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Mark O'Leary: Plucking the Flower

Eyal Hareuveni By

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Mark O'LearyIrish guitarist Mark O'Leary emerged on the global improvised music scene in the last few years, pushing his bold vision and broad scope of musicality through constantly-changing collaborations. O'Leary can cross easily between genres, from progressive, synth-laden rock and seventies fusion to free jazz and abstract soundscapes.

The guitarist's encyclopedic interests and remarkable prolificacy are amongst the many subjects he covers in this latest installment of In The Artist's Own Words.

Chapter Index
  1. Beginning and Formative Influences
  2. Becoming a Musician
  3. Selected Projects
  4. Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri and Randy Peterson
  5. Shamanic Voices
  6. Zemlya
  7. On the Shore
  8. The Synth Show
  9. Artistic Goals
  10. Future Plans


Beginning and Formative Influences

Mark O'Leary: I live in Cork, in the area of Turners Cross Douglas. When I was around seven or eight, I wanted to be a drummer. I used to play along with these shows on TV, on whatever was available and sounded good. I have an uncle who is a multi-instrumentalist that was involved in the show band scene in Ireland in the '60s, and my grandparents also had an upright piano in their house, so any time we visited I would spend hours at the piano just pulling out melodies. A year later, my brother began to play the guitar. I had no interest at that time, but at the age of 11, I began watching Top of the Pops and really started to get into what was happening at the time. I got a guitar from my uncle, and that was it. I actually started to use it as a bass and then as a lead guitar, as most of the strings were missing at that stage except the top three. I acquired the basic open chords from a neighbor and got the rest from the Complete Guitar Handbook. Some magazines as well—Down Beat, especially the old issues from the 1970s—were a source of inspiration. Later, imagination and determination took care of the rest.

My early influences were Louis Stewart, an amazing guitarist from Ireland—a great player and a genius as well. I idolized him. And of course, Rory Gallagher, who came from the same neighborhood in my town, Cork. I spent hours copying his tunes when I was 12. I would put on the record of him and I would play along with it while my family were looking at me as a party piece. Later, I would get word that a guy across town had a tape of Mahavishnu Orchestra from the '70s and I was on my bike to check it out. I would try to figure out what John McLaughlin was doing and try to study the scales he was using. His swing lines, broken rhythms, chords, energy—it just inspired the hell out of me.

Mark O'LearyWhen I was 16, I was working with delay pedals as well and getting into soundscape material inspired by Terje Rypdal and Robert Fripp. Rypdal was probably the first guitarist I remember seeing on TV. For me, he is one of my most important influences. Even as a sideman, his playing on Edward Vesala's Satu (ECM, 1976) just amazed me; it still does. His use of delay with distortion opened my imagination. Fripp's layering was what attracted me, but it is also his intervallic approach which I found unique. I tried to work on that and move it somewhere else.

I loved John Abercrombie. His album, Timeless, (ECM, 1974) was just amazing. I also liked Philip Catherine quite a bit because of his sense of melody. To be honest, Bill Frisell is also an influence. I don't listen to him too much anymore because he is so copied, but I think he is superb, the way he can constantly reinvent himself. Pat Martino also inspired me, in terms of his long fluid lines and his energy. Martino's Live! (Muse, 1972) is still one of my favorites—hard to beat, for the idiom. Pat Metheny's Song X (ECM, 1985) is another serious influence. I could talk all day about that record. I also liked the darkness of Allan Holdsworth. He is a genius.

Ironically, when I started playing, the guitar I had was a little unstable and the bridge broke, so I used to elevate the strings with a battery. It sounded a lot like Derek Bailey, who later, I have to say, also became an influence. I had some Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) recordings, and he and Evan Parker influenced me quite a bit. Evan's angular, cut-off phrases and Derek's use of volume pedal—that influence is all over my work.

That's how I learned—totally autodidactic and idiosyncratic. I had to discover this myself, looking through record and tape collections, reading a review and getting the album. Several teachers at my high school were inspirational intellectual types who encouraged us to set high goals and go beyond ourselves. The scene here in Ireland was rock and pop-oriented, although jazz has a tradition all over Ireland, with a lot of incredible players—very modest, giving guys who never recorded or made careers for themselves, but gave so much to me and others. When I was in my late teens I played all over Ireland and ended up playing with most of them.

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Becoming a Musician

At the age of 15, I knew this was what I wanted to do—be a musician. I set the goalposts very high and decided that I wanted to study at http://www.mi.edu/ TARGET=_blank>Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. I went there while I was quite young, at 17. That was an incredible experience because there were so many older, more experienced musicians than me there, and you would get up in the morning and go to school and as soon as you were in the Institute's building, you were learning. Things that I needed to know, theoretical things, mainly, but ironically that's also where I discovered Karlheinz Stockhausen's tape music, Steve Reich, Gyorgy Ligeti and Bela Bartok and Ornette Coleman and all the jazz guys I had missed.

When I think back, I remember that the teachers every Friday would get up on stage without material and improvise—no structure, nothing written, just play. I found this amazing, and I ended up doing it a lot myself, but it was my first introduction to it and it inspired me quite a bit.

Mark O'LearySo I was there for a year, and when I returned to Ireland, that's where the major work began. I started to work as a teacher and I also discovered some very important music which I consider my strongest roots— Edward Vesala, Paul Bley, Tomasz Stanko and early Jan Garbarek. I liked his Triptykon (ECM, 1972). The austere melodies and rubato figures contoured my aesthetic. Vesala's stark melodies on Nan Madol (ECM, 1974), Satu (ECM, 1976) and Lumi (ECM, 1986), and the way the music evolved, the dynamic contrast, are really a music for the soul. It reached me and effected me deeply.

I love Stanko's early recordings. He is one of the great tone poets; Stanko always has a song in his heart. They, along with Stockhausen, Reich, Ligeti and later Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg really shaped who I am now. Even though I am always open and listening and learning from new music in all idioms, I would consider these artists of foremost importance to the shaping of my aesthetic as a composer and musician.

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Selected Projects

My first band after that was with local guys here in Cork—guitar, drums and electric bass, called the Mark O'Leary Trio. We played a mix of standards, fusion and free material. It was like doing a Master's program. It was a lab, a canvas, an arena for developing, but also some innocent fun, because the music was far from perfect. When that band finished, I decided that I never wanted to call another band that name again, because the music was very special to me.

The first project I did here was with Kenny Wheeler. I have always loved Kenny's playing and tunes, so I decided to bring him over to Cork for a concert project. It took some persuading, as I had no albums out and had not played outside Ireland or in the USA. Ironically, during rehearsals, he asked me if I composed anything for the concert. I hadn't, because I was putting everything I had into learning his music, but I started a few months afterward. I'm not the most confident person in the world, so the project with Kenny gave me the self-belief I needed to keep going. I am still very grateful to him.

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Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri and Randy Peterson

The first recording project I did where I didn't feel like had to genuflect all the time was when I recorded with Matthew Shipp and Mat Maneri. It was just after 9/11 and things were incredibly tense, but I love New York and had to go to show my support to family and friends. That was a really positive experience. "Out of this nettle danger, we pluck this flower, safety," as Shakespeare wrote.

Mark O'LearyWe played at Tonic and The Kennedy Center. Three records came from the project. Mat and I made a trio with Randy Peterson on drums for Self Luminous (Leo, 2005). Chamber Trio (Leo, 2005) is with Matthew and Mat, and the new Labyrinth (FMR, 2009), which is dedicated to writer Jorge Luis Borges, is a duo with Matthew, whose playing on it is very different and special—it's very impressionistic. During the sessions with Matthew, Mat and Randy, we discussed the direction of the music a little before we played, but nothing was composed—we just played.

In Chamber Trio, one thing that did capture our imaginations during the recording is our mutual appreciation of Charles Ives. I have always been a big fan of his sonatas for piano and violin. I think, for me, there are moments on that album where I can hear strains of it permeating the music. The labyrinthine impressionism of the duo disc lends to its title. It was very profound—for me one of my deepest, most emotional—when I listen to that disc, I am still very moved by it. I love Randy's drumming. He is unique; his rhythmic editing and dynamism are terrific. His playing was the critical element, in terms of how the music evolved and enhanced the interaction between guitar and viola. Also, Mat refrained, of his own volition, from using electric viola on both projects. I like the juxtaposition of electric and acoustic instruments.

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Shamanic Voices

I heard one of Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset's discs and got in touch with him. He came over for a tour of Ireland.

Mark O'LearyBefore we started, we recorded Shamanic Voices (FMR, 2007) at Studio Fiona in Fermoy. We spent the day recording, and Terje added some overdubs. I later added some ambient sounds and worked on producing the disc with engineer Jer Spillane.

I used a 12-string guitar tuned down to B and used various guitars, amps, effects and laptop. It's my Tubular Bells (Virgin, 1973) in a way.

Resources were limited; you have to rely on people skills. Jer, the engineer, is talented at getting the best out of people. I talked with Terje a lot before we even played a note together, and we had agreed that it's very easy for a project like this to slip into the folk idiom. I'm not really a folk player and I didn't want to have too much cheeky-chappy sentimentalism either, so I had to really dig deep to find an approach that could work.

The title was in the back of my mind for a long time. I did quite a bit of research into it. In Ireland, we have a mystical past with Tir na Nog and Cu Chullain, and the Norwegians are rich in mythology as well.

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