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Scott Flanigan: Walking On Clouds


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Make sure you get paid. Don’t undersell yourself, but also realize when money is only a side aspect to the gig. Not every gig is about the money.
—Scott Flanigan
The challenge for any jazz musician is to find a personal voice. Acquiring the language of jazz through countless hours of listening to recordings, through practicing and gigging is not the issue. It is doing so without being shackled to another's style.

When Charlie Parker was in his pomp, few saxophonists of the time were able to avoid the flattery of imitation. And over half a century after his death, John Coltrane acolytes are everywhere. So too, contemporary singers who are unable—or unwilling—to wriggle free from channelling the fragile beauty of Billie Holiday's voice, or pianists from copying the stylistic language of Keith Jarrett.

Belfast pianist Scott Flanigan has had time to consider how his influences have fed into his playing. Almost eight years, in fact. Between his debut recording, Point of Departure (Self-Produced, 2015) and his second as leader, Clouded Lines (SF Music, 2023), Flanigan realized that he needed to develop a more personal sound. So, he took a Ph.D in jazz performance.

"Before, I was playing in a style which I thought was okay, but quite derivative of one particular player. All these lines I was playing—I was getting a bit fed up listening to them. I felt like I was stuck in a rut, which is part of the reason I wanted to get on and do a Ph.D, to give me the sort of detailed focus and study where I could spend the time working on my art. I wanted to mix up these lines, make them a bit different, a bit more abstract."

This intense period of study led Flanigan to pianist Aaron Parks, whom he describes as "a constant source of inspiration." For Flanigan, hearing Park's album Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008) marked something of a eureka moment.

"It immediately grabbed me. The way he thinks about melody lines is really interesting. The term that I found best to describe his music is melodic dissonance. When you hear a line, [Flanigan sings a rising scale] where everything is quite step-wise, Aaron Parks has such a unique way of thinking about melody that he will play all of those notes but in a totally different order. None of the notes are out of key and he's not going off on some weird harmonic thing. He is just thinking about harmony and melody in a kind of unique way, making connections between notes that you wouldn't necessarily have done so before."

Prior to discovering Aaron Parks, Flanigan had been in thrall to arguably the most influential of post-Keith Jarrett pianists—Brad Mehldau. Parks opened other musical vistas for the Belfast pianist. "It was completely different. It wasn't about piano shredding—he has great technique, but he wouldn't list that as one of his characteristics as a pianist."

For Flanigan, Mehldau and Parks represented two fascinating, but quite distinct perspectives on jazz piano.

"I absolutely love both of them for completely different reasons. Brad Mehldau with his real focus on harmony, and Aaron Parks with this real focus and interest in melody."

The challenge for Flanigan was never about rejecting the influence of Mehldau for that of Parks. It was about assimilating strands of both within his own voice. "That's where my Ph.D took me and that is where the record is from," Flanigan explains.

Flanigan began "clouding" his own melodic lines, a term he coined in reference to the lessons he gleaned from studying Parks' music. Impetus for the album came courtesy of a joint commission from Belfast promoters Moving on Music and the PRS Foundation. Flanigan premiered the music, the "Clouded Lines Suite" at Brilliant Corners jazz festival in 2019.

For the recording Flanigan recruited drummer Kevin Brady, bassist Dave Redmond—a rhythm team of twenty years standing—and guitarist Ant Law.

Flanigan speaks of his love for contemporary jazz guitar, citing Kurt Rosenwinkel, Lage Lund, Gilad Hekselman and, Aaron Park's collaborator on the Invisible Cinema album, Mike Moreno as current favourites.

With his contemporary approach to jazz guitar, Law aligns beautifully with Flanigan's concept on Clouded Lines. The two musicians forge arresting harmonic and melodic lines throughout and stoke each other's fires.

"He's a great guitarist," enthuses Flanigan. "He will play the most beautiful melodies and he can play all that incredible bebop, all your inside language. But when you let him loose on E minor, off he goes. He brings this fairly rocky, fiery guitar sound that is the kind of jazz guitar that I liked—almost rock-influenced but with great harmony. He has it all."

Flanigan first met Law in 2018. "I was nominated to apply for a talent development program called Take Five run by Serious. I was the first person from Northern Ireland to be on it. So, in early 2018 eight of us went to this farmhouse in Kent for five days or so. I may be biased but it was a brilliant line-up that year—Rob Luft, Camilla George, Nubya Garcia, Jonathon Silk, Al McSween, Helen Papaioannou and Ant Law. These are all people that I got to hang out with, share great food with and have the craic with [Irish idiom for fun] and make music with. It was a brilliant experience."

As an ardent fan of contemporary jazz guitar, Flanigan naturally gravitated towards Loft and Law. Flanigan had previously toured England with Luft, playing the music of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. But when it came time to record Clouded Lines the ideal candidate was clear. "I wanted to get Ant Law on the record," says Flanigan.

A leader in his own right, Law has also worked extensively with percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and in the avant-classical group Trio HLK. "He has all this incredible discipline in his playing, but he can also unleash the fire when he really needs to," Flanigan expands.

"For me, exciting music happens right on the very edge, and it could go one of two ways. It could fall off the cliff into total chaos or it can step back and be a bit too safe. If you are perched right on the edge... Ant is just great at being able to walk that line. I absolutely love that, not just in a player but in music in general and when I think about classical composers that I really like. Prokofiev is an absolute master of that. Sometimes it descends into absolute madness and other times there are these beautiful, beautiful melodies. I've tried to bring some of that into the record."

The nineteen-minute "Clouded Lines Suite" has plenty of this on-the-edge tension and excitement about it, not to mention beautiful melodies, particularly in the albums' intro and outro. The "Clouded Lines Suite," however, It is the centre-piece of the album and, as such, represents the best example of where Flanigan's musical path is currently leading him.

There is still a strong tie to the jazz tradition in the bebop-flavored lines of Flanigan's own "It's Not Yourself" and on a gossamer reading of George Gershwin's lovely "I've Got a Crush On You."

The role of Brady and Redmond on Clouded Lines cannot be underestimated. They drive the music rhythmically and provide sure-footed support when Flanigan and Law cut loose. Flanigan is delighted with their input to the album.

"It's absolutely brilliant playing with them because they work so well together. I've worked with them both in a lot of different scenarios. I've worked with them with Tommy Halferty, I've worked with Kevin quite a lot in different organ trios, and it's just a real joy to play with them. They are masters of their instruments. They bring the fire that I want but they also play the most beautiful stuff you've ever heard as well. They are so responsive."

The album's one outlier, and a brilliant one at that, is "She Has Music" from singer/composer Sue Rynhart's album Crossings... (Self-Produced, 2015). Flanigan had seen Rynhart perform at Brilliant Corners 2018 and immediately his composer's mind had started whirring.

"Sue did this piece called "She Has Music" and as she was playing it, in my head I could just hear it working in a jazz trio setting so well. I bounded up to her after the gig and said, 'Sue, this is a tremendous piece, can I play it please?' She said yeah. She does it kind if slightly slower, but we brought the tempo up a little bit. It's a really fun piece to play. It has this really quirky melody. She is an absolutely wonderful composer, an incredible singer and such a wonderful person as well," says Flanigan.

"Part of it is motivated by wanting to look at the musicians and composers in Ireland. On my last record I did a song by Edel Meade called "Love Lost." There are a lot of incredible Irish composers and musicians out there and I want their music to be heard. There is an Irish aspect to it that I do value."

The Clouded Lines tour will take Flanigan's quartet around Ireland. It is a circuit that Flanigan know well.

"Ireland is not a big country to tour. You can bounce between the seven major cities. It has its own little eco-system. I've played a lot of these places before. Once you've developed the connections it is very easy to pick up the phone to somebody in Limerick or Kilkenny and say, 'Can I have a gig?' 'Yeah, when do you want to come along?' There's a trust there that makes it easy to get a gig."

Flanigan is grateful for the tour support from Moving on Music, Improvised Music Company and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. But at any other time when it comes to gigging in Ireland, Flanigan is better connected than most, dividing his teaching work between Belfast, Dublin and Cork. It is something of a slog, even by Ireland's small-country standards, but Flanigan, enthused by his role as an educator, takes it in his stride. "It's a lot of work," admits Flanigan, "but part of being a musician is going where the work is."

Zipping between Belfast, Dublin and Cork has its advantages. "For me, it has opened up a whole network of musicians in Cork. I'm very easily able to get a gig in Cork, and I know that for the foreseeable future I'll have a bunch of gigs at the Cork Jazz Festival. In the last five or six years I've gradually picked up more gigs as part of the Dublin jazz scene. I feel that I'm not just part of the Belfast scene that travels down, but anywhere in Ireland. I think I might be the only person in the country that has a regular gig in Cork and a regular gig in Belfast."

Since 2020, Flanigan has also been a promotor, running a Friday-night jazz gig at Scott's Jazz Club. Gigging, teaching, promoting. It is a lot to juggle, but as Flanigan is well aware, being a jazz musician is not an easy life, especially in Ireland.

"In this country you can't rely on performances alone to pay the bills. You need to develop other skills. For me, the focus on teaching and education, and then becoming a promotor as well, and as a result of opening up these avenues you see where it takes you. Getting into third level education was something I would have quite liked to do ten years ago, and I just gradually worked until the opportunities arose."

Lecturing in jazz piano, Flanigan's teaching incorporates not just harmony and improvisation, but concert preparation as well.

"Performance is never just the music. Your performance begins the minute that you walk out. How you interact with the audience, how you interact with the other musicians—that's all the performance, because the audience is watching you from the minute they see you until the moment you leave the stage," Flanigan explains.

"With students I talk about how we introduce a piece, how we start a piece, how we finish a piece. But it's also about how to talk to other musicians. What information do they need to know? It's 32 bars, its AABA, let's start with a half time feel and we'll work up to a full time feel at the bridge...

"Learning the lingo of being a musician and learning how to work with other musicians—nobody really teaches these things when you're starting out. You kind of have to learn it yourself. But I'm lucky, I have done quite a lot of gigs now and I can impart that knowledge to students. Music is the main part of it, but the concert is all these things put together."

Something that is not generally taught on jazz courses, and something that many musicians are simply not good at is marketing themselves. Flanigan recognises that this is true of himself, to a degree.

"It's something that I don't prioritize," he acknowledges. "Part of that is an extreme lack of time. Also, I'm just not very good at promoting myself. I think with a lot of musicians there is always this element of self-doubt; is this any good or not? You know, sometimes we are no better or no worse than the guys who are out there really hustling and really promoting themselves. The difference is maybe we don't necessarily value putting ourselves out there."

One aspect of the business side of the music that Flanigan does stress to his students, however, is the value of their music, in both monetary terms and in terms of personal growth.

"Make sure you get paid. Don't undersell yourself, but also realize when money is only a side aspect to the gig. Not every gig is about the money. If you're having the best craic and you're playing brilliant music you will play for no money, and you'll feel enriched.

"If you're playing with your pals and you're getting good money, you could play whatever old crap you want, and you'll still have a good time. So, you always get something out of the gig. The dream is to hit all three—you have the best craic, you have the best music and you are getting really well paid. This is the only business advice I can possibly give my students," says Flanigan.

Flanigan readily admits that some of his most enjoyable gigs have been for little or no money. It is fair to say that he has paid his dues.

"I've done my time and I will continue to do my time, driving to Dublin, for a 9pm gig, in a teeny tiny bar, playing brilliant music for two-and-a-half hours and walking away with 17 Euros in my pocket. The money has gone before I've even arrived at the gig!," he laughs.

"But there's the enjoyment. I get so much out of that music that I really prioritize the music. Do I want to get paid? Absolutely! Will I put that above everything else? No. There are gigs that I do for music and there are gigs I do for money."

Gigging and teaching all over Ireland has afforded Flanigan a good overview of the Irish jazz scene in all its diversity.

"There is still some of the old guard who are out there playing great music. I'm putting Tommy Halferty in that group, Nigel Mooney, Dave Fleming and great singers like Honor Hefferman and Susannah de Wrixon. They are still there, performing the jazz that was popular in Ireland, well before my time. Then you've got all the young kids who coming through, and they're not necessarily from Ireland. A while ago I was teaching a Venezuelan guitarist who has come to Dublin to study...

"So, you've got all the great, great traditionalists and then people who are coming in and taking it in a totally different direction. If you want to hear bebop, it's there. If you want to hear modern straight-ahead, phone Michael Buckley. If you want to hear Venezuelan contemporary guitar in the style of Kurt Rosenwinkel, call Orlando Molina . If you want contemporary improv, call Matthew Jacobson, you know? No matter what kind of jazz you are into you can find it in Irish jazz. We've got it all covered."

Currently, Flanigan has numerous creative irons in the fire: an organ trio; a piano trio; another piano trio dedicated to the music of The Beatles; various duo collaborations as well as solo piano. He is animated about the directions his music is taking and the possibilities that lie ahead.

"I don't want to say that my next project is going to be any one of them. I don't know," he concedes.

The future for the talented Belfast musician seems to be an open book. "Yeah, it's an open book," Flanigan agrees. "I'll see where the music takes me."



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