by Ian Mann
October 05, 2022
Although firmly within the jazz tradition his compositions still sound fresh and exciting and the standard of the playing from this stellar Irish sextet is excellent throughout.
John Donegan, The Irish Sextet
John Donegan – piano, composer, Michael Buckley – alto & soprano saxes, flute, Richie Buckley – tenor & soprano sax, Linley Hamilton – trumpet & flugelhorn, Dan Bodwell – double bass, John Daly – drums
Born in Cork John Donegan is an Irish jazz pianist and composer now based in Hertfordshire. He has become a prominent figure on the UK jazz scene as well as maintaining links with his native Ireland.
I first became aware of his playing in 2020 when I gave a favourable review to his album “A Kite For Kate” recorded with an Anglo-Irish sextet with a similar instrumental configuration to the above.
Donegan spent periods living in Dublin and Bristol and played on the jazz scene in both cities, the years in Bristol representing a particularly productive time for him.
British and Irish jazz artists with whom Donegan has worked include trumpeters Bruce Adams and Steve Waterman, vocalist Christine Tobin, guitarist Louis Stewart, bassists Arnie Somogyi and Jeff Clyne and drummer Clark Tracey.
International artists with whom he has performed include such big names as drummer Art Blakey, who once sat in with Donegan’s trio at Cork Jazz Festival, trumpeter Art Farmer, guitarist Barney Kessel and saxophonist Greg Abate.
Donegan names his main pianistic influences as being Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Hampton Hawes, Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Kenny Barron. As this list might suggest Donegan’s music is a kind of modern mainstream with the emphasis on original composition. One suspects that the sound of the Blue Note label also represents a significant source of inspiration.
As a composer Donegan has frequently been inspired by the members of his own family and several of his releases have been dedicated to family members, beginning with his 2009 début “Song for Ciara”, which was dedicated to his eldest daughter. This featured a mix of standards and originals and was recorded in a variety of instrumental formats with a pool of Bristol based musicians.
“Amarie”, dedicated to the pianist’s wife Marie, was also recorded while Donegan was still living in Bristol and follows a similar format to his début.
“Jen’s Progress”, released in 2016, was dedicated to Donegan’s second daughter and was a solo piano album comprised entirely of original material.
A prolific composer Donegan has written a suite consisting of twenty one short pieces that combine elements of jazz and Irish traditional music. This work has been released on two separate CDs “Siamsa, Volumes One and Two”. The recordings include solo, duo and trio performances with contributions coming from Tommaso Starace on saxophones and Donegan’s daughter Catherine (or Kate) on vocals. The later “A Kite for Kate” was dedicated to her.
“A Kite for Kate” was Donegan’s sixth album as a leader and sowed the seeds for this current project. When Donegan was touring the music In Ireland in February 2020, just before the pandemic, plans were made to form a new all Irish sextet.
The resultant band features some of the cream of Irish jazz musicians. Saxophonists Michael and Richie Buckley are the sons of Dick Buckley, with whom Donegan once played on the Dublin jazz scene. Trumpeter Linley Hamilton is a bandleader and composer in his own right and also a respected jazz broadcaster. Donegan is keen to emphasise that the members of the sextet come from all corners of Ireland, himself from Cork, the Buckleys from Dublin, Hamilton from Ulster, Bodwell from Galway and Daly from Limerick.
“Shadows Linger” was recorded in Dublin in April 2022 with Donegan’s regular producer Bernard O’Neill at the controls. It features ten new compositions from the prolific Donegan, some of them again dedicated to family members, but more on that later.
The album commences with the appropriately upbeat “Shake It Up”, with the horns exchanging phrases on the intro like some kind of mini-big band. Then we’re into the individual solos with Hamilton going first on trumpet, his playing bright, fiery and fluent. He’s followed by Michael Buckley on alto and Richie on tenor, both exhibiting similar attributes. Donegan’s own solo is a torrential outpouring of ideas. Daly then ‘trades eights’ with the three horn men to bring this scintillating track to a sizzling conclusion.
As its title might suggest “Shadows Linger” itself is a much less frenetic affair. The mood is more contemplative and melancholy with Hamilton featuring on mellifluous flugel horn alongside the leader’s piano. Bodwell and Daly offer sympathetic rhythmic support while the Buckleys feature only briefly as part of a short ‘horn chorale’ during the tune’s early stages.
“Raffy’s Blues” is the first of the ‘family’ compositions, an appropriately lively and catchy tune dedicated to Donegan’s young grandson. There’s some impressive ensemble playing from the horns on the intro, this followed by an incisive alto solo from Michael Buckley. Hamilton follows on trumpet and Richie Buckley on tenor. Donegan solos more expansively, even returning for a second bite at the cherry – and why not.
A passage of unaccompanied piano introduces the Latin flavoured “Sole Shuffle”, which also incorporates more conventional jazz soloing from Michael Buckley, Hamilton, Donegan and Bodwell, the bassist’s only feature of the set.
Solo piano also introduces “Got A Spring In My Step”, a deceptively gentle start to a bop flavoured piece that is sometimes reminiscent of Miles Davis’ “Milestones”. Richie Buckley takes the first solo on tenor, followed by Hamilton on trumpet, Donegan at the piano and Michael Buckley on alto. Daly again enters into a series of trades with the horns. All of the soloists stretch out to good effect on the album’s lengthiest track.
“Kit’s Way” is dedicated to Raffy’s cousin, another of Donegan’s young grandsons. The style here is less playful than on its companion piece, the mood more lyrical and sentimental. The saxes of the Buckley brothers intertwine on the theme before diverging to solo individually. Donegan also solos at the piano while Daly deploys brushes throughout. Despite their successful individual careers it’s interesting to note that “Shadows Linger” is the first album on which the Buckley brothers have appeared together.
“SNS (Saturday Night Samba) represents a return to Latin styles, but this time in more energetic fashion. Joyous and uplifting the piece features solos from Hamilton on trumpet, Michael Buckley on alto, Donegan on piano and Richie Buckley on tenor. Donegan also exchanges phrases with the horn men in turn.
The energy levels are maintained on “Jump In Quick”, which acts as something of a showcase for drummer Daly whose busy drumming features strongly on the stop / start intro. The piece subsequently mutates into what liner note writer Brian Priestley describes as “a fast medium blues”.
Donegan confines himself to a rhythmic role with short solos coming from Richie Buckley on tenor, Hamilton on trumpet and Michael Buckley on alto, plus a further salvo from Daly at the kit.
One suspects that the title of the Latin flavoured ballad “I Will Tell You Once More (That I Love You)” is another familial reference. A flowingly lyrical piano solo from the leader is followed by further features from Michael Buckley on alto, Hamilton on flugel (I think) and Richie Buckley on tenor. There’s some exquisite ensemble playing too.
The album closes with “Once There’s Love”, an uplifting composition that possesses something of the feel of a jazz standard. The ensemble intro is followed by solos from Hamilton, Donegan and Michael Buckley. There’s also a sparkling piano / tenor duet between Donegan and Richie Buckley as the rest of the band temporarily drops out, Richie then going on to solo in more conventional fashion.
Produced with pinpoint clarity by Bernard O’Neill “Shadows Linger” is an excellent addition to the Donegan canon. Although firmly within the jazz tradition his compositions still sound fresh and exciting and the standard of the playing from this stellar Irish sextet is excellent throughout.
The sextet have been touring the music in Ireland with one date left on the calendar at the time of writing;
21st October 2022 - Westport Town Hall Theatre, Westport, Co Mayo.
Donegan will also be playing the following UK gigs;
Chopin Festival at the Polish Social and Cultural Association Posk , King St., Hammersmith on 15th October.
John Donegan/Stephen Ellery Quartet with Paul Jefferies on Bass and Matt Fishwick on Drums.
19th October - Three Rivers Musical Society - Concert at The Baptist Church, Rickmansworth, Herts.
John Donegan Sextet (UK)
Steve Fishwick - Trumpet/Flugel
Jamie O’Donnell - Alto and Soprano Saxes
Alex Hitchcock - Tenor Sax
Paul Jefferies - Bass
Matt Fishwick - Drums
John Donegan - Piano
More details at http://www.johndoneganjazz.com
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