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CLASS AND BRASS: THE JAZZ WORLD’S JOURNEY TO THE WEST OF IRELAND

Eddie Lee’s photograph of a Gaelic Chieftain statue in County Roscommon
Eddie Lee’s photograph of a Gaelic Chieftain statue in County Roscommon

The 15th Sligo International Summer School and Jazz Festival wrapped up another fabulous year at the end of July. It is the brainchild of Irish bassist, composer and producer, Eddie Lee, who has recorded and toured internationally with some of the biggest names in the Irish music scene and has even had the pleasure of being conducted by composing great, Ennio Morricone.

…come to Ireland to our summer school and festival, where you’ll find inspiration, education and entertainment in equal measure!

Eddie Lee

I first met Lee in a crooked little pub on the windy northwest coast of Sligo, thumping out delicious double bass notes with regular bandmates, No Crows. It was 2009. Intoxicated by their blend of folk and world music that flavours gypsy rhythms with spices of jazz, I started joining their jam sessions and sang on their 2010 album No Crows on the Moon. But it wasn’t until 2013, after attending his summer school and festival as a student, that I fully appreciated Lee’s excellence as a jazz musician and his dedication to championing the cause in Ireland.

The halls and stages at Lee’s festival were graced with jazz greats including Grammy-nominated composer and pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Victor Wooten of Béla Fleck fame, Chaka Khan’s Bob Franceschini, tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint and master trombonist Marshall Gilkes. It was a hectic week, in the way all great festivals are. Between master classes, practice, jam sessions and concerts, there was not a lot of time for rest.

The day after the final concert, I pulled myself out of bed at noon, turned on the keyboard and wrote my first jazz song. A few months later, I was recording it with Lee in a studio outside of Dublin for pianist Kieran Quinn’s debut solo album, Not Just Black and White. The laid-back trio of Lee, Quinn and drummer, Ken “Tonto” McDonald, complemented the vibe of my song with perfect ease.

The following year I photographed Lee for inclusion in a calendar I produced, celebrating Sligo musicians. He has since become a notable photographer himself, capturing the stunning beauty of his home county in dreamy landscapes (I’m about to order a print for my home studio)!

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It was my pleasure to catch up with Lee and chat about the development of the Sligo Jazz Project and the driving forces behind his inspiration.

Lee getting robed up by Indian guest, Ghatam Giridhar Udupa. Photo by Lieve Boussauw

ATS: By incorporating classes and a full programme of concerts, you’ve created a festival experience that’s truly unique. How did the Sligo Jazz Project come about? What were its aims from the outset?

Lee: In 2005, with a dearth of jazz education in the west of Ireland, four Sligo musicians wanted to learn to play jazz better so we invited a friend, Dublin-based guitarist Mike Nielsen, to do some workshops here. He suggested we make a weekend of it, with a few tutors running workshops on different instruments. The weekend was fun and successful, so in 2006 we decided to turn it into a summer school with a bigger teaching faculty.

The aims of SJP were to bring world class musicians to Sligo to teach and perform, to benefit local and international musicians. The uniqueness stems from the educational element (the festival was built around the summer school). We were aware that jazz education provides musicians with skillsets in other genres and a better understanding of charts and chord theory, and adds to general professionalism. We run workshops each day and most of the concerts feature the tutors, with the core audience made up of summer school participants, which has grown from 35 in our first event to 120+.   

This core audience and family of educators results in an extraordinary empathy which grows throughout the week and, by end of the participants’ concert on the Sunday afternoon, it’s become a full-blown love fest.

ATS: What are the distinctive benefits for younger musicians in being immersed in a week of workshops, jam sessions and concerts?

Lee: Some of our youth academy members were nine or 10 when they first came to our summer school. We were inspired to start a Youth Academy when we saw that the tutors experienced as much excitement and passion from teaching the younger participants as the youngsters did.

Many of those kids are now 18 or 19 and are really blossoming into fine musicians, performing professionally. We’ve developed a roster of junior tutors who assist our main tutors, all of whom were once participants in our school. 

ATS: It’s no mean feat getting a festival off the ground. What were some of the challenges you faced in the early years?

Lee: Getting enough funding to attract “name” musicians was the toughest challenge initially. Then it became about accommodating the growing number of attendees, in terms of classroom space, musical equipment and literal accommodation. We now have over 20 ensembles working each afternoon and each has to be kitted out with a full spread of PA, pianos, amplifiers and drum kits.  

ATS: You’ve managed to attract some of the biggest names in jazz from around the world – can you talk a bit about your process in building the festival to that level?

Lee: In 2006 I came home from a holiday in the US and we still hadn’t found a bass tutor for the summer school in August. Trying to learn as much as I could about the idiom, I had invested in some books and a DVD by the great jazz bassist Rufus Reid. I visited his website and wrote to him, “Dear Mr Reid, I know this is a long shot but a silent priest never got a parish…” Fifteen minutes later I got a reply saying “Dear Eddie, it’s just as well you are not a silent priest, because I am interested and available.” He stipulated that he wished to bring his wife, Doris, and his double bass (and “not necessarily in that order”). We got the cost of transporting the double bass partly sponsored by Aer Lingus, something that would be pretty unthinkable now! 

When Rufus returned to the US, word began spreading through the jazz fraternity that Sligo was a good place to come to each July and we haven’t looked back since.

Matthew Halpin, Soweto Kinch, Meilana Gillard and Cathal Roche on sax. Photo by Lieve Boussauw

ATS: Who were some of your favourite teachers to have at the school and what made their contribution so special?

Lee: Rufus Reid was certainly a big influence on SJP as an organisation, but also on everyone who attended his workshops and talks. WDR (Köln) Big Band bassist John Goldsby has been coming every year since about 2011 and is one of the greatest jazz educators on the planet. Vocalist Liane Carroll is another perennial, along with a whole roster of great Irish and UK musicians and educators like Paul Clarvis, Linley Hamilton, Paul Booth, Sara Colman and Matthew Halpin. My personal favourite would probably have been the late great pianist John Taylor, whose generosity and warmth was fabulous – plus his workshop moments that we managed to capture on video are some of our most cherished memories.

ATS: What are some of your standout moments from festival gigs over the years? Mine were definitely seeing phenomenal bassist, Victor Wooten, and bold Minnesota outfit, The Bad Plus!

Lee: We have had so many memorable concerts, with so many one-off ensembles. Rufus with Louis Stewart, Norma Winstone and Paul Wertico, Rufus with Mike Nielsen and Sandro Gibellini, Ernie Watts or Marshall Gilkes with the Dublin City Jazz Orchestra, the Sligo Jazz Project All Star Big Band concerts – the list goes on. 

But I think the first formative moment came when Bassist Avishai Cohen performed with his Trio in 2007 in the Hawk’s Well Theatre, with Mark Giuliana on drums and Shai Maestro on piano. It was transformative for many Sligo concert goers, who hadn’t heard of him but were simply blown away. Several people shook my hand that night, and told me they “normally don’t like jazz but that was just amazing.” Moments like these make a festival I think, when people’s preconceptions are shook and a sense of trust develops between the festival goers and organisers. People will keep coming back when they experience such episodes of epiphany that give them that feeling that they have witnessed something extraordinary. Those nights are the ones that give me the most pleasure!

Artists like Christian Scott and The Bad Plus had a similar effect on people. Of course we had some major international jazz & crossover artists such as Mike Stern, Victor Wooten, Kenny Werner, Ernie Watts, John Taylor & Norma Winstone. My most recent most cherished memory was the 2018 performance of Malcolm Edmonstone’s arrangement of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly with Liane Carroll, Sara Colman and Emilia Martensson, plus a specially assembled all-star SJP Big Band with Mike Walker, Ryan Quigley and Paul Booth amongst others, conducted by Malcolm Edmonstone himself. It was a fabulous achievement, considering there was only a couple of hour’s rehearsal before the show. It’s a testament to the standard of the pool of fabulous musicians we now have at our disposal in presenting our event each year. 

On a personal level, my most treasured memory was the performance of a suite that myself and David Lyttle, a composer/drummer from Northern Ireland, were commissioned to write in 2013. Kenny Werner, Jean Toussaint, members of Moxie, and John Joe Kelly were amongst the stellar line up performing the Barinthus Suite, inspired by Sligo’s neolithic landscape and commissioned by the Hawk’s Well Theatre, with a grant from the Arts Council of Ireland.

ATS: I remember that performance. It was stunning! You’ve had a few Australian jazzers teach at the festival over the years, including Perth’s own Jamie Oehlers. Do Australians bring a different flavour?

Lee: We had Jamie Oehlers and Paul Williamson teach and perform here many years ago – would love to have them both back some day! Irish bassist Barry Donohue toured with Jamie a few years ago and performed one of his tunes here just a couple of weeks ago.

More recently, we had German-based Aussie trombonist Shannon Barnett, who is an incredible musician and brilliant teacher. John Goldsby from the WDR Big Band recommended her to me when she was performing with them. She’s now busy as a soloist bandleader on the European scene.

Vocalist Liane Carroll at the Hawk’s Well Theatre. Photo by Lieve Boussauw

ATS: 2020 has presented many challenges for festivals. How did you approach things this year?

Lee: It’s a very exciting time at Sligo Jazz Project, despite this year’s pandemic. Of course we cancelled our main event, which was really painful, as we had Steve Gadd booked to play an exclusive Irish concert! Instead we held a virtual summer school and festival. I found it incredibly difficult – totally new territory, and a serious strain on our limited technology. Our video crew, Ita and Kris, put in ridiculous hours editing, branding and exporting the tons of concerts, lessons and workshop footage we received from our many generous tutors and musicians. We had a full program and really, it worked a treat.

We had big bands and trios and a whole host of exclusive, specially recorded sets, including a solo piano gig by Steve Hamilton. Rufus Reid returned, and we had London-based jazz from Tony Kofi and Larry Bartley, Josephine Davies and Ben Somers, a socially distanced concert we recorded in the Hawks Well Theatre with the Saffron trio, Christine Tobin and Phil Robson, plus a lovely cameo from Cathy Jordan of Dervish fame, in a most alluring remote concert with UK jazzers Liam Noble and Paul Clarvis. We also featured hours of archives in a retrospective each night and a four hour show on the final night, presenting many of the best moments of Sligo Jazz Project’s history.

The micro-lessons are still up on our Facebook page if you’d like to check them out. We also plan to upload each series onto our YouTube channel, as soon as we catch our breath from the post festival wrap-up!

ATS: If you could offer one piece of advice to young musicians coming up, what would it be?

Lee: If you want to learn an instrument, get a good teacher. I had none growing up and am self-taught. I realise now I missed out on so much. A good teacher will inspire you and teach you that hard work pays off in multiples. If you dedicate yourself, you can have a wonderful life playing music and making people happy. One thing I have learned from our amazing roster of world-class musicians is that the most important thing you need to learn is attention to detail. You need to study how the great jazz musicians construct their solos and this involves transcribing them as much as possible and learning every nuance. You need to practice with discipline and practice smart. If you get a good teacher, you will be thankful to them forever.

And if things return to normal, come to Ireland to our summer school and festival, where you’ll find inspiration, education and entertainment in equal measure!

Mike Nielsen (guitar) and John Goldsby (bass). Photo by Lieve Boussauw

ATS: What are your plans for next year, musically and personally? 

Lee: Before Covid-19 struck, we had already mapped out a lot of plans for 2021, which is now a little up in the air. We will run the full festival and summer school if we are able, but nobody knows right now whether that will be possible. The good news is that we learned a lot this year about running a virtual festival. Either way, I’m confident that we will come back stronger and with even more appreciation for great live music and the personal touch we give to everything we present.

On a personal level, I’ve been getting more and more into my passion for photography in the past couple of years and did very little else during the initial three-month period of lockdown. I’m hoping to stage an exhibition next year, so I’m exploring a few ideas on subjects right now. My favourite indulgences include Milky Way and Night Sky photography and landscapes and seascapes of the beautiful place I am lucky to live in.

The author recording with Lee in County Dublin

Follow the Sligo Jazz Project here:
sligojazz.ie
facebook.com/sligojazz
instagram.com/sligojazz
twitter.com/sligojazz
youtube.com/sligojazz

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