedule with a diverse range of musicians. In a long and varied career, Doran has collaborated with free-jazz luminaries such as pianist Carla Bley
, drummers Marilyn Mazur
and Han Bennink
, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff
, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma
and multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich
Doran has put his own musical stamp on everything from the music of Jimi Hendrix
to the writings of Samuel Beckett, and from jazz-rock to Chinese folk music. At 63, he could be forgiven for taking his foot off the pedal, but this most exciting of jazz electric guitarists is, by his reckoning, probably busier now than he's ever been and has more collaborations on the go than you could shake a stick at.
Doran has just released Mesmerized
(Double Moon, 2013), his eighth CD with New Bag a typically firey jazz-rock effort. Then there's No. 9
(Leo Records, 2012), the quietly sublime duo collaboration with Chinese pipa player Yang Jing. With the debut CD of Doran's quartet Bunter Hund due out in January 2014, Doran is enjoying a creatively prolific period.
And, as the Bray Jazz Festival audience attested most audibly, he's also in absolutely cracking form. Doran clearly enjoyed playing in the old country. "It just feels great to be back," he says, and you know he means it; Doran wrote a tune called "Bray Head" on his album Harsh Romantics
(Synton Records, 1984) and has clearly always carried a piece of this part of Ireland in his heart.
Doran's formative childhood years in Ireland were spent absorbing the music that was around him. "My father was a well-known ballad singer in county Wicklow, and my Swiss mother played the accordion," says Doran. "They used to play every Saturday night at St. Kilians Hall in Greystones. When my father wasn't singing, he'd play the drums. They used to rehearse in my bedroom, so I got a good dose of Irish songs and jigs right from the start." With the timing of a good storyteller, Doran adds, "Well, if I'd known then that I'd be playing the Bray Jazz Festival, I bloody well could have stayed in Ireland."
New Bag is Doran's longest ongoing project and clearly one that he has strong personal attachment to. Doran founded New Bag in 1997 with singer Bruno Amstad, drummer Fabian Kuratli and electric bassist Wolfgang Zwaiauer. On the tail of its debut CD, Confusing the Spirits
(Cue Records, 1999), the quartet toured North and South America, India, Vietnam and Europe. Already by the time of the second CD, Black Box
(Double Moon Records, 2000), Doran's interest in Asian music was more overt, with the collaboration of Indian mridangam master Muthuswamy Balasubramoniam.
Doran had taken a six-month sabbatical from the university in Lucerne and traveled to India, where he stayed in Balasubramoniam's home town of Cochin in Southern India. With typical modesty, Doran refutes the notion that he is a student of Indian music. "I haven't learned
Indian music," he says. "I think this would be a lifetime enterprise." Nevertheless, the Indian influence is felt in New Bag's music today, especially with the recent addition of konnakol-trained Swiss vocalist Sarah Buechi
to New Bag's ranks. "I've loved Indian music for a long time," says Doran. "I love the groove, the spirit and the time the musicians take to climb from zero to the climax."
New Bag became a quintet when Doran brought keyboard player Hans- Peter Pfammatter into the lineup, and two more CDs followed. Unfortunately, the band suffered a major upheaval when Kuratli took ill and died, at the age of 38. "It was a tragedy," says Doran. "It took some time before we were able to continue with another drummer."
Eventually, Dominik Burkhalter
filled the vacant drum chair, and extensive European tours followed the release of The Competence of the Irregular
(Between the Lines, 2008). Doran's New Bag was popular in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Austria, but there was a price to pay for the band's success. "The band members had gained quite wide recognition," explains Doran, "and they were increasingly invited to play in other bands and on other projects. I often had to turn down festival invitations because someone in the band had another gig somewhere."
There was a bit of soul searching when bassist Zwaiuer asked for a two-year sabbatical. Doran believes the band's music was perhaps too heavy for Zwaiuer, though he adds, "Maybe he was missing Fabian [Kuratli]." At the end of the two-year period, Zwaiuer was still unsure of where he was heading musically, relates Doran, and the guitarist and bandleader began thinking of a replacement. "Funny enough, Wolfgang [Zwaiuer] himself came up with the idea of including a Minimoog player. Most of us had played with Vincent Membrez
in other projects, and we all liked his musical approach. Having Vincent in the band gave us a new sound."
With Membrez, New Bag recorded "Take the Floor and Lift the Roof" (Double Moon Records, 2011), but it wasn't long before the lineup underwent another reshuffle, right at the time Doran was booking a tour of Canada. "Singer Bruno Amstad quit," says Doran. "He'd been offered a four-month gig in a musical, so because of that and also because he didn't believe in the band anymore, he quit after 12 years. The exit of Amstad came as an unexpected shock to Doran, and there was also the added headache of fulfilling gigs already lined up. "I had to cancel the Canadian tour, which was not funny," recalls Doran.
Then another old problem reared its head again. "Keyboard player Hans-Peter Pfammatter was so busy with his own and other projects that we had to play the last few concerts of the tour without him, as a quartet." Doran's frustration at the time at the band's comings and goings is palpable. "It was like looking after fleas," he laughs. It crossed his mind that maybe the band had run its natural course. "Of course, the idea of ending New Bag was in the air," admits Doran, "but as I had put so much effort into this band project, and also because I think that my compositions are just as important as the musicians involved in creating the band sound, I decided to continue."
There was another change in the drum chair, with Lionel Friedli
replacing Burkhalter. Friedli had occasionally subbed for Kuratli in the past, had played with Doran in Acoustic Strings alongside bassist Heiri Kaenzig and violinist Dominique Pifarély and had also played in a duo with Membrez. The missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle turned up in the shape of Dublin-based Swiss singer Sara Buechi, a former student at Doran's university in Lucerne. "Sara had impressed me greatly when she was the jazz school," says Doran. "She had attended New Bag workshops, where I'd given her recordings of Pakistani singers to listen to. She spent two years in India studying Indian classical music, so we have similar tastes."
Buechi has slotted in very naturally to the singer's position occupied for so long by Amstad. "I think there are similarities between them, notably that they're not just jazz or pop singers but are also inspired by ethnic music," says Doran. "Both have extreme singing abilities and tremendous range. Sara has also studied with [saxophonists] Steve Coleman
and Dave Liebman
, but most of all she brings a lyrical aspect to New Bag's music, which I think is very important."
The latest incarnation of New Bag hasn't been together for long. "Sara came from Dublin to Lucerne for a three-day rehearsal before we went into the studio. After four days of recording, we played directly the next day at the Chiasso Jazz, Culture & Music Festival in the south of Switzerland. We played another three concerts in Switzerland and then the one in Bray." The band is tight but has a free-wheeling, raw edge that is tremendously exciting. Doran, too, is excited by the possibilities. "I think it's a great band," he enthuses. "There's still a lot to be explored and discovered. There's a lot of evolving still. We've just started."
And started with a bang; Mesmerized
is a thrilling ride from start to finish, and Buechi contributes much to the recording's success. "I wrote the music and named the pieces; then Sara, inspired by the titles, wrote lyrics to the music," Doran explains. "Mostly, my compositions begin with small motifs, tiny mosaic stones, which finally fit together like a puzzle. While rehearsing with the band, we finally find the musical form. This is not something I work out aloneit's a band process.
"Some of the tunes even change their form in the studio while recording. I do write parts for the different instruments, but I leave it to the musicians if they want to play them or if they prefer to invent something themselveswhich often fits better."
The thread that seems to run through Doran's work is the fusion of influences; on Mesmerized
, jazz, rock, progressive rock and Indian music all converge. "This is true," says Doran. "I think one is always a child of their time." There's a hint of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, an element of late 1960s/early 1970s jazz-rock and King Crimson, too. Fans of psychedelic art-rock band MoeTar should also find plenty to get the juices flowing. Doran's incendiary guitar playing is like a hybrid between that of guitarists John McLaughlin
and Jimi Hendrix
, two influences that he readily acknowledges.
"John McLaughlin in [drummer] Tony Williams
' Lifetime Visions Orchestra
and in the Miles Davis Bitches Brew
(Columbia, 1970) period was a great influence," says Doran. "I think you can hear that in my playing. I love Miles. I was watching the Isle of Wight concert  not so long agowhat a time that was when such a crowd could listen to music of such a high standard."
Like many of his era, Doran grew up on a diet of pop and rock. "My first friends in Switzerland were Italian," recalls Doran. "This one friend played accordion, and we used to play at Italian partiesdance music, tango and waltzes. I used to add a Shadows tune or something by the Beatles or The Rolling Stones, who were just getting famous at that time. Later I got into Jimi Hendrix and had a trio playing Hendrix and Cream