John Donegan – The Irish Sextet comprises of:
Linley Hamilton (Tpt), Michael Buckley, (Alto Sax), Richie Buckley (Tenor Sax) Dan Bodwell (Bass), John Daly (Drums) and
John Donegan (Piano/Composer)
John Donegan, UK based and originally from Cork, is a modern jazz pianist and composer. His music has been featured on the BBC, Jazz FM, RTE and independent radio stations in UK and Ireland.
He has performed with a variety of UK, Irish and International artists, including Art Blakey, Art Farmer, Barney Kessel and Greg Abate, Louis Stewart and many more.
John’s major influences have been the likes of Bill Evans, Kenny Barron, Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell, Chic Corea and Keith Jarrett.
He has also performed in France, Spain and Portugal and at Birdland in New York.
John more recently composed a suite of 21 contemporary pieces which have been released as 2 CDs, Siamsa, Vol 1 & 2. Recent review in Musicians Union Magazine “An intriguing combination of classic bebop laced with Irish folk melody, this album from pianist John and his saxophonist friend Tommaso Starace is full of sublime lyrical moments”
He released a new Sextet album in Aug 2019, A Kite for Kate, dedicated to his youngest daughter. It comprises of totally original pieces and has already been featured on RTE, BBC, K 107FM and various other independent radio stations. Recent, four star review from “The Jazz Mann” – “an impressive offering from Donegan in which he demonstrates his command of a variety of styles, as both pianist and composer, as a writer he also demonstrates an unfailing gift for melody”.
Hi John, such a pleasure speaking with you! As a performing, composing jazz pianist, who’s love of creativity is both originals and standards in the Bebop style, how would you describe yourself in a nutshell?
I consider myself a Modern Jazz/Bebop and Contemporary composer and performer. I have more recently developed the fusion of Irish Music and Jazz through my own compositions in the Siamsa series. Siamsa is the Irish for entertainment. The latest element is the development of Jazz arrangements of Chopin and John Field pieces. John Field was an Irish composer, a contemporary of Chopin, and to whom Chopin attributed his influence in composing Nocturnes.
In various publications, you’re often referred to as a ‘modern jazz pianist’. What do you feel about the term ‘modern jazz’ and do you feel it changes according to where we are in relation to eras?
I usually describe Modern Jazz as Jazz performed and arranged by musicians from the Bebop era to date. I think there are always misconceptions of that narrow description and people often, mistakenly attribute it, solely to Avant Garde music. In fact much of the Great American Songbook includes music written in the 1920’s/1930’s which still sounds fresh and exciting when played in a modern jazz idiom, today.
I would prefer to describe the quality of the music and the musicianship rather than seek a narrow categorisation. Each decade seems to bring along further influences which have helped to enhance and add to the categorisation – eg, Cool. Bossa Nova, Latin American, different cultures such as African indigenous music (from where Jazz emanated), Eastern influences from India and many more.
Many congratulations on your recently released album ‘Shadows Linger’, we’d love to hear what thought process and creative pathways you explored when you started working on this album.
The material for Shadows Linger, with the exception of the tune, SNS was all written during the period of Lockdown. Unlike some, I found this time a very productive period for writing. I wrote about 25 new pieces, 10 of which were used on the album. I also wrote another Volume of Siamsa ( 10 pieces) and A suite entitled Elegy, to remember and commemorate all the artists we lost through the pandemic.
The inspiration usually happens when I sit down at the piano and a tune emerges – usually from a series of chords or chord structure. I would then do a rough sketch of the tune and perfect it over time. I also find rhythm sequences can often lead to something and while I might not set out to write, say a latin style tune, it other happens that way. I also like to explore different time signatures.
As in previous albums, I derive inspiration from places and people that are dear to me. Indeed two of the pieces on the album were inspired by and dedicated to, two of my grandchildren – Raffy’s Blues and Kit’s Way.
For this album, you recorded 12 tunes over two days, which you drilled down into being 10 tunes – how did you make that selection, are you planning on releasing the other 2 tunes sometime soon also? Plus it would be amazing to hear more about the tunes and how each of them relate to one another.
Yes, we did record 12 tunes but chose the best 10 for the album. I wanted to have as much variety in the pieces as possible, so as to showcase the talents of the various musicians. It also helps to retain the interest of the listener – I would always to want to surprise and entertain. I will be travelling to Ireland again in April to record the next Irish Sextet album and the two tunes that did not make it on Shadows Linger have been slightly altered and will be included in the next album. In fact one of the tunes – Floating Moonbeams will be the title track!
With regard to how the tunes relate to one another, every I try to ensure that each tune follows the previous in a different key and a different tempo or time signature. I always include a bossa or samba, always a three four or six eight time signature and always a ballad. I also try and try to include a modal piece to contrast against the straight bebop up tempo numbers. Simply put, I try to ensure each tune contrast with the previous tune using the above technique.
You’ve mentioned that ‘Shadows Linger’ might just be “the most enjoyable project you’ve been involved in”. It’s fantastic when particular music releases bring that extra sunshine when working on them, what specific aspects of this album made it so fun for you?
Firstly, the most enjoyable aspect for any composer is to see the performer’s enjoying and putting everything into interpreting and performing one’s music.
While we had never performed as a group in that format, everyone got on well and there was as much laughter as hard work on the project. I had worked with them all individually over the years and built up a strong relationship with each member of the band.
There are two others key element that are critical to the success of any project. One, is the studio and the quality of the facilities on offer there and the people involved in the technical side. The other is my reliance on my long term friend and producer who has been invoked in all my recordings, apart from the first one – Bernard O’Neill. Bernard ran the whole recording process and carried out the final mastering. He know exactly what I want in terms of outcome, so I was able to relax totally and just had to concentrate on the playing and interplay.
It would be great to learn more about the band’s lineup and the roles that each instrument plays in the project.
Each member of the band is a prominent recording artist in their own right and, as such brought a wealth of experience and ideas to the project. There was a total openness to ideas and a willingness to try aspects of performance with the ultimate aim of producing a quality album. It is my hope the this is evident in the recording.
Your new album is an ‘All Ireland’ project – where all of the artists involved are either based in Ireland or have Irish roots, as yourself too. We’d love to hear more, do tell us about this?
The idea for an Irish Sextet was born pre-Covid when I was performing a short tour in Ireland as a quartet comprising of Michael Buckley (that time on tenor saxophone), Dan Bodwell on Bass, John Daly on drums and myself. I had not worked with Michael for a while and we were enjoying performing together again. He enquired what I had been up to in the UK and I was telling him about my previous album – A Kite For Kate and the Uk Sextet. I shared my wish to do something similar in Ireland and, I asked him whether he and his bother, Richie , would be interested. He confirmed they would and I spoke with the others who were all up for it.
However, Covid intervened and at the beginning of 2022, I booked the studio in Dublin and the rest is history. Two things emerged on the recording – one was that we had representation from all four corners of Ireland and the most important discovery, that despite having individually brilliant music careers, Michael and Richie had never recorded an album together. So, to have achieved this is special and even more so, as we continue with the next recording an touring.
When artists work on a musical project, it usually affects them on many different levels: psychological, emotional, spiritual, etc. What did ‘Shadows Linger’ mean to you, and how did it affect you and your colleagues during its creative process?
The effects of recording Shadows Linger, were as described above;
– a great “vibe” on the recording.
– we throughly enjoyed being with each other, both on a musical basis but on personal relationship basis.
– for me it was the culmination of three years planning and seeing a very personal project come to life.
– gratitude for being able to achieve this project.
You had a very interesting project last year, arranging pieces for the Chopin Festival in London. Although the festival was entirely classical, the Chopin pieces you were asked to arrange were based on jazz music, which sounds brilliant! Could you tell us more about the arrangement process itself and do you have a personal connection between jazz and classical?
Like many, I started my music education in classical music. My family were musical and my father first introduced me to Blues and Jazz in my early teens. While classical music education was available there was nothing for jazz education, in Ireland at that time. So everything I learned in Jazz was from listening to records and radio and what I could teach myself. I still continue to love classical music and when I was asked to be involved in the Chopin project i jumped at it!
I arranged five pieces for quartet – Alto/Soprano, Piano, bass and Drums. They included;
Mazurka, Op33 no2 – theme – followed by improvisation as a modal blues then back to theme.
Prelude in Eminor – theme – followed by improvisation as a bossa then back to theme.
Cello Sonata in G Minor Op65 no3 Largo – Improvisation on theme sequence.
Grande Valse Brillante – adapted to a quickstep in four four time with a blues improvisation in the middle
Waltz in A minor Op 33 no2 – adapted to quickstep with a bossa improvisation and then back to them.
Congrats on the fantastic response to the Chopin’s project! Are there any plans to extend the project or start working on a part 2 given the project’s huge success?
I have plans to develop; the Chopin project and have written a further Chopin arrangement – the Berceuse. Because of Chopin’s connection with Field – I have arranged two Field Nocturnes. I am working on writing two Nocturnes myself and the plan is to present and record the full project – pulling together the Irish and Polish musical connection, subject to suitable funding.
Your extensive performance experience with so many talented and hardworking people is truly inspiring! Both solo and group performances have their own advantages, but what are the most important experiences you’ve enjoyed when collaborating with others?
The most important experiences on collaboration with others is two-fold. The joy of working on your own compositions with others bringing their interpretation to the music. Secondly, performing with others provides a continual learning process from which one’s own musicality is improved and elevated to new levels. Collaboration with others also provides inspiration towards future performance and composition.
You have a large library of original music work, and some may wonder where all of your creativity comes from. Let’s talk more about what’s happening ‘behind the sounds’ – where do you usually find your inspiration?
I mentioned above that my family and, places and people that are dear to me, provide inspiration. A memory of a place or a past experience can also influence. On the Siamsa suite, most of that was inspired by favourite locations in Ireland.
One thing that is important to do is listen to other composers and musicians – the former for how they approach and develop ideas and the latter how they present those ideas and perform them.
While I would often hear a melody in my head, I think the majority of inspiration comes from sitting at the piano and letting it happen.
As we can see, musically this year is going really well for you, what other projects have you lined up this year?
Projects lined up for this year include some gigs in the UK with the Sextet and travelling to Ireland to record the new album in April. I also plan to record a trio album later in the year and there will hopefully be a tour in Ireland in the Autumn. There are various other gigs in the UK and one will include the Chopin/Field project. I continue to write and hope to record more of my work over the next few years.
Finally, with so much going on, where can people come to hear you perform?
I have listed the gigs on Connects site but briefly they are as follows:
23 March – Bebop Club at the Hen and Chicken in Bristol. (Sextet)
5th April – Three Rivers Music Society at the Baptist Church in Rickmansworth. (Sextet)
16th April – Arthurs Blues and Jazz club, Thomas Streer, Dublin (The Irish Sextet)
9th June – Burford Jazz – Chopin project with Riley Stone Lonergan on Sax.
19th July – The jazz Cave, Kings Head Hotel – Quartet with Nigel Price
I am currently awaiting confirmation of other gigs – so check on my Connects page or on my website – johndoneganjazz.com