Emerald Isle jazz

Bassist Ronan Guilfoyle is at home with both structured and improvised music.

April 7, 2014 13:51
4 minute read.
[illustrative photo]

Glasses sheet music 311. (photo credit: MCT)


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When one thinks of Ireland in the context of music, one’s thoughts naturally tend towards the Celtic side of the entertainment business. Then again, there are several jazz clubs around the country, and there are half a dozen high-profile festivals as well.

Ronan Guilfoyle is one of the Emerald Isle’s leading proponents of improvisational music, and tomorrow morning Israeli jazz fans will be able to see and hear for themselves what the 55-year-old bass player has to offer when he joins forces with saxophonist Amikam Kimmelman and three other Israeli jazz artists – pianist Nahum Perferkowitz, trombonist Yonatan Vulchuk and drummer Roi Uliel. The gig will take place at the Shablul Jazz Club in Tel Aviv at 11:30 a.m.

Guilfoyle is certainly a front runner in the Irish jazz stakes. He is the director of jazz at the Newpark Music Centre in Dublin, which caters to some 1,000 students and runs its own annual jazz festival. Performing on the rarely used acoustic bass guitar since the early 1980s, Guilfoyle is now one of the instrument’s leading exponents and is much in demand as a bassist in his native Ireland and on the international jazz scene.

His cohorts in jazz endeavor over the last three decades have included such envelope-pushing titans as saxophonist Dave Liebman, pianist Kenny Werner, saxophonist Joe Lovano, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, pianist Brad Mehldau and guitarist John Abercrombie. He has also been leading his own groups since the mid-1980s and has recorded extensively as a sideman and a leader.

Interestingly, the Irishman has his nimble fingers in quite a few musical pies. He is also a composer for classical ensembles and has received commissions from a wide range of ensembles and organizations. Some of his piano works have been recorded by Japanese-born Irish pianist Izumi Kimura.

Clearly, Guilfoyle is equally at home with both structured and improvised musical settings. He has been composing for classical ensembles since 1993, specializing in compositions that feature both improvised and written music. He has had great success in this field and now has a large body of work that takes in solo piano pieces, chamber works and full-blown orchestral compositions. His clientele to date includes the RTE Concert Orchestra in Dublin, London-based Opus 20 String Orchestra, and the European Jazz Youth Orchestra. He has also been commissioned to write works for topnotch soloists across a range of disciplines, such as jazzman Liebman, classical violinist Michael D’arcy and virtuoso accordionist Dermot Dunne.

Guilfoyle has also become a sought-after composer of jazz works.

His creations have been performed by such jazz luminaries as Liebman, Werner, Wheeler, New York-based drummer Keith Copeland, British saxophonist Julian Arguelles and stellar septuagenarian American saxophonist-flutist-clarinetist Sonny Fortune. In 1997, he received a feather in his composer’s hat when he won the prestigious Julius Hemphill Jazz Composition Competition, awarded annually by the Jazz Composers Alliance in the United States.

With that kind of background, it comes as no surprise that Guilfoyle is constantly looking for ways to fuse written music with the more off-thecuff variety. One of his latest crossover ventures is the Trilogue threesome in which he joins forces with Kimura and Swiss-born vocalist Sarah Buechi, who brings her own eclectic musical background, which ranges from South Indian music and jazz to classical music. The bass player calls the group “my new chamber improvising group” and says that although it’s early days for new project, it is a group “that’s already real fun to play with and one with great potential.”

“Over the past 10 years I’ve written a lot of chamber music for various classical ensembles, sometimes with an improviser, sometimes not,” he says. “And for a long time, I’ve also thought it would be a nice idea to have a group that combined a large composed element with the ability to improvise and be spontaneous. With Trilogue, I think I’ve found such a group.”

The Irishman says that working with the pianist and singer has opened up new avenues of creative pursuit for him and that all three have found a common musical language.

“About five years ago, I came across Izumi, a really great contemporary classical pianist who plays my music very well and who really understands the rhythmic language of contemporary improvised music. She has a great technique and a great time feel and a real appreciation of the aesthetics of improvised music,” he says.

Guilfoyle is similarly appreciative of the Swiss singer’s added value.

“Sarah comes from a jazz background but has another string to her bow in that she studied South Indian classical music extensively in India and brings that experience to her improvising. She also has a fantastic technique and an extraordinary ability to learn and memorize even the most technically difficult of material. She’s really fearless and will take on things that would send most other singers running for cover!” he laughs.

Currently, one of Guilfoyle’s main vehicles of jazz expression is the highly inventive MSG trio in which he collaborates with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and drummer Chander Sardjoe. The band, which has been together on and off for four years, recently put out its debut album.

Overall, Guilfoyle says it is all about making contact – between the performers and between the artists and the audience.

“The success of the communication between the improvising musicians is paramount for the audience to be able to enjoy the music,” he notes. “You have to be saying something to the other musicians, and they have to be responding to you. And then, if the audience can witness that, they become part of the emotional to-ing and fro-ing. That’s really the beauty of improvised music. It’s certainly the beauty of jazz music.”

Ronan Guilfoyle and company will perform at 11:30 on Saturday morning at the Shablul Jazz Club in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information: (03) 546-1891 and www.shabluljazz.com

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