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.