Linley Hamilton: Right On The Wavelength

Ian Patterson By

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Turning once again to In Transition, Hamilton shares his thoughts on the songs and the musicians in his quintet. One of the most striking interpretations on the CD is singer-songwriter Rufus Wainright's "Dinner at 8." It may seem like an unusual choice for a jazz cover but Hamilton doesn't see it like that: "I'm a jazz trumpeter but I'm a musician first and foremost and I like all kinds of music," he affirms.

"Singer-songwriters appeal to me. They are the next generation of Great American Songbook writers, whoever coined that phrase. The truth is there are loads of great writers, American and British—Elton John, Billy Joel, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Nick Cave—great songs with great lyrics, great melodies over great chords, so it's nice to welcome them in. "Dinner at 8"? The sentiment, the melody and the chords are all gorgeous. It lends itself to people like us taking our own approach to that music. Rufus Wainright is a great songwriter, so why not have that on my album?"

Hamilton's previous CD, Taylor Made (Lyte Records, 2011) consisted mostly of jazz standards but on In Transition Rodgers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" is the only jazz standard. For Hamilton, it wasn't a conscious decision to move away from the Great American Songbook: "We didn't have any original numbers on the last album and we're now in the transition of writing quite a lot of material and we wanted to put three originals on. We thought it was probably going to be a seven-track album and it limited the number of standards we could use."

As with all the other tracks, with "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" Hamilton was drawn by the song's melody: "It's got a lovely sentiment and the melody flows very well. It gives me a chance to play horizontally, which is what I was brought up on. People will listen to that and think, oh yeah, that's the Linley we know. They'll hear me playing the standard way that I would, anticipating the harmony, which is something that I've always done. I'll be aware that there's a harmonic change coming seven or eight bars down the line and I'll stop my line and start the harmony of the next phrase early."

It's probably no coincidence that Hamilton's playing on the old jazz standard differs to his approach on the more contemporary and self-penned material: "When I look at the transcription of my solo on that track ["I Didn't Know What Time it Was"] I think, yeah, that's me, and when I look at the transcriptions of the other solos on the rest of the album I think, ah, that's the new me."

Just as Hamilton is keen to mentor the up-and-coming generation of jazz musicians he is quick to acknowledge the role that others have played in his own development. Another song from In Transition, the appropriately titled "Anthem" was composed by Australian trumpeter Paul Williamson, who left an indelible impression on the jazz scene during his stay in Ireland.

"Paul's an educator," says Hamilton. "He had a really great work ethic with a great technique. He was very passionate about the music other people made and he had a big knock-on effect on a lot of the guys like the young [guitarist] Michael Buckley coming through and other young guys who got a chance to work with him. It's had a knock-on effect in the way they in turn have impacted on musicians coming after them as well."

Williamson wasn't alone in inspiring local jazz musicians: "It wasn't just Paul," says Hamilton. It was seven or eight guys like him over the last twenty years. I wanted to make some kind of nod to those musicians who come to Ireland to play and stay."

Though jazz in Northern Ireland is not as developed as in the Republic of Ireland in simple terms of numbers, nevertheless, the jazz scene is arguably healthier than it's ever been. In no small part, that's thanks to a number of foreign jazz musicans who have dropped anchor and made Northern Ireland their home, which clearly excites Hamilton: "Right now we've got [saxophonist] Meilana Gillard from New York; we've got David Fasulo, a great Italian pianist; we've got Dana Masters, an incredible vocalist from South Carolina and pianist Kaidi Tatham. These guys coming here are spreading their tentacles and making an impact that the rest of us can only benefit from."

Hamilton's In Transition quintet boasts two adopted foreigners in Italian guitarist Julien Colarossi and Australian bassist Damien Evans: "I think it's very important that we broaden the scene because these people are bringing something very special with them," stresses Hamilton. "They bring energy and they pass it on to the next person. They're a catalyst for change and some of that change can just be the influence of their professional ethic and it can be the influence of what they listen to or how they respond in a rehearsal situation. And maybe it's just their passion that opens doors. They can make us think of our audience differently, the music we play and the way we practice. It's inspirational having these people come here."

The one tune on In Transition credited solely to Hamilton is the beautiful ballad "Dusk": "That one is very precious to me," Hamilton admits, "and it's also a very difficult trumpet track because it's pushing up towards the upper limits of my range. It's a really slow tune with a lot of long notes so it's really testing me just to play that head. I've chosen to go a non-vibrato route in the transition towards the sound I'm trying to go to because it forces me to get a bigger sound and to be more creative with my embouchure, with how I drop the air in and out, how I do a tongue attack or a breath attack or how I fade out. It's made me think very differently about my approach and it's made me work harder."

Two of the tracks on In Transition are by pianist Johnny Taylor, an indispensable member of Hamilton's quintet, as the trumpeter readily admits: "He was such an inspiration for the first album that I named it after him," says Hamilton in reference to Taylor Made. I have a trumpet called a Taylor and a lot of people thought I named the album after my trumpet but I actually named it after Johnny. His temperament, his personality, the way he galvanizes the spirit of the band and the way he makes us respect the melody by his voicings in everything he plays and the spaces he creates was such a shock to me," says Hamilton.

"He's very, very sensitive as a human being, as an improviser and as an accompanist. He has really strong ideas on how he wants the music to happen and he is so gentle in the way that he passes that information on in the band that we so want to bring to life his ideas. He's a very democratic player and he more than anybody has made the sound of the band what it is. He's a beautiful person. I can't speak highly enough about Johnny Taylor."

Taylor may not lead any of his own groups as yet, but Hamilton is in no doubts as to his influence on any number of ensembles: "Every group he's in he kind of leads," says Hamilton. "He's the MD of the trio that works with [singer] Cormac Kenevey, he's the MD of the trio that works with [singer] Emily Conway, he's the MD of the trio that works with [guitarist/singer] Nigel Mooney and whether he's in charge of those bands or not is debatable but he's in charge of the rhythm sections. Anyone who works with the guy feels the same way; he's very special. The music comes first. You never get the impression listening to Johnny Taylor that he wants people to see how good he is; it doesn't come into his psyche at all."

Plenty would say the same about Hamilton, whose first step into jazz came at a young age: "I started playing trumpet at primary school when I was nine," says Hamilton. Back in the 1970s—a troubled time for Northern Ireland—"jazz" meant the trad jazz of Dixieland and New Orleans: "There was no modern, mainstream stuff going on at all when I started playing," Hamilton recalls.

"I bought a record when I was about eleven and it was Terry Lightfoot At the Jazz Band Ball (Stereo Gold Award Recordings, 1974) and the only reason I bought it was because the guy playing trumpet in the photograph on the front cover in a linen suit had black hair and looked dead like me. Or I thought I looked dead like him, even though I was only eleven. I assumed that because he was a trumpet player he was Terry Lightfoot, because the trumpet player was always the boss as far as I was concerned."

Regardless of who resembled who, the record had a major impact on the young Hamilton: "I put a hole in that record I played it that many times," he says. "It was only whenever I was thirty that I discovered Terry Lightfoot was a clarinetist; if I had known that when I bought the record I probably wouldn't have played jazz. So that was my very first influence."

Inevitably perhaps, given the limitations of the jazz scene in Northern Ireland at that time Hamilton graduated to playing in swing and Dixieland bands. While still in his teens he also began to perform in the Irish Youth Jazz Orchestra, which at that time was led by trombonist Bobby Lamb. Originally from Cork, Lamb played in the bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman and he toured extensively with singers Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. Lamb was head of jazz at Trinity College of Music, London when he was enticed over to conduct the all-Irish orchestra.

Lamb's influence and expertise was important in bringing along many of the aspiring Irish jazz musicians of the day: "A lot of guys like Brendan Doyle, Stephen Donald, Ronan Dooney, Michael Buckley, Dermod Harland ... too many people to recount were all part of that band," recalls Hamilton. "Bobby Lamb was so influential that a lot of the guys who were in that band then are the foremost players in Ireland today. That was really where it all started for me."

Hamilton has special words for his great friend, the late Dermod Harland. Hamilton was a member of saxophonist Harland's quintet and together they played with Van Morrison at Belfast City Hall, when US President Bill Clinton visited in 1995 to give a push to the peace process. Harland, who died more than a decade ago, was a unifying force musically: "He was a real gentleman," says Hamilton, "and he provided a link between so many music scenes. He would have been the most significant figure in the jazz related scene in Northern Ireland had he survived."
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