Seven in oneit almost reads like one of Ronan Guilfoyle's rhythmic patterns. But it could also stand for bassplayer, composer, bandleader, author, organizer/musical director, teacher, producer. Ronan Guifoyle is widely regarded as Ireland's most prolific jazz musician. He performed and recorded with some of the cutting edge musicians such as Tom Rainey, Jim Black, Julian Arguelles, Simon Nabatov, Keith Copeland, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Nils Wogram, Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman and Dave Holland.
With Dave Liebman he forms a highly acclaimed Quartet (with Mike Nielsen on guitar and Conor Guilfoyle on drums). In 1997 he received the prestigious "Julius Hemphill Composition Award".
Herbert Federsel talked to Ronan Guilfoyle for Jazzdimensions
Herbert: The Guilfoyle/Nielsen Trio has existed for over 20 years. It seems to be the matrix of much of your musical activity. In particular, your approach to playing standards with this trio remains quite unique and electrifing.
Ronan: We haven't played in a while, although we've performed recently with Dave Liebman, where the trio is part of the group. But I think we did some important work in the early 90's. It's not that well known outside Ireland, but some of the stuff we did, particularly the playing of standards in odd metres was pretty ground-breaking.
Herbert: Odd metre standards is a unique rhythmic language.
Ronan: In the last ten or fifteen years a new rhythmic language has appeared in the music. Odd metres, metric modulation, sub devision, multiple metresall this kind of stuff is now very popular, especially among young musicians. I've written a book on this called "Creative rhythmic concepts for Jazz impovisation" nearly ten years ago and it describes techniques and new things that are happening in jazz. Anywhere you hear young musicians play, they're playing a lot of stuff that is not 4/4 or 3/4. Somebody said to me recently that 7/4 is the new 3/4. When jazz historians look at how the music changed in twenty years time, I think they are definitely gonna see the huge impact of the new rhythmic language.
With the Guifoyle/Nielsen Trio in the early 90's we played standards in an odd metre and made an album, which was unfortunately never issued. That work was pretty unique. Playing over chord changes in odd metres is much more challenging than playing in an odd metre form with just one chord. I wrote an essay called "Where is the one?". It's about this lack of ability to play over changes in odd metre formats.
Herbert: Your favourite format seems to be the trio, preferably with guitar players such as Mike Nielsen, Tommy Halferty and Joe O Callaghan.
Ronan: The trio is one of my favourite formats. First of all the great thing about trios is that they are lean and mean. There are three people, so economically it's an easy one to work with. If you've got a 10-piece band it is really difficult to make it work.
I like trios for musical reasons and not just for economic reasons. I like the guitar trio a lot. But I also like other trios, particularly saxophone trios. I've recorded with Jim Black and Julian Arguelles on the Italian Auand label ("Live In Dublin", 2006). And I've also recently recorded with the great Amercian saxophone player Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto) and Chander Sardjoe (drums). This is a trio called MSG.
I've often used groups without harmony instruments. It gives you a lot more freedom in terms of a bass-player. And also it frees up a lot of the acoustic which is right in the middle. Because when people play chords, the area of the acoustic they hit that middle area. In saxophone trios you hear much more of the space around the notes when you don't have a chordal instrument.
At the moment I'm involved in a group called Métier, which is the Dun Laoghaire County Council jazz ensemble in residence. The first of it's kind in Ireland! It is a quintet with Australian Paul Williamson (tp), Michael Buckley (sax), Justin Carroll (piano) and Sean Carpio (drums). I'm the musical director of this group and we did recordings in April 2008 (Ronan Guilfoyle Métier - "Cascade"). Writing for this group allows you things you can't do when you don't have a harmonic instrument.
Herbert: What is the situation like for a jazz musician in Ireland?
Ronan: A lot better than it was. The opportunity and resources for young musicians compared to when I was in my 20's is unrecognizeable. It's still tough being a jazz musician in any country. But the scene has changed a lot. The fact that there is information and eduction available now really helps. Also there is financial support from organisations like the Arts Council that didn't exist back in the 70's, 80's and most of the 90's.
The Improvised Music Company (IMC), an organization which I co-founded in 1991, received it's first grant of Ir£ 2.500,- (€ 3.200,-) at the time. Last year the IMC was given in excess of € 350.000,- by the Arts Council. Consequently guys do play a lot, there are lots of new bands, young players and many new projects.
Herbert: What does that mean in terms of audiences?
Ronan: An audience can see amazing international artists playing in Ireland pretty much every week. And of course this helps to grow the audience and musicians. The more great artists come through, the more we can be inspired to play our music, the more we play the music well, the more audiences we get, the more great artists come through.
I'm definitely optimistic about the situation in Ireland, certainly in comparison to what it used to be.
Herbert: Your relationship with traditional Irish music manifests itself in acclaimed projects such as Khanda and on "Exit", Lingua Franca's second CD where you persue a new approach.
Ronan: I grew up back in the 60s, when traditional music was considered "passé"very primitive and unfashionable. In the early nineties I started working with Irish music. Since then I realy like it and appreciate its value. Because it's uniquely Irish, it's one of the few things we have that has a unique sound quality!
I find it deeply satisfying to listen to from a muscial point of view. There are certain things I don't like about the way some people play Irish traditional music nowadays, which tends to be all wham-bam-thank-you-mam kind of stuff.
Herbert: What is your approach to traditional music?
Ronan: I do not re-arrange traditional Irish music, but write new jazz pieces that are informed by my knowledge and love for the Irish tradition using materials from that tradition to inform the work. That is particularily true with "Exit". A lot of the original source material is deeply buried in the tradition.
All of the tunes on "Exit" are based on very famous pieces. But they are sometimes pretty unrecognizeable in their original form. I don't consider them arrangements of traditional pieces, but rather as new compositions written by me, in which I use these famous songs as source material. Sometimes the source material is quite explicit, sometimes not.
Herbert: Together with guitarist Christy Doran in 2006 you've put texts by Samuel Beckett (his 100. birthday) into music in a programme called "Beginning to end". The programme was jointly comissioned by the Kilkenny Arts Festival and the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival and has been performed in Ireland, Germany and Switzerland. There hasn't been a CD issued of this exiting and unique project.
Ronan: The reason why we never recorded the project that we found it very difficult to get copyright for these pieces! Particularly some of the large ones that Christy arranged, because he used a huge amount of text. I used somewhat less. The chances of getting permission from the Beckett estate is slim.
They're famously litigious and very protective of something that they get a lot of money out of, but had no hand, act or part in producing. That's a pretty cushy number if you're the descendant of a great artist, because you can live off his or her creativity and wealth and just sit around being miserable and stop all the people trying to do interesting things. No bitterness there.
Herbert: Let's talk about the composer Ronan Guilfoyle. "Synapsisa concerto for orchestra" has been performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in February 2008. "Concerto for Jazz Guitar" performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the Guilfoyle/Nielsen Trio some time in the 90s. Just to mention two works among several commissions for large ensembles...
Ronan: I've always composed music for every group that I have been in or that I've been allowed to compose music for! From a very early stage, even before I could read music properly I was composing pieces by ear. I always had an impulse to write music and that was transmuted into more complex forms as I became a better musician, better able both to compose and write down what I was composing.
The big shift came in 1993 when I wrote my first piece for a classical ensemble. Up to then erverything was exclusively for jazz. In 1995/96 I became very interested in the idea of extended composition in the jazz format. A lot of the work I have done in the last fifteen years has been based on these two themes.
When I first started writing for classical groups I had a bit of a crisis of confidence in the sense that I should be writing classical music for them. When I listened to great classical music, and I knew a lot because I was raised with it, I realized how impossible it was for me and how far short of the mark I would be trying to do that. Essentialy I came to an agreement with myself that rather than try to shoot myself in some kind of classical format, I would just write the kind of music I write but for classical instruments.
In my writing you can hear jazz elements all the time, but also Indian and Arabic elements, Funk and all kinds of different things. I don't discriminate at all! I'm completely accepting of any influence at any time in any piece. And this has worked very well creatively and in terms of my writing career. Most of the music has been commissioned by people who are interested in the fact that what I'm writing is quite different from what most people would write in that classical situation.
I also write pieces for mixed groups, where for some of the musicians all of the music is written and for other members of the group only some of it is written.
Herbert: Are they explicitly jazz pieces?
Ronan: It depends on the situation. For example: if I have a group and nobody is improvising and there are loads of jazz elements in it. Is it a jazz piece? No, because jazz must contain certain elements to be considered part of that tradition. Everybody in that group has to be improvising and the music has to be based on the Afro-American rhythmic tradtion to some degree. Although I may have written a lot of pieces for classical groups based on the Afro-American rhythmic tradition, I don't consider them "jazz pieces" considering the fact they are not improvising. Jazz-influenced but not jazz!
When I write for jazz musicians and the music is heavily written out and everybody solos and improvises, I consider that a jazz piece. But we are dancing on the head of a pin here.
Herbert: You were a founding member of the "Newpark Music Centre". What impact has it had on Irish Jazz?
Ronan: The impact of Newpark is incalcuable in terms of it's benefits. The sheer amount of information that's been made accesible to young musicians through the school and the school structures is huge. If I compare it to my own way of learning, I tried to pick up information anywhere I could. There were absolutely no formal structures in place.
Newpark has formal structures in place since we started full-time courses in 1998. It now has a B.A. in jazz performance. Students can actually get a 3rd level qualification as a jazz musician. This is a great improvement for musicians in Ireland. But Newpark is not just about degreesit's also about information and providing a place where young musicians can be in a community of musicians. Between 60-80 students doing the B.A. in jazz performance. If you're a student and come to the school you become a member of the community.
This kind of community does not really exist outside school structures anywhere in the world. If you go back to the 50's or 60's the community was at the gigs themselves. There were so many gigs, jazz was much more economically viable pursuit as a player than it is now. The community was out there. You went to the gigs, hung out with musicians and went to jam sessions.
In modern times this kind of community exists around the schools where students and teachers are in one place. This musician's community is a great thing for jazz. Musicians have access to information and teachers, they're given opportunities to play and meet with each other and feed off each other's creativity and knowledge.
We're definitely reeping the benefits of that now in Ireland. The standard of musicianship is much higher than twenty years ago. The number of people involved on a serious level is much higher, as are the opportunities in terms of learning from great musicians. We often have great Amercian or European musicians coming to teache.g. Dave Liebman, Christy Doran, Isa Wiss etc.
CD: Ronan Guilfoyle Métier - "Cascade"
Ronan Guilfoyle im Internet: www.ronanguilfoyle.com
CD Baby im Internet: www.cdbaby.com