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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Peer Group

There’s something about playing with your contemporaries that feels different to any other playing situation……… Recently the Guilfoyle/Nielsen trio – with Mike Nielsen on guitar, and my brother Conor on drums, has got back together for the first time in five years - as a trio at least, though we’ve played together as part of a rhythm section with Dave Liebman a couple of years back. But though it’s been five years since we played as a trio, we have a LONG history together. We first played as a rhythm section in 1985, as part of a group called ‘Four in One’ (with firstly Richie Buckley on saxophone, then Mike McMullen) and that group played together till about 1989. During this period we started to play as a trio for the first time, doing some gigs at the Focus Theatre – a venue which in retrospect I realise was, for Irish jazz musicians of my generation, like Minton’s was for the bebop guys in the ‘40s! Over the next fifteen years we played together on innumerable occasions, either as a trio or as a rhythm section.

As we played together two distinct strands of our work developed – our role as a trio with an intense interest in developing new rhythmic techniques, and our role as a rhythm section accompanying visiting musicians. In this latter role we played with many great musicians – Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Sonny Fortune, Kenny Wheeler, Richie Beirach, Kenny Werner, Larry Coryell, Conrad Herwig, Julian Arguelles, Pat LaBarbara, Steve Coleman and Simon Nabatov, and we recorded with Liebman (twice) and LaBarbara. Apart from this work with international musicians we also played with many Irish musicians in many different groupings and formats.

At the same time as we were operating as a rhythm section, we had an independent life as a trio. At the end of the ‘80s we developed an intense interest in the creative possibilities of rhythm, and luckily enough we were underemployed enough to have the time to work on these possibilities! At that time none of us was as busy as we later became, and subsequently were able to put the time at our disposal into what amounted to about two years of intense rehearsal. About three mornings a week we would go to the music school where we worked, lock ourselves into the padded cell that was the drum teaching room, and play for hours. Over this period we developed our rhythmic techniques and interest in such things as metric modulation and playing in odd metres.

We had a particular interest in playing standards in odd metres, something that was very rare at that time, though it’s still not common today. And through working on these things we developed a reputation internationally as being the ‘weird rhythm guys’, which did us no harm at all! We ended up being the first Irish musicians to be invited to teach at Berklee College of Music for example and also taught in Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Austria and India among other places. As a result of this period of work and interest in rhythm I wrote my rhythm book which featured the trio in the accompanying CD, and is now over ten years old (if you’re interested in reading more about the development of this book I posted a blog about it here).

In 1992 we managed to get a residency in The Oak - a pub in Temple Bar. A residency is a really hard thing to get these days, but it was a little easier then, and this particular one, which (incredibly) we managed to hold on to for about a year, was really helpful to us in being able to develop this odd metre standard concept, since we could try out the material every Friday night. This prepared us for going into the studio to record – which we did in Paul Ashe Browne’s studio in Annamoe in Wicklow in March 1993 – the peaceful rural setting making a suitable contrast to the rhythmic mayhem that was going on in the studio!

This recording of rearranged, (both harmonically and rhythmically), standards, which we fondly christened ‘Fucked-Up Classics Volume One’, was for all of us a landmark recording since we felt it represented a document of the work in this area that we’d done up to this point, and which we also felt was a good representation of that - the residency in the Oak having helped hone the music to a very high level. But, with the recording made, we couldn’t get it out. Few companies were interested in releasing an album of odd metre standards by relative unknowns and none of us was in a financial position to pay for the manufacture and release of the recording ourselves. So it languished in the studio for several years and then – disaster – the studio changed address and the DAT original master disappeared in the move...........

So all that remained of ‘Fucked Up Classics’ were some cassette copies that we had in our possession and it’s never been released. But last year Conor suggested that we should transfer the music to CD, and though it wouldn’t be of commercial level sound quality, get the music out there at least. So this we did through Conor’s website where you can download the music for free What we found interesting is that though the record companies wouldn’t give us the time of day when we originally sent the recording out to them, usually saying that the music was ‘too esoteric’, the CD has been downloaded over 600 times in the few short months since it’s been up there. And we feel good about that – it’s nice to get some kind positive reaction, even many years later, to something you put so much work into.

After this period we started to write original material and do freer music than previously and so the odd metre standard era (even though we usually included a couple in every performance) passed on for us. And even the trio passed on, in that, in the typical way of these things, we all developed our own careers and interests, became busier individually and began developing new projects independently of the trio. Although we would get together occasionally as a trio, and more often as a rhythm section, the days of the three times a week rehearsals and residency gigs were gone. And it was only as recently as last March, when Mike and I met for the first time in over a year at a Lionel Loueke concert, that we started talking again about taking the trio out of the mothballs and back on the road so to speak. We realised with shock that it had actually been five years since we’d played a gig as a trio, and decided then and there that something should be done about that!

And so we have – we’re playing a trio gig in the legendary JJ Smyth’s on Sunday June 7th, AND we decided to revive ‘Fucked Up Classics’ and give it its first outing in over 15 years.

And so we started rehearsing, and it’s been really great to play again! As I remarked at the beginning of this post, there’s something about playing with contemporaries that is unique. When you play with musicians of your own age and background, there’s a shared experience there, an unspoken understanding of certain concepts and philosophies that you just don’t get working with younger musicians or musicians from different backgrounds. This understanding is based on years of listening to the same music, or working on the same material – it’s almost like a form of musical cultural identity, a shared recognition of certain basic truths that are held by everybody in the group. Before you play a note there are certain things that you just KNOW, that require no discussion or preamble. It makes for a particular type of playing experience that can’t be reproduced in any other context – it’s the understanding within a peer group that has a history of shared experiences.

And when in the case of this trio you add the, literally, years of playing together, travelling together, playing with all of these great musicians together and how those experiences shaped us and affected us, and when you also add the collective passion for rhythm that kept us in the drum room for years and allowed us to work towards a shared concept of how to play collectively – it intensifies this aforementioned sense of unspoken understanding. In the rehearsals, despite the fact that we haven’t played for five years as a trio, there has been almost no discussion of musical concepts – we just know what we want to do without talking about it. In fact we’ve spent more time laughing about past incidences and experiences and talking about this musician that we played with, or that gig we did than we have talking about the music itself. Because there’s no need to talk about the music – all we need to do with that is play it. And play it we will, with perhaps even more enthusiasm than before (if that’s possible!), since we’re so happy to be back playing again. And also playing with more maturity, since the things we’ve been doing and learning and working on individually can now be fed into the collective playing of the trio. We believe that we play this music better now than we did then, and I think we’re all looking forward to this gig as a chance to both revisit old musical haunts and discover some new ones at the same time.

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