Linley Hamilton: Strings Attached

Linley Hamilton: Strings Attached
Ian Patterson BY

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You just play the music that moves you. I never think of anything I play as beneath a jazz musician. I never think of jazz as the higher art. I appreciate all music.
—Linley Hamilton
Nearly all recordings are labours of love. Passion and a huge amount of work are the essential ingredients. Some recordings in particular, however, mark the realization of a life-long dream. For Northern Irish trumpeter, BBC jazz broadcaster and university lecturer Linley Hamilton, Making Other Arrangements (Teddy D Records, 2018) is just such a recording.

Backed by a cracking, small jazz ensemble—some of the finest musicians in Ireland—Hamilton has fulfilled a burning, career-long ambition by adding strings to songs that he has held dear down the years. The twelve-piece Camden String Orchestra, with Cian Boylan's lush arrangements, bring a romantic lustre and orchestral flare to classic songs from the jazz cannon and the worlds of pop, musicals and cinema. Yet despite the arrangements, Making Other Arrangements is fundamentally improvised music, with fine individual performances throughout. At the centre of it all though is Hamilton, who, whether on trumpet or flugelhorn, plays with lyricism, exquisite melodic sensibility, emotional nuance and great technical finesse.

The roots ofMaking Other Arrangements go back twenty five years or more, when Hamilton was embarking on a career as a professional musician with a love of jazz.

"I was always a big jazz listener but I wasn't one of those guys who would put a jazz record on, take it off, and put another one on," Hamilton relates. "Generally, if I found a record it was on for five months. "

The first album that struck a deep chord with the young Hamilton was a live album by Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan's quintet Alive in New York (Muse, 1980). Rodney and Sullivan's early 1980s quintet was one of the finest post-bop bands of the day -Hamilton was hooked. "It was nuts," he says. "I played it so often it had to be forcibly taken off by someone else in the house—either that or they were going to move out." The next album to impact Hamilton would effectively fire his imagination to envisage his own recording with strings, one day in the future. The album in question was Freddie Hubbard's Ride Like the Wind (Elektra/Musician, 1982).

"Freddie was such a great straight-ahead, bebop and post player, maybe the best," ventures Hamilton. "I got hooked on Freddie. On that album he used strings, an orchestral ensemble with flute, French horn and flugel horn—not dissimilar to the line-up I'm using on Making Other Arrangements. He wrote this one tune "Brigitte" for his wife and I fell in love with that tune. I thought, god, someday, someday I'm going to record that. A quarter of a century later Hamilton has done just that. "Brigitte" is the second track on Making Other Arrangements, showcasing Hamilton's outstanding playing, as personally recognizable in his own way, as Hubbard's was. No less significant is the role, here and throughout the album of pianist arranger Cian Boylan.

Boylan and Hamilton struck up a friendship while both were studying for a Masters in Jazz Performance in Dublin in 2008. Jazz lovers, both were equally open to all sorts of other music. With Making Other Arrangements drawing inspiration from the compositions of Dizzy Gillespie, Ivan Lins, James Taylor, David Foster, Michel Legrand Abdullah Ibrahim, Artie Butler, Frank Golde and Peter Ivers, Hamilton required an arranger with open ears. Boylan was the obvious choice.

"Cian [Boylan] is very similar to me in that he loves jazz but he also loves rock, pop and singer-songwriters—a very eclectic mix of music," explains Hamilton. "I've played an awful lot of his arrangements in different concerts in the National Concert Hall [Dublin's premier formal concert hall] and I thought it would be really nice if he did the arrangements because it would be maybe a less angular approach to the harmony and it would make it a soloists album, which is what I wanted it to be."

The ten tracks are peppered with fine improvisations from Hamilton, Boylan, guitarist Nigel Clarke and saxophonists Ben Castle and Brendan Doyle—the latter pair who also double on woodwind instruments. Bassist Dave Redmond and drummer Guy Rickarby, like the strings, play a more supportive though essentially bouyant role. Doyle and Rickarby, in particular have long associations with Hamilton. The former played with Hamilton in the Irish Youth Jazz Orchestra when both were in their teens, while Rickarby first recorded with Hamilton in 2001. "Having those two guys on the record means a lot to me personally as well as musically," says Hamilton.

Choosing the tracks for the album was perhaps the easiest part of the equation, the stylistic variety attesting to Hamilton's wide tastes in music. "All the songs seemed really obvious," says Hamilton. Being a radio presenter I get fifteen albums a week in the post and I get to fall in love with tracks every week. Over the years I've just made a mental note—uh huh, that one's going to be on it."

The final track on the album, "Carmel," was written by Hamilton's wife, Maggie Doyle. It's a sunny tune, almost Burt Bacharach-esque, though with underlying complexity. "I put it on the album because it was intervallicly active and then resolved," says Hamilton, who then laughs at his own PHD speak. "What I mean," he clarifies, swiftly removing his professor's hat, "is that in the first two bars there are big intervals in the melody, which is quite unusual, and then it resolves to much smaller intervals. I loved that. The whole album came out very organically like that."

The only vocal track on the album, the Franke Golde/Peter Ivers tune "Louisiana Sunday Afternoon" features Dana Masters. This was another track that Hamilton had made a mental note to record one day, having first heard Diane Schuur's version from her album Talkin' 'Bout You (GRP, 1988).

South Carolina-born, Northern Ireland-based Masters, a compelling live performer, has been a regular collaborator with Hamilton in recent years and is much in demand, featuring frequently with Van Morrison. Her performance on this one track is typically brilliant -soulful and powerful.

"Dana's a tremendous singer and she's writing a lot of stuff -more R&B. She was forced in to the jazz world by me. But she can do it all. She's the real deal," enthuses Hamilton. Although a last minute hitch with her children meant Masters couldn't make the Dublin recording date she didn't panic, finding a quick, local solution to the problem. "She went into a local studio with an engineer called Maddy Weir at about ten o'clock in the morning. She did just three takes and sent them down. We were all just blown away. It was ridiculous. I'm very proud of her. If people don't know her they should check her out."

Dublin was, for many reasons, the logical location to record Making Other Arrangements. Boylan owns the Camden Recording Studio, the historic city centre studio that has welcomed the likes of New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Fifty Cent, The Pogues and Gregory Porter. Ruadhri Cushnan, the mastering engineer, has an office upstairs above the studio. "Everything was in the one building. It didn't seem sensible to do it anywhere else," remarks Hamilton, who is fulsome in his praise of Boylan, Cushnan and engineer Conor Brady. Then there is the Camden String Orchestra, which in some ways had a very big billing to live up to.

The twelve-piece string section, augmented by double bassist Redmond, are all important session players in Ireland. They were brought together for this recording session by Kenneth Rice, himself a significant violinist in Ireland. Whereas the jazz ensemble had the relative luxury of four days to record, the strings did all their tracks in one day. The Camden String Orchestra, named for the occasion after the recording studio itself, leave a large musical imprint on the album, and says Hamilton, made a major impression on the day.

"When they came into the room there was great commotion and bustle. They have big cello cases and everything and they were very animated and chatty. When they warmed up it was a pandemonium of chaotic noise and then this amazing thing happens. The conductor taps the stand and all of a sudden its total silence, followed by this incredible sound -this magnificently honed, tuned and fantastic sound. You're standing there watching the bows go up and down and their concentration as they read the parts. I was in bits. I spent most of the day just trying to keep it together. Then suddenly it's all over and it's crash, bang, whoosh, wallop, bows and instruments in cases and it's 'see you later.' You have this magnificence for three hours and then they hit the off button. And I was thinking, how did that happen? It's unbelievable."

Hamilton also lavishes praise on Boylan for his elegant, intuitive arrangements. "Cian's a genius He's the Vince Mendoza of Ireland. I had a good idea of what I wanted but he was able to translate it in really quite an incredible way. When I heard his arrangements there was stuff I never saw coming but there was no way I was going to change a thing. He got inside my head and translated it onto the page."

With everything taken care of Hamilton found himself in, for him at least, a rather unusual position. "It meant that for the first time in twenty years I was able to do one of my own sessions without having to be in charge. Normally, it's chaos for me and the playing's the last thing you think about, but Cian and Conor took all that pressure off me and I was able to relax and focus on my playing."

The quality of the ensemble playing, the vibrancy and fluidity of the soloing throughout the album has much to do with the approach adopted by Hamilton to the recording sessions. "Most of it was done in one or two takes. We had some rehearsals but whenever the light went on we didn't overdo it because the idea is to keep yourself fresh mentally as well as physically. Then we had an hour off before we recorded the next track so that everyone's head was fresh. You've got to keep the head fresh because it's still an improvised record so for all the solos you're having to engage with the spaces being created in the environment and if your head's tired and you start thinking about something else it's not going to happen for you."

Hamilton had dreamt for years about making an album with strings, with a clear idea of the songs he wanted to include and the way he wanted the record to sound, but as fate would have it the formation of the trio Sazeracs along with Stephen Davis and pianist/singer Kyron Bourke in 2015 would greatly impact the future project. Hamilton explains: "Kyron does Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor and Nick Cave and he decided it do it with this very unusual trio of him on piano, left-hand bass and vocal, drums and trumpet and he wanted us to play freely. He didn't want to restrict us to melodies."

The trio's atypical set-up and the repertoire required a particular approach. "We had to play much more melodically, much more controlled in terms of dynamics and volume and I had to cut a lot of the vibrato out. I had to really construct a method of playing with the ensemble." The trio embarked upon a residency at Berts Jazz Bar in Belfast, honing their approach over one hundred and thirty three-hour gigs. "We were really able to cut loose and do whatever we wanted and we sculpted some arrangements. The approach I took with that band came slightly into this record—it was kind of the basis of it," Hamilton explains.

"Whenever you play and whenever you listen you can't forget or pretend something didn't happen. I guess it's a bit like politics," Hamilton expands. "You can't pretend WWII didn't happen or that The Troubles in Northern Ireland didn't happen. Everything you talk about has that in the background and you make decisions based on that. If you're playing a certain way one night a week, or practising a certain way, then that's going to have an imprint somewhere. It will add something to repertoire or musical approaches and might influence how you play everything. It definitely happened on this record. It's a very melodically focussed approach but there's quite a lot of improvisation."

There were other even more significant stepping stones along the way. Making Other Arrangements may still be a dream waiting to be realized one day had Hamilton not taken the decision to pursue a PHD a few years ago—no small decision given his existing commitments at the time.

All the hard work and sacrifice paid off when Hamilton obtained his PHD and subsequently a job as lecturer at University of Ulster Magee in Derry/Londonderry. For Hamilton it meant the first paid salary of his career as a musician. "It's a very different life having a paid salary as a university lecturer. You have money for the first time. So, I was able to save some money and invest it in this particular project."

The lecturer's position spurred Hamilton on to realize Making Other Arrangements in other ways. "This is not just an album, it's a research project about developing jazz improvisational techniques," says Hamilton. "As a university lecturer you have to deposit research. This whole project, the recording of the album, the transcription of all the solos, an analysis of that transcription, a statement describing the processes, the reviews of the gigs, interviews, and the diary of live gigs -this all goes in a box and in 2020 it will be assessed. I have three or four of these research projects to do every five years. Such research can then be disseminated to anyone hoping to do this kind of project."

A music educator by nature, Hamilton has taken to his role as university lecturer with typical enthusiasm. "It's wonderful. We specialize in music in the community, composition, performance and musicology. I'm involved with jazz harmony, jazz history. They get you to teach what you're good at." Not surprisingly then, Hamilton contributes to the performance class run by senior lecturer Suan Ryan. Magee offers a general music degree although the students have a large say in what they choose to study. "They tailor their degree to suit themselves," explains Hamilton. "You drop subjects after first and second year, you pick your final core subjects."

In recent years a number of talented young jazz musicians have emerged onto the scene in Northern Ireland, notable among them Joseph Leighton, Jack Kelly, Conor Murray, James Anderson, Caolan Hutchinson, Jake Holmes and Ben Flavelle-Cobain—all of whom have performed at Brilliant Corners, Belfast's international jazz festival, in the last two years. Hopefully, UUM will help produce more talented jazz musicians, but it's no real surprise, given jazz's humble profile in the country that few are the really good jazz musicians who enrol for the music degree.

"You find that the classical and trad players come in at eighteen and they're quite advanced and the jazz musicians are learning what a G7 is and what notes they can use, so you don't generally find young jazz players who can compete at any level with the classical or jazz performers, or rock and pop performers. We have some really good jazz singers. There's Antoinette McAlister and Tinisha Power. They're actively gigging on the local scene. They're only twenty or twenty one. They might go down the singer-songwriter route but they're very special. The talent at Magee is absolutely incredible," enthuses Hamilton.

"Jack Warnock is a trad guitarist who was shortlisted for the BBC radio 2 folk awards. There's a great drummer called Mark Donnelly who got our first ever 100 out of 100 in his performance. That doesn't happen normally. He's very special."

As a tireless advocate for jazz—indeed music in general—the seeds that UUM's post-graduate courses are planting for potential future developments in the country get Hamilton's juices flowing. "This year Scott Flanigan is doing a PHD, Lewis Smith is doing a Masters, Darren Beckett is doing a Masters, Jamie Nancy, a ferociously talented singer is dong a Masters. I don't whether they'lly go into teaching or research or something else, but let's put it this way, their focus and energy, learning how to articulate what can naturally do will not only enhance them but it will enhance the scene. God knows what impact it will have here in the next twenty five years."

The future, as the song goes, is not ours to see, but Hamilton has plans for the rest of the year and beyond regarding Making Other Arrangements. There are two official launch gigs, the first on 5 May at Bray Jazz Festival in County Wicklow and the second on 9 May in Black Box during Belfast's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Other gigs are lined up for Limerick Jazz Festival and Cork Jazz Festival in the autumn, there's a gig in Wigan and plans are afoot to take the project to Italy, Canada and as far afield as South Africa.

In the meantime, it's business as usual for Hamilton. There's the day job at UUM, the Friday night BBC Radio jazz show and any number of gigs in very diverse settings. "A lot of people think because I have a PHD in jazz and I do a BBC Radio jazz show that all I do is jazz, but I love all kinds of music." During his career Hamilton has played and recorded with artists as diverse as Paul Brady, Jean Toussaint, Van Morrison, The Commitments, Jacqui Dankworth, Foy Vance, Kenny Werner, Malibu Shark Attack, Edel Meade, Anthony Toner, exmagician and Meilana Gillard, to name but a few. "You just play the music that moves you," says Hamilton. "I never think of anything I play as beneath a jazz musician. I never think of jazz as the higher art. I appreciate all music."

Hamilton's advice to any young musician is to be open to music regardless of genre. Openness, however, means more than just playing a jazz solo on a rock or pop session. "Sometimes jazz musicians get it in their head that they have to superimpose jazz language on everything they do. If you're playing another type of music you need to steep yourself in whatever that is," says Hamilton.

"If you were applying for a job as an aeronautical engineer or a chemist or whatever, you'd be researching that job and finding out what it required, what's appropriate to know and say at the interview and you'd rehearse your lines to try and get that particular job. Music is a wee bit like that as well. You don't just superimpose what you do on the music, you have to understand what your job role is."

Nor, continues Hamilton, is virtuosity the be all and end all when it comes to making music. "There's a difference between a player and a musician. Musicians will say, wow, that guy's a great player, he has chops. He can play anything, except with other people. A good player is impressive but a good musician is never hungry. The more jobs, and the more diverse jobs you have, the more you learn how to turn vibrato on and off, to play loud, play soft, play with range, quote melodies, stop playing and just let the space happen.

"The more experience like that you have the more you grow, the better a musician you become; possibly not a better player, but definitely a better musician and you get a really good understanding of the overall scene. Don't draw a little box around yourself. If you're 20, or 21 years old you've got about fifty five years to play; something that's current now is going to be old hat in twenty years so be open to and respect all music."

For Making Other Arrangements Hamilton turned to Dublin promoter Dominic Reily to manage the project. "This is a different project from anything I've done before so it needed a new approach and it needed a manager because I barely have time to eat or sleep. You have to work hard to get your press out, get reviews, gigs and radio play. You need to have a hot fire going when you release an album because if yours is out on the Tuesday there'll be another one out on the Wednesday and so on. You don't have a big window anymore," says Hamilton.

"Dominic takes the flak and he does it very well. He's my manger now, he's managing this project and he's running the label. I really trust Dominic, he's somebody who never puts money first. He puts the music first. He doesn't get funded, he puts his money in and if he takes a fall he takes a fall. He's brought some amazing stuff to Ireland."

He certainly has. In just a few short years since setting himself up as a jazz promoter Reily has brought Ahmad Jamal, Ernie Watts, Charles Lloyd and Joey Alexander to Ireland.

"Dominic is somebody who wants the best for everybody because it's good for the scene. He works hard and he's developed really good contacts over the years. He's a good guy. You can't say anything other than he's really good for jazz in Ireland."

The same must be said for Linley Hamilton, who has done as much as anyone north or south of the island these past two decades to promote the jazz scene and all those connected to it. Now, with the beautiful, finely crafted album that is Making Other Arrangements it seems the time is right for Hamilton to reap the plaudits and the rewards for turning the dreams, through sheer hard work, into reality.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Linley Hamilton

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