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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Noel Kelehan

(Left to right - Jim Doherty, Martin Walsh, John Wadham, Louis Stewart, Noel Kelehan - late 1960s)

It's been a grim few months for jazz recently, with the departure of such giants as Bob Brookmeyer, Paul Motian, and Sam Rivers. Here in Ireland, we've just had a serious loss of our own with the passing of the pianist, arranger, conductor and composer Noel Kelehan.

Any non-Irish readers of this blog, and indeed possibly even some Irish readers, may not know who Noel Kelehan was. That's because, outside Ireland he was only well-known in the commercial music world, having the distinction of conducting more Eurovision Song Contest winners than anybody else in the history of the competition. He was also well-known as an arranger, and wrote orchestral arrangements for many commercial recordings, including U2's “Unforgettable Fire” album. In Ireland, he was very well-known, but again in the world of television and radio - as an arranger and MD of some of Ireland's best known TV shows. But though I knew Noel's work as an arranger and conductor, my relationship with him and admiration of him was related to his position as one of the finest jazz musicians this country has ever produced.

Noel was the staff arranger for RTE, the national radio and television company in Ireland, and having to produce arrangements to order for anyone, (mostly singers, both good and terrible), who might come within the orbit of RTE, kept him predictably busy. His busyness with his arranging day job, and his success and fame in the commercial music world, kept him from working as much as he should have, and would love to have done, in the jazz world. And it's been interesting reading all the tributes that have been paid to him recently here in Ireland, and how his jazz work usually just gets an honourable mention.

But jazz was his first love, and he was one of the first jazz musicians in Ireland to reach the kind of playing standard that would allow him to comfortably perform with people of the calibre of of Zoot Sims, Kenny Wheeler, and Art Farmer. To those of us on the Irish jazz scene, Noel was much more than solely a TV arranger, he was a great hard bop swinging pianist, an important bandleader, and someone from whom everyone of my generation learned a huge amount.

When I started playing on the Irish jazz scene over 30 years ago, there were very few players on the scene, and certainly very few really good players. But at least there were some players around the scene to look up to and learn from. And Noel was one of these. But when he and a few others began playing in Dublin at the end of the 1950s, they really had to invent the entire scene for themselves. Without pioneers such as Noel - who somehow in the conservative Ireland of the time, recognised the value of, and fell in love with jazz - the great strides that have been made in the music in this country over the past three decades would never have happened. I can't imagine what it must have been like to try and learn to play this difficult and virtually unknown music in the Ireland of those days, with no access to material, no access to a scene, no possibilities of hearing great players on regular basis, and probably no appreciation by the public of the music that they were practising like maniacs to be able to play.

(The Jazz Heralds, 1960)

But somehow they managed to figure stuff out by listening and copying as best they could, by organising sessions, and by doing all the things that players in a small, and at that time, isolated city, far from the jazz mainstream, had to do in order to learn the music. Most were never able to align their abilities with their aspirations, but Noel was one the exceptions that prove the rule. He was classically trained as a pianist, but self-taught as a composer, arranger and jazz pianist. I remember him telling me about hearing a George Shearing recording in the 50s when he was a teenager, and being blown away by it and trying to transcribe Shearing's solo from an EP - a process that involved much leaping up and down from the piano, and much replacing the needle, something that was wearing for the recording which evenutally got completely worn out. Noel told me he destroyed three copies of the recording before he was able to get what he wanted!

In 1963 he went to New York for a year but, thankfully for us, he returned a year later bringing with him even more knowledge about how the music should be played and the standard that needed to be aspired to, and he also became immediately involved in the commercial music world, writing for TV and radio. Jazz and commercial music were much more closely entwined in those days – jazz training would prepare you for work in the commercial world in a way that would be impossible now, so far have the two worlds diverged. Noel played jazz at every opportunity, organising big bands for which he wrote adventurous charts, writing pieces that involved string quartets and chamber groups playing alongside jazz musicians, playing in the bands of others and accompanying visiting international artists.

(left to right - Keith Donald, Noel, Mike Nolan, John Wadham, Johnny Griffin, Ronnie Matthews, Frank Hess)

He also lead several small groups, one of which, The Noel Kelehan Quintet, became hugely influential on me around the time I got really serious about jazz in the late 70s. Noel’s quintet played in a hotel every Sunday night for over two years, and going to see them was like a pilgrimage for me. The music was hard bop and post hard bop (music by Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Miles etc. As well as Noel’s originals), and the band were great, with the rhythm section in particular, (which featured another international standard musician, the drummer John Wadham) being outstanding. This was for me the first chance to hear jazz being played live, week after week, at a very high standard, and it made a huge impression on me.

I don’t have any recordings of those gigs (unfortunately.....), but here is a trio version of "Gone With The Wind' recorded by me around that time, on one of the first recording Walkmans (remember those!?) which shows how Noel sounded in those days. On this gig he was battling with a cottage piano (even smaller than a normal upright), and playing in a bar, complete with casual conversations going on in the background. The music is compressed by the Walkman’s built-in mic, and the version you’ll be hearing has been transferred three times – but despite all this, you can still hear what a great swinging pianist Noel was, with a tremendous vocabulary. There are shades of Red Garland, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans in there, but I would recognise Noel’s playing anywhere.......... He is accompanied by two stalwarts of the Irish scene of those days, the bassist Jimmy McKay and the drummer Peter Ainscough.

Gone With The Wind

It was around this time that I first began playing with Noel, and it was an education. It was an education trying to keep up with him. He was a very busy player – lots of notes and lots of chord substitutions, which would appear out of nowhere. Speaking as a bassist, unless you really paid attention, he could leave you for dead in a split second. But with Noel it wasn’t just teaching by musical example, he was also one of the few players of that era who would actually sit down and show you stuff if you asked him. Some of the other players took a delight in playing tunes you didn’t know and making you look foolish, but Noel never did anything malicious. He was always positive and supportive to me despite being light years ahead of me in knowledge and experience.

This musical and personal generosity was something he was renowned for, both in jazz and in his dealings with everyone. Here’s an example of it, and an hilarious moment of Irish musical history. The event is a ‘talent’ competition from 1961, in which the talent was so bad that the engineer in the studio decided to capture it for posterity. Noel was leading the backing trio, and in this track has to deal with the most incredible rendition of a maudlin Irish ballad in which ‘Mrs. Daly’ wanders through numerous keys, with the band in hot pursuit. It’s hilarious, but notice both how brilliant Noel is in following her harmonic trail, and how generous he is to the singer, trying to accompany and help her out as best he can.


And the generosity he displayed here is a recurring theme whenever musicians discuss Noel. When I was starting out trying to do some writing, Noel gave me several invaluable arranging lessons for which he refused to take any payment, a typical gesture on his part. And I also remember when I got my first orchestral music commission, the first thing I did was call Noel, plaintively asking for help. I’d taken the commission without having any experience of writing for an orchestra, and the euphoria having worn off, was faced with the reality of my situation. Noel, as always, helped enormously and I can still remember him saying “Number 1, don’t panic, and number 2, get a copy of ‘Orchestration’, by Gordon Jacob” - both great pieces of advice, the second of which undoubtedly saved my bacon, and I’ve used and recommended the Jacob book ever since.

Noel was a great musician, a pioneer for jazz in Ireland, a musical and personal example to younger musicians and when he became ill a few years ago it was a real blow to the scene here to have one of its real heavyweights sidelined like this. About a year ago he came to a gig I was playing with my group Trilogue – I caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye and felt the usual mixture of delight and nervousness that his presence at any of my gigs always brought on. We chatted afterwards and he was his usual generous and witty self, complimenting Izumi and Sarah and saying how much he enjoyed the music. As far as I know, it was the last gig he went to and I feel both sad about that, and privileged............

I remember seeing Noel play with Art Farmer and play an exquisite solo on ‘Blame It On My Youth’. At the end of the piece Art took the microphone and said ‘As it turned out, that tune featured Noel Kelehan on piano’, a generous and honest acknowledgement of a great musician by a great musician.

Here is Noel, as most of us here will remember him, burning through ‘This I Dig of You’ with Michael Buckley, Michael Coady on bass, and Peter Ainscough on drums. Michael’s solo is pretty savage too.... Yeah guys!

This I Dig Of You

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