I thought about trying to do a diary from the road on the recent Irish tour but was having too great a time to take time out for writing. First of all, by way of reminder, Ciarán Wilde has expressed his interest in bringing me to Ireland to showcase my work for some time now and to be perfectly honest – I never expected it to happen. Why? Well, I write for large ensembles mostly and consequently the cost of staging a concert is usually prohibitively expensive because of the large number of what Steve Wilson once referred to as ‘moving parts’ in a conversation about a similar project. Ciarán has received help from Allen Smith and his Jazz On The Terrace production company (formed strictly out of love for music NOT as an outright profit making endeavor) – the kind of help that has secured an ongoing series of opportunities over time – enough to keep the band together long enough for a musical camaraderie to form and exist. Allen decided to go after funding for a short tour of Ireland and defied all odds by securing a grant through the Arts Council. I had almost an entire year to fantasize about going home to Ireland and being on a bus with a big band – in my own country. The bus part of the equation did not disappoint and for the record, the trip FROM Ballina made it all worth while for me for entertainment content alone.
I arrived in on Friday 24th May having had a miserable flight courtesy of a relapse of a gastro bug that had struck my kids and I down a week earlier. Newark Airport passengers seemed to be falling like skittles in a bowling alley with this bug including a crew member who had to be replaced resulting in a delayed flight. In short, this meant that I went into the rehearsals feeling considerable weakened by two consecutive bouts of a bug that left me depleted in the electrolyte department! It is at this point that I was of the mind set that I was going to have to work through a lot of music (I had sent/brought) to get enough for a show with the goal in mind to showcase my work as best I could rather than pick the easiest and make a show that we could repeat on all performances – this was suggested by one band member ahead of rehearsal and made me wonder if I was facing two awkward days of rehearsal and train wrecks etc – I should add, some of my charts are not at all easy until like everything else, musicians become familiar with my style etc.
Rehearsal #1 (Mon May 28th, 2013)
Band are nailing it to the floor! Within one tune I know not only am I in good shape but I also know that this is going to be a lot of fun. Band are responding to all dynamics and making the kind of acoustic sound I love from a big band. I make stop only for things that are important to me in rehearsal – small or obvious mistakes are left for the band to fix themselves – I don’t even discuss them unless someone else does, this is called trust! At my request there are extra musicians: 2 French Horn chairs being filled by three players rotating according to availability. We have Cormac O’hAodán – Principal Horn in the RTE CO, Lorcan daly from the Army Band and his brother (three brothers all play the same instrument masterfully) while on tuba we have Conor O’Riordan from the Garda band and on flute, the great Elizabeth Petcu whose beautiful tone had Brendan Doyle, no mean flautist himself say “Flute For Sale”. The responsiveness of the band energized me at a time when I could use all the help I could get 😉
Rehearsal #2 (Tues May 29th, 2013)
Here we got through what remaining music we had and tweaked a few others and were ready to wrap the rehearsal early. I spoke to a few band members about whether we should play a different show each night drawing from the broader list of repertoire I had brought keeping some tunes that would be performed on every show OR should we pick as had been suggested just one show and play it each night. The majority I spoke to were all for playing a different repertoire each night and that was also my preferred option. This is what we ended up doing but first up for me was a solo guitar slot on the Dublin Guitar Night run by Hugh Buckley at JJ Smiths. A few gallons of Lucozade later and I’m feeling a temporary sense of relief ahead of the solo performance.
Solo Guitar #1
(Tues May 29th, 2013)
Here I chose to play a repertoire that comprised of tunes I have been affected by in my life so far, not all from the jazz idiom. Paul McCartney’s My Love including a nod to Henry McCullough’s famous guitar solo (this got a very vocal response from a lone Henry fan), a medley of tunes associated with Chet Atkins ahead of my Nashville trip, an O’Carolan tune I’d played for Pat Martino and a few others. The audience give remarkable attention to all performers at this Dublin Guitar Night and I must say, their enthusiastic response along with meeting a number of the guys from the Guitarist Ireland Facebook page made my night.
Opening Night of Big Band Tour Garter Lane Theater, Waterford
(Wed May 30th, 2013)
By this stage it was time to enjoy the music and being a long time fan of big band with vocalists as well as instrumental selections I was now in the best seat in the house to hear Honor Heffernan shine in front of the ensemble. Playing with a band like this is something Honor told me she simply can’t get enough of! Meanwhile for me, I’m fronting a band with a vocalist I had worked with when I still lived in Ireland and who is responsible for me developing a love for that side of the genre along with the necessary skills to do it. I loved being able to perform my first big band chart for a singer (It Could happen To You) written for Honor’s appearance with the Hot City Orchestra along with my most recent chart on Honor’s own original Once Upon A Time. Elisabeth Petcu’s playing on that and My Ship were other memorable moments for me. A few drinks after the show and it was back on the bus home then on to Ballina the next day.
2nd Performance of the Tour, Ballina Arts Centre
(Thurs May 31st, 2013)
The attendance was the worst at this performance than any in the tour and some locals blamed a lack of publicity or advance notice but I found myself wondering was it the economic woes that have plagued Ireland for some time now. Ireland has the empty shops while New Jersey, where I live still has lots of empty units in the strip malls. Borders near us has yet to be replaced by a store of similar size. We in the band hit it as if the theater was full and from there, a few drinks to wind down – back on the bus with a few pit stops along the way we headed back.
2nd Solo Guitar Performance, The Mickey McKenna Fest at Trim Library
(Saturday June 2nd, 2013)
This appearance gave me an opportunity to catch up with some very long standing friends – we’re talking over 30 years while the awareness that Mickey McKenna is no longer with us was hammered home to me for the first time. I met Mickey’s sister and brother-in-law and was delighted to get some time in with Liam Morrisey, Brenda, Martin Moran, Kevin Ward and Niamh Ní Bheoláin – and later got to meet little Joey Ward in person for the first time. Beyond our friendships, the above mentioned people hired me to do performances, masterclasses long before anyone else did. Mickey and Kevin often dropped in on my parents after I emigrated and help them feel a connection to me – I am eternally grateful to them for that particularly as I would hear it about from my parents right after.
I stopped here for a break during which time Grainne Farren’s review came out. I received many messages sent privately. Some of these messages said “I see you’re being given the ‘What are you getting so upset about?’ treatment” and I must say I too found that approach very interesting. I’m not going to go point by point again as I did so on my Facebook page but I will once again state it as follows:
I’ve lived in the NY Tri State area for nearly 25 years now. This recent tour was:
- the FIRST time I have ever been invited to showcase my my writing in my native Ireland
- First tour for me with a band that size
- First project involving me to receive this level of arts council support thanks to Allen Smith and Jazz On The Terrace.
Because of the above I chose music from different periods of my career and selections that were written for different artists. I was inspired to do this when I saw Johnny Mandel conduct the Diva Big Band drawing on his film work as well as his extensive big band writing. Vocalist Honor Heffernan had a chart I’d written for her on “It Could Happen To You” and without a doubt, that is my first big band chart for a vocalist. We bookended with Honor’s original song “Once Upon A Time” – that happened to be my most recent big band chart (until the one for Nigel Mooney on my return ;)). Grainne dismissed about 30 years of work with an off hand comment about the arrangements sounding ‘heavy’ and said the band sounded under rehearsed. It was that manner of irresponsible journalism that irked me as well as the overall tone of the review. I addressed it publicly on my Facebook page as I was written about publicly in a newspaper – I also wrote to her privately and received no response – just stating for the record.
Back to the tour:
3rd Performance of the Tour, Civic Theater, Tallaght
(Thurs June 6th, 2013)
This performance had the feeling of hometown performance – mainly because of my Tallaght connections but also the music felt good and it was our last performance with about 5 members who were pre booked on other tours. One highlight was the surprise appearance during Walkin’ of Temper Mental Miss Elayneous. She solos like a jazz musician as she freestyles with a command of language that has won her many fans. Her instinct for the form of the tunes is also amazing.
4th Performance of the Tour, Mermaid Theater, Bray
(Friday June 7th, 2013)
Having stood in front of a few bands in my time I knew we had a challenge with up to 5 deps/subs in the band. This performance has been discussed in the ‘review’ debate so suffice to say, I was very impressed by the level of performance by those stepping up for the occasion.
I will close my little tour retrospective by expressing my gratitude to those who have shown support over the years and in particular those who have celebrated the successes while propping me up during tougher times in the early days. Knowing how tough it was to make the transition I have tried my best to help anyone doing the same thing over the years and I will continue to do so as best I can,