Pianist John Donegan launches his latest album, Light Streams, at Jazz Café Posk on Friday, 1st December. The eighth album that the Cork-born, Hertfordshire-based Donegan has recorded under his own name, it has already enjoyed much positive feedback. The French radio station Couleurs Jazz named it one of October’s best releases and UK jazz blog Bebop Spoken Here rated it “as good as anything currently being recorded in Ireland, north or south of the border, either side of the Irish Sea, maybe even either side of the Atlantic – it’s that good!”.
An experienced musician who has played with both Art Blakey and Art Farmer, as well as with guitarists Barney Kessel, Louis Stewart and Frank Evans, Donegan worked in finance before taking early retirement in 2012. Since then, he has been very productive, with recordings including a solo album and albums with both his UK and Irish Sextets.. Interview by Rob Adams.
LondonJazz News: Light Streams is the second album by your Irish Sextet in a relatively short time; had you been stockpiling material before you started recording or has having time to concentrate on music since taking early retirement produced a flow of material?
John Donegan: The solo piano album, Jen’s Progress, recorded in 2016, reflected the fact I was now free to spend time composing and most of my writing has been carried out since that time. I was fortunate to be particularly productive during the Pandemic, though.
LJN: You’ve played with both Art Blakey and Art Farmer; how did these gigs happen?
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JD: For many years, I played at the Cork Jazz Festival, which was always a treat as it was my home city and gave me a chance to also catch up with family. I think it was in 1980 I was booked to play in a trio with Erica Howard on bass and Roland Rivron on drums. About mid-way through the first set I became aware of a change in the atmosphere in the room with a group of American musicians listening nearby. When we finished the tune we were playing I was approached by one of them asking if Mr Blakey could sit in! When I eventually found my voice, I said “of course,” and he sat in for two or three numbers. That was something else – a ‘tour de force’ that lifted everything to a new level.
Later, I lived in Bristol between 1989 and 1997 and I was often booked to provide a trio for visiting American musicians. On one such occasion we were booked to play with Art Farmer at the Four Bars Inn in Cardiff. Art Farmer’s tone was phenomenal and when he played flugel that was special. He was a very shy and modest man – another great memory.
LJN: What did you learn from these experiences?
JD: I definitely learned that I had a lot to learn! These musicians were huge artists in their own right but they had time to encourage us, in their own individual way.
LJN: You knew and worked with Louis Stewart; what kind of example to Irish musicians did Louis set and how strong is his influence today?
JD: I was lucky to have been friendly with Louis Stewart, not just musically but personally. I still regard him as a huge mentor and influence on me as well as on countless musicians both in Ireland and the UK. He played at the highest level internationally and demonstrated what could be achieved by hard work, practice and graft. He was talented and gifted and hugely respected by everyone who met and worked with him. His influence today is demonstrated by the many new fans he is gaining worldwide from the reissue of his works.
LJN: There’s a certain Jazz Messengers quality about both of your sextets’ music (Light Streams features Donegan’s Irish sextet but his UK sextet plays the album launch) and yet, there’s also a sense of the Irish tradition in your writing; were you around Irish traditional music much growing up?
JD: I think the Jazz Messengers feel comes from the choice of instrumentation which has always been a favourite of mine. I was trained classically and had some influence of Irish Traditional music growing up, but I developed the interest and appreciation later in life. That said, I was hugely impressed by Seán Ó Riada, who was hugely influential in popularising Irish Traditional Music. Interestingly enough, he was a jazz pianist before he immersed himself in Irish and classical music.
LJN: The band at Café Posk will be your UK sextet; how long has it been in existence and what qualities do you admire particularly in the musicians involved
JD: Steve and Matt Fishwick, who I’ve known and worked with for almost thirty years, are usually on trumpet and drums, although Martin Shaw will be replacing Steve this time. Riley Stone-Lonergan (tenor and soprano saxes) and Jamie O’Donnell (alto sax) complete the frontline and Paul Jefferies, on bass, will be replaced by Alec Dankworth for Jazz Café Posk. These musicians are at the top of their profession and are some of the best in the UK. They all bring something special to the music.
LJN: What feelings would you like the audience to take away from this gig and your gigs in general?
JD: The most important thing for any composer or band leader is to ensure the programme is, firstly, enjoyable to play and to listen to. I’d like to reach everyone with my music and hope that some would be moved or touched by it enough to want to hear it all again!
LJN: What’s next after the album launch?
JD: I plan to go to Ireland again next year and record the third Irish Sextet album. All the material is written and arranged and I’m looking forward to that. I also have three suites written and partly recorded. One is best described as contemporary music influenced by my Irish and jazz roots. One is written for vibes, piano, bass and drums, and another is written for guitar, piano, bass and drums. So, there’s lots to keep me busy.