Conversations about music

One of the great things about hanging around musicians and music students all week is that you get to have all sorts of interesting conversations and as a result can see things from new perspectives. Below are some examples.

One was with a father whose son wants to go to jazz school, trying to figure out if it was the right move for him.

One was about a guitarist who has been to jazz school, some of the best in fact. He has done everything ‘right’ – practiced hard, and knows his craft really well. He is an introvert, quite shy, and is currently struggling to get gigs that challenge and satisfy him creatively.

And one was about a teacher I had who told me that you would get more gigs if you were a good musician and easy to get along with than if you were an amazing musician but lacked in social skills.

The guitarist has done what many would consider to be the hard part, but is facing his biggest challenge now. He is living proof of my teacher’s tip to me.

It’s not always about getting more gigs however, sometimes it’s about getting the right gigs, or making the right gigs happen so you can play them.

The right gigs for you may not be the right gigs for me – so it’s up to each of us to figure out what they are for ourselves.

And so I said to the concerned father that if his son wants to be a musician, he should get the best education he can, practice as hard as he can for the next few years, but the hard bit comes after that, and last I heard they don’t train you for it in jazz school.

It’s the most important bit though.

Winning (Part 2)

It’s great to be writing for the second Friday in a row about winning.

Last night I was in the band for Malcolm Edmonstone‘s big band arrangement of Donald Fagen’s 1982 album The Nightfly.

It was Thursday night’s feature in this week’s Sligo Jazz Festival, and Eddie Lee, the chief, went all out to fill the stage with an amazing collection of musicians. Drums, percussion, 3 bass players (!), guitar, piano, keyboards, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 5 saxophones, 4 singers. People who had played and recorded with household names. People who are household names in the jazz world themselves.

From the moment the crowd applauded on hearing the opening horn riff on I.G.Y. you knew it was going to be one of those nights. They knew they were in for an exceptional evening, and so did we. There were smiles everywhere, on and off stage, people sharing in the feeling of being part of something special.


And so we all left with that winning feeling – the band, the audience, the staff of the theatre, all thankful to Malcolm (above, left) for putting this arrangement together and getting the band into shape, and to Eddie (above, right) and SJP for bringing this to Sligo.

And the best part about last night’s win was that unlike last week, no-one had to lose.

Star quality

A friend of mine once gave me some candid advice when I started to consider working in the music industry as a career. He told me (as only a friend can) that I didn’t have the requisite star quality to make it. ‘Look at Beyonce’, he said. ‘She has star quality. You – you’re too normal’.

Star quality. It’s a strange phrase. One person’s star may be another person’s regular Joe. What makes someone have star quality?

I believe I saw it up close yesterday. Joe Dart was in town at the Sligo Jazz Festival for a bass masterclass and for a gig with one of his bands – The Olllam. I had seen him gig before when he was ‘one of the band’, but here for the first time, he was out front and centre.

Now this guy doesn’t have a website, a recording in his own name, or even a dedicated Wikipedia page, but there’s no doubt in my mind – he is a star.


Let me try and define why…well it started with his stage presence, his grin, his deep voice, his certainty in everything he said, did and played, his sunglasses, his leadership on stage. He even came across as a nice guy, and I thoroughly enjoyed the hour in his company.

There are many ways in which to make music and to make a career in the industry. Some require star quality, thankfully many don’t.


I wrote about ego here before. How Rufus Reid told us 11 years ago to ‘leave it on the shelf’, and about the widely-held belief that the true masters have no ego.

This week I’m in the presence of people who are living proof of this.


Pictured above are (l-r) Henrik Linder, Liane Carroll and Federico Malaman, all world jazz superstars, all leading by example in making the Sligo Jazz Festival a fun and learning experience for students, other musicians and audiences alike.

Liane was part of last night’s gig, and lived up to Linley Hamilton’s description of her as the world’s best vocalist when she sang and accompanied herself on the piano for a version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Ol’ Man River.

However what stood out on the gig for me (apart from the amazing musicianship) was the teamwork. There were 8 top class musicians on stage, each seemingly committed to making the gig as good as it could be by working with each other and doing what was best for the music, not themselves.

Let me give you some examples…

  • The way they used their bodies, faces and stage position to show respect and admiration for the other performers.
  • The way that the trombonist – Shannon – lived every note of the solos played by the other musicians.
  • The piano player – Malcolm – choosing to sit out of a couple of numbers to highlight the contribution of other players.
  • The rhythm section’s sensibility to each other and the soloist.
  • The way that the musicians visibly complimented others on their solos/playing.
  • The last song, when the three vocalists – Liane, Sarah, Emilia – took their solo together, instead of individually. It meant a shorter finale (see below also), and sounded great!
  • The choice of not doing an encore – so that students could get to the jam session and have a chance to play.

Leave it on the shelf. You don’t have to be a master to do so.


I had dinner with a bunch of jazz musicians last night. The conversation went around usual topics – how work was, what gigs you were playing, opinions on various jazz albums/musicians.

You’ll notice in company like this that the legends of jazz are referred to by just their Christian names. Miles, Elvin, Wes, Wynton, Wayne.

One Irishman gets that treatment – Louis Stewart, or Louis. The Dublin guitarist regularly inhabited that elite company, and is respected and loved at home and abroad, almost as much for his wit as his music.


Stories of Louis’ one-liners were flying around – how on his deathbed when asked by his family if he would like to be buried or cremated he said ‘surprise me’.

How before a show one time when a fellow bandmate said to have a good gig, Louis replied – ‘don’t tell me what to do’.

However, if I was having dinner with a different group of people and spoke about Louis – they might not think of this man at all. You might have an uncle Louis, or he might be an old friend from school. Yet among Irish jazz musicians, everyone knows straight away.

And so I wondered, when making choices in life, is it better to try and reach as many people as possible, or rather have a small number of people know immediately who is being referred to when your first name is mentioned?




CPD for musicians

There is a danger when living in a small town, or even in a not so small one – that you forget how big a world it is out there, and how many cultures, personalities and systems there are from which to learn.

Thankfully – once every year the world (of jazz) comes to Sligo and we, along with the hundreds of visitors who arrive for the week, get to play with, chat to and learn from some of the world’s best jazz musicians.

Unlike other professions, there is no body which awards CPD points to musicians for attending certain courses or seminars. If there was, I imagine they would award maximum points for this week. I’m really looking forward to seeing what I come away with this time.


The great Eddie Lee is the man responsible for the wonderful Sligo Jazz Festival, and this picture was taken on the last night of last year’s successful instalment.

PS if you want to know more – here’s what the Irish Times had to say about this year’s festival.

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Ahppy Byrthdai!

I saw a bunch of dancers sing Happy Birthday off the cuff the other night. It was fascinating to watch the different ways they moved their bodies to convey the message of the song.

If you hear a bunch of singers sing Happy Birthday it’s always about how many harmonies they can put in.

Instrumentalists playing it will try and play interesting chords under the tune and improvise in new ways around the melody lines.

And it always sounds great!

But it’s precisely because people know it so well that they can have such fun with it. The better you know a song – the easier it is to improvise over it and the more fun you can have expressing yourself in your own individual way.

It’s the same with a speech, a presentation or any type of performance.

If you want to deliver something to the best of your ability, get to know it as well as you know Happy Birthday.