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Joseph Leighton Trio at Jazzhole

Ian Patterson By

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Derry guitarist Joseph Leighton is one of the most promising musicians to have emerged on the Irish jazz scene for some time.
Joseph Leighton Trio
Jazzhole, Top of the Town
Omagh, N. Ireland
June 24, 2017

Jazzhole may not be the most enticing name for N. Ireland's newest jazz venue. Then again, who's to say? For in spite of, or perhaps because of the borderline pejorative/boho-chic ambiguity of the name, around forty people turned out on a Saturday night to see the trio of Joseph Leighton, one of Ireland's most promising jazz six-stringers.

The man responsible for Jazzhole is Henry Hughes of Hencar Events, a jazz enthusiast of evangelist zeal. Omagh, a town of 20,000 inhabitants and seventy miles west of Belfast, is more attuned to the rhythms of rock, country and traditional folk music, but Hughes' mission is to add jazz to the menu. "There's not a great deal of jazz in Omagh," he said before the gig, "but I aim to put that right."

The Jazzhole is in the upstairs lounge of Top of the Town, a popular bar, restaurant and gig venue in Omagh. Its walls, painted ship-hull red and green, carry framed pictures of Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Led Zeppelin, all of whom, bar the perennially middle-aged King, look incredibly young. So too, at least by modern jazz standards, was the crowd, most of whom were in their twenties. Pleasingly too, the crowd was attentive and appreciative.

The support slot saw local pianist Caolan Hutchinson deliver a set of well-known jazz standards, from "Moon River" and "Georgia" to "Take the A-Train." As familiar as the tunes were, Hutchinson's spare arrangements and succinct phrasing rendered the tunes anew. Hutchinson's deft touch and lyrical finesse were evident on Bill Evans' "Time Remembered," stripped to its bare, melodic and harmonic essentials. The pianist was in more expansive and playful mode on the Gershwin's "Summertime," with a nod to Miles Davis' "So What" woven into the rhythmic seam.

The pianist was joined by Joseph Leighton on a mazy version of "All The Things You Are," the pair switching back and forth between comping and lead roles. Solo once more, Hutchinson's take on "My Favorite Things" was as brief as it was original, while Bobby Timmons's "Moanin'" was taken at a bluesy stroll. The set concluded with a self-penned tune—tangoish in flavour—that was so short it seemed only half-birthed. Still, much of the appeal in Hutchinson's playing lay in his concise delivery, a stylistic approach that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries.

Derry guitarist Joseph Leighton is one of the most promising musicians to have emerged on the Irish jazz scene for some time. Apart from his own Derry residency gig, he has, in his short career to date, played Brilliant Corners, Derry Jazz Festival, Ards Guitar Festival and the Stendhal Arts Festival, to both critical and popular acclaim. His collaborations with David Lyttle, Meilana Gillard, and in a duo setting with Neil Cowley, are further evidence of his gradual ascendancy.

With regular trio partners Jack Kelly on bass and drummer James Anderson, Leighton's set showcased his instrumental prowess, but just as significantly, his skills as an arranger and composer. And it was with an impressive original tune, "Planet 9," that Leighton presented his credentials. Initial pedal sustain gave way to the elegant head, before he gradually uncoiled a solo where harmonic and melodic paths converged to striking effect.

Throughout the evening the guitarist's undoubted technical sophistication was ever in the service of the tunes, while his maturity as a leader meant space aplenty for Kelly and Anderson, two of the most promising upcoming talents in Irish jazz. Protagonism was shared on a delightful, straight-ahead reading of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," the import of Leighton and Kelly's measured solos heightened by Anderson's painterly touches.

Leighton shone on a ballad version of the Vincent Youmans/Irving Caesar tune "Tea for Two," his flowing improvisation as beguiling as the simple melody that inspired him. Kelly was the engine on a driving version of Ralph Rainger/Leo Robin's standard "If I Should Lose You," which saw Anderson flex his chops. The first set closed with a brushes-driven "Mack the Knife" -a staple of many of the country's marching bands; Leighton's lyrical solo would have sealed the deal, but the guitarist then lead a clap-along to Kelly's solo and provided chordal compass to Anderson's vibrant response.

The second set began with "Mirror Lake," another Leighton original, inspired by the guitarist's sojurn at the renowned Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada; on this impressionistic number Anderson and Kelly provided sympathetic support as Leighton carved a solo of marked finesse and poise. Caolan Hutchinson joined the trio for breezy versions of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A-Train" and Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," with improvised wiggle room for all.

The self-penned "Caspar" wed bouncing groove and uplifting melody, the leader's chordal vamps providing the launching pad for Kelly and Anderson's extended solos. The leader's solo provided a highlight of the evening, his dancing improvisation a study in melodic invention and rhythmic impetus. Band introductions over a vamp morphed into The Beatle's "Day Tripper," and a final hurrah from Anderson. The crowd demanded one more and, with Hutchinson on board again, the quartet kicked back with a bluesy swinger, a little raggedy perhaps, but full of energy, good vibes and improvisational flair.

Hats off to Henry Hughes on staging this inaugural Jazzhole evening, which attracted a sizeable, enthusiastic crowd. Hopefully the jazz series will kick on from this terrific start and provide another welcoming home for the country's not inconsiderable pool of jazz talent.
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