Dec 312016

The beginning of the year through to early April saw me mostly working local gigs in the Jersey Shore area with Princeton probably being the furthest I ventured. First big performance was at the Cape Bank Jazz Festival in Somerspoint Point, NJ where I was invited to reprise our Sinatra run from Jazz Standard, a few months earlier. I really thought there was no way that this could happen BUT miraculously 95% of the guys were available and jumped on board. Never wanting to stay still I added a few new ‘themes’ and arrangements to the book for this performance. This remains the only time I have ever been checked into two hotels on the same night. My friend Bernard Brady had checked into to a motel in Somerspoint where the nightly rate was so low we SHOULD have been worried 🙂 and when Lewis Nash arrived in town he showed me hotels via an app on his phone that were advertising luxury rooms in Harrahs in Atlantic City. I headed in there with Lewis where we took the opportunity to catch up on a lot of stuff, along with the car ride back up north where he would connect with his driver. Gig was a lot of fun, even though Ocean City is famous for being a dry town – on behalf of our ensemble we’ll plead the 5th.

Vocalist Christine Tobin had the task of singing the opening song, a capella mind you!, no pressure there!!! at the Ireland Rising concert on April 22nd at New York’s Symphony Space. After Christine had performed and made her way back from backstage she mentioned that Cassandra Wilson was on the bill and I immediately thought of a conversation I had with her 24/5 years earlier where she talked about Irish music and how much it moved her…and this was before she knew she is, in fact Irish. I will write about this further when our upcoming project starts to appear but suffice to say, little did we both know, that night, that life would take an immediate and exciting turn!

The next few months saw me become consumed by the possibilities the project with Cassandra seemed to present. Before long I realized that not only would I be playing guitar or guitar(s) on it, but I was in fact, producing it. The arranger in me has long ago realized and embraced the concept of collaboration and it is the communications with Cassandra about all things including music that make this project so unique to me.

Summer came and a combined trip upset New York to reconnect with my good friend, and, no exaggeration here, one of the great culinary minds on this side of the Atlantic Matt Lake, who was in town visiting with his son Nate. Me and my boys took the trip but took a detour via Woodstock to see Cassandra where we also met her son Jerris. This marked the first occasion we both had guitars in hand and played/talked through some ideas and it felt great.

August, saw me fly to Chicago to do a concert with vocalist Monika Ryan at the Skokie Theater during which time we decided to record two albums! Two!! Monika came up with a couple of interesting themes, one was a holiday album which I have never done and the other was based around songs from the year of the great Crash/Depression. I found it challenging to have to come up with arrangements for songs I hadn’t previously heard or didn’t already know, along with the feeling that the clock was ticking. By setting a goal of two albums, little did Monika know that I would be kind who would have to reach the finish line on that goal. Well…we did, and there were some stand out moments, one in particular was the version of Happy Days Are Here Again. Monika gave it a reading that made historical sense – she approached as almost like a wishful thinking feeling, as the year it was written, happy days were far from there! An epiphany type of discovery like that can be all it takes to get me in deep into a project, and it did!

While with Monika, I found out that my hero and mentor Louis Stewart was now in hospice care. Bernard Brady had the difficult task of telling me and I was in the car with Monika and her kids. I tried t hold it together but couldn’t. Bernard, told me of Louis amazing bravery and acceptance and cited this as being enormously comforting to him (Bernard). Andrew Yonke, one of Monika’s friends had lent me a Super 400 for the recording and I kinda felt I was getting a signal from Louis and then…Bernard called. I wrote quite bit on this after Louis’ untimely passing but I clearly remember the ominous feeling that the world, as I knew it was about to change, and not in a good way.

Later that month, and back in New York/New Jersey I got the word that Louis had passed (August 20th, aged 72). I will forever be indebted to the kindhearted musicians and friends from Dublin who kept in touch with me though this heartbreaking time including Louis’ son Tony. Tony would pass messages from me to Louis that were in turn coming from the great American musicians who were huge fans of Louis. I am also grateful to people like Lindsey Horner and Doug DeHays who were prepared to take extraordinary measures so I could get back for the funeral, also to Hugh Buckley and his daughter Shona, both of whom were in New York at the time. Their presence gave me comfort at the time, so much so that I have difficulty imagining how I would get through this time without them. I didn’t make it back but was due back one month later.

Prior to heading back to Limerick for the Jazz Festival there, where I would be “Artist In Residence” I was due in the studio with Monika for an album of songs from her “Windmills” release. These songs are all songs whose lyrics are written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Originally scheduled to include strings and brass, the course changed dramatically for reasons I won’t go into here but, a combination of Monika dealing with challenges head on, her impeccable ability to put a great band together and of course this great repertory saw us produce something I believe will sound very special when you all get to hear it. A few days later I’m off to Limerick and good friend and guitarist extraordinaire Phil Robson is on the same flight back. Limerick is a city I haven’t been in for decades and I loved it from the time we arrived. Much of this was due to the great hospitality I received from festival organizer and drummer John Daly but also the Dolan’s whose welcome they give artists is a template for venue owners. A template in fact that has been present in the Smyth family of JJ’s fame for as long as I have known them. Workshops and an album launching gig in Limerick and we were now off on a short tour of Ireland. Being driven through the Irish country side was exactly what the doctor ordered. Work was interrupted by a stop first in Galway for lunch with the wonderful Sean Nós singer Deirbhile Ní Bhrolachain who I had, earlier in the year, written a fan letter to. Deirbhile drove me to Claregalway where I was met by Kevin Ward, practically a lifelong friend but not before the seed was planted for me to join her on her upcoming CD. Kevin made me a few unforgettable meals that were “polytunnel to table!” During the rest of the trip I had lunch with Tony Stewart, played JJs, Sligo, Belfast and headed back to Limerick for the return journey. I also got in a dinner with Ronan Guilfoyle who I have known since we met on the queue for Louis Stewart’s gigs at the Baggot Inn, back in the late 70s. At the JJs gig I saw so many old friends that I dare not try and mention them here as I know I’ll leave people out. I headed back for the flight home feeling fulfilled that I had met so many friends, comforted and exhilarated by the great catch up with Tony and excited knowing that after a more couple of weeks home I would back for the Cork festival.

Cork was an extended trip so I could stay on for the Louis Stewart tribute at JJs, I ended up being in Cork for almost week and I loved it. Trip to the Donkey Sanctuary (thank you Sian Murray), sad news that our beloved rabbit Mrs Fluffy Snuggle had died – Finn is still struggling with that, workshops with Dave Fleming, James Polsky, Edel Meade and Fintan O’Neill. Catch up with Niall Vallely and Karan Casey (on separate days), a gig in Coughlans – talk about intimate! Again, venue owners who prioritize their welcome to artists. Deirbhile picked me up at some unGodly hour of the morning to record in a slim window, in a studio outside Galway. As I’m sure I mentioned elsewhere, her voice took me out as we hit that special place I haven’t gotten to four some years now. Train to Dublin where I am met by Garvan Browne. A few days of watching movies on that huge screen of his, dinner and Strictly Come Dancing with Bernard Brady where I fell asleep in his house and snored my Jimmy O’Dea off, dinner as mentioned elsewhere was the steak and kidney pies from a can!!! Louis tribute on the Sunday but not before I had dinner, drinks and much catch up with my brother Paul and sister-in-law Rita where we were joined by Paul Dunlea and Stephen O’Keeffe. John Daly drove me to Limerick where I had a hotel in Shannon Airport, a mere walk to check in and I’m headed back to Newark. This is also supposed to be the first day of rehearsals and workshopping with Cassandra and Liam O’Maonlaí.

So that first day back and I end up skipping it to recover. Day 2, Tuesday I head in to the Irish Arts Center where I am treated to many of my musical worlds meeting – I have written at length elsewhere but let me say it again. I have to think back very far to remember getting that feeling before, and I felt it every night we performed.

December saw us revisit our Sinatra concerts of a year ago at Jazz Standard and that can be read about in the previous edition of this blog.

The coming year will see a lot of interesting projects and I am excited by this. On a down side, the US elections have presented me with many challenges:
People who voted for a racist trying to say it doesn’t make them racist! So what does it make you? You are clearly ok with putting a man with these viewpoints in to a position of immense power.
The emerging wide embrace of greed and selfishness by people, we are forgetting how to be kind and compassionate.
The rules are only important if they help us but if it helps our opponent to break the rules then this is a travesty.

When did people lose their way. When did having your candidate win make it ok to fly in the face of all you previously help close to you. The mind boggles…Roll on 2017 and please have some better answers for us than I can give!

I love you all,


 Posted by at 4:03 pm
Dec 312016

Starting the week of the Jazz Standard run we were coming off a week of personal challenges and heartache that I won’t go into here but let’s just say that my ability to focus was being put to the test. This week seemed to be no exception but that said, I was very aware of the role music has played in healing wounds and beyond that, helping to bring joy to myself and others…and I hoped that this week of Sinatra charts would have the same uplifting effect.

Paul Dunlea arrived in on the Tuesday (13th) and along with Christine Tobin we headed to the Consul General of Ireland’s residence in UN Plaza for a reception I was invited to. The reception was for the RIAM who have partnered with Juilliard here in NYC. I later joked on Facebook that this a special reception to welcome Paul Dunlea to NY for Sinatra week 🙂 I had met Mrs Barbara Jones, the Consul General a few weeks earlier and, like everyone who has met her, was struck by a) how personable she was and b) how VERY important art and culture is to her. It was an early reception so before heading back to Weehawken, NJ where I had parked my car outside Christine’s we went for a few drinks. Here Paul reiterated an offer to come and help me ‘put the pads together’. Anyone who has ever led a big band will know how much work it is. Parts go missing, new arrangements need to be added and numbered, set lists need to be put together…and kids have to brought to music lessons and fed. The latter meant I would meet Paul in Red Bank and then he, Jennifer, me and the boys would grab dinner in Red Bank’s Dublin House. Back home and time to get to work. Paul’s organizational savvy has us immediately on track as he lists missing parts, tapes pages together while yours truly is formatting new additional arrangements in Sibelius.

THE REHEARSAL (Thursday 2pm, opening day)

Carpooling on the way in with Doug DeHays we were trying to avoid double tolls and parking etc, which in Manhattan adds up. I arrive just in the nick of time at Jazz Standard. It’s always a great buzz on large ensemble projects when you see what musicians are here already, watch those who are arriving, texts from those who running behind, the sounds of people warming up on their instruments. With a show that had the kind of quality band I had assembled they don’t need to play through full songs. Intros, endings and a few trouble spots are addressed and we are ready. Nothing left to do now except hit the Blue Smoke BBQ buffet and wait for showtime.

It’s been 8 months since most of us have played together and a year since some of us have…and one sub and the band sounds like we are picking up where we left off. It doesn’t take long before we are “swingin’” and having Bob Millikan on lead trumpet is bringing an authenticity to the sound of these arrangements. Songs like “I’ve Got The World On A String” and “Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart” stand out for their immaculate phrasing. The vocalists tonight are Sachal Vasandani and guest vocalist Tony Corrao and they are ‘on’ right from the start.


The O’Rourkestra with featured vocalist Sachal Vasandani, guest vocalists Tony Corrao and Jennifer Sutton O’Rourke

First set is heavily sold out and 2nd set not far behind. Vocalists and Band are hitting it way out of the park. Private emotional moment for me happens when I hear the beauty of the great Robert Farnon’s arrangement on The Very Thought Of You which I have adapted from the full orchestral version to a big band. Sachal’s wonderful rubato waves in and out of Farnon’s great writing. In the middle of the chart there is a brief instrumental interlude that seems to envelope the whole room (as it did last year) and I feel a huge wave of emotion internally as these sounds written by a beautiful spirit remind us of why he was nicknamed “The Guv’nor” by Frank Sinatra. Another one off the bucket list happens when Jennifer sings “Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart” – I have conducted that quite a few times with different ensembles but this trumpet section under the legendary Bob Millikan nail the phrasing and the dynamics – all backed up by the amazing swinging rhythm section of Lewis Nash, Peter Washington, Peter Bernstein and Neal Kirkwood. Friday night, both sets are being filmed thanks to a kind offer of help/support by Rob Cantwell, a friend who knows how important this opportunity is to get some good footage.


Guitarist Russell Malone is in the audience tonight and I am reminded of one of his posts on Facebook recently where he reminisced about his performances with the great Joe Bushkin. That gets me thinking a lot of how Frank Sinatra used to wax lyrical about his time ‘on the bus’ with both Harry James and Dorsey’s band. In the latter band Joe Bushkin was the pianist and was enjoying the fruits of having a hit “Oh Look At Me Now” and Sinatra would often joke about Bushkin. Russel tells me later that he played that song with Joe a couple of times. This show, both sets, has been sold out for a while. My two children along with Jeremy Pelt’s two children are at a table together and they are joined by Cassandra Wilson. I go looking for an adult to help out at the table, either Jeremy or Jennifer and Cassandra stops me and says “I got this” quite emphatically. With Jennifer and Jeremy on stage along with yours truly I badly want to make a joke along the lines of …”If we’re up here, who’s watching the kids?” Thankfully, good taste prevails on the night although I am reassured that the table next to Cassandra has two of my favorite neighbors, Jim and MaryBeth Kopec. Jim knows my kids quite well and would jump in if needed…they were model citizens, for the most part 🙂 The audience are a little bit rowdier tonight and I have a feeling that Jennifer and Cassandra are egging them on! Band is grooving hard and the camaraderie is very much at the surface. Roger Rosenberg is subbing for Doug tonight on the low reeds and we quickly find out we have plenty to talk about between sets. Roger had done some work in the 80s for Pat McGuigan, father of Barry, an Irish boxing legend and we were talking about Carl Frampton and his upcoming fight. Roger has been touring with with Steely Dan and like Doug, he covered a plethora of woodwind doubles in our library.


First set is busy and on my mind, hanging over from last year I can hear Lewis saying to me that the Sunday night of a longer run in a jazz club is often the night that shit can go wrong..I won’t write here about last year’s last night but suffice to say this one went off without incident 🙂 Once again I went with the approach of not taking a fixed set of tunes and rehearsing just those and performing the same set(s) nightly for the sake of tightness. We did not repeat a set once during our run, some songs were played every night because of their historical context. I would like to extend my gratitude to the musicians who made this week a huge success and indeed pleasure. Here they are:

Sachal Vasandani, Tonny Corrao and Jennifer Sutton O’Rourke
Dave Pietro, David Lee Jones, Tom Christiansen, Jonathan Ragonese, Doug DeHays – subs: Steve Kenyon (for Dave), Peter Anderson (for Jonathan) and Roger Rosenberg (for Doug).
Bob Millikan, Jeremy Pelt, Phillip Harper, Dylan Canterbury – 5th trumpet for some selections Barry Fannin
Ryan Keberle, Paul Dunlea, Clark Gayton, James Borowski – subs Matt McDonald (for Clark)
Neal Kirkwood (piano), Peter Bernstein (guitar), Peter Washington (bass), Lewis Nash (drums).

 Posted by at 11:11 am