by Ian Mann
November 09, 2023
His writing is varied, intelligent and unfailingly melodic, and most importantly of all it swings.
John Donegan, The Irish Sextet
John Donegan – piano, composer, Michael Buckley – alto & soprano saxes, flute, Richie Buckley – tenor 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, guitarists Louis Stewart and Nigel Price, 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 third volume of Siamsa is planned and will include the “Elegy Suite”, written to commemorate all those who lost their lives during the pandemic.
Another ongoing project is a series of arrangements of Chopin piano pieces for jazz quartet. Five pieces were performed at the 2022 Chopin Festival at Jazz Cafe POSK in London in 2022 and a further five at Burford Jazz Club in 2023. Donegan hopes to be able to record the project in due course.
“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.
Lockdown was a creative and productive time for Donegan that saw him composing twenty new pieces for eventual performance by the Irish sextet over the course of two albums.
The First of these,“Shadows Linger”, was recorded in Dublin in April 2022 with Donegan’s regular producer Bernard O’Neill at the controls. It featured ten new compositions from the prolific Donegan, some of them again dedicated to family members. My review of that album, from which the above biographical details have been sourced, can be found here;
Released in October 2023 “Light Streams” presents Donegan’s other ten lockdown compositions. Featuring the same personnel that made “Shadows Linger” this new music was recorded in April 2023 at Dublin’s Camden Studios with Bernard O’Neill again acting as producer.
Although he wasn’t actually present at the recording session Ronan Guilfoyle’s liner notes offer pertinent insights into the music, with several of the compositions again being inspired by members of Donegan’s family.
The album commences with “What’s This?”, a composition that features some fine ensemble playing, with the blend of the horns particularly impressive. As Guilfoyle points out in his notes two of Miles Davis’ most celebrated albums, “Milestones” and “Kind of Blue” deploy the same instrumental configuration as Donegan’s sextet. “What’s This” represents an energetic, briskly swinging opener and features fluent solos from both Buckley brothers either side of a dazzling pianistic excursion from Donegan. It’s clear from the beginning that this album is going to adhere to the high musical standards set by its predecessor.
Things cool down a little with “Close Nearby”, a tune that Guilfoyle describes as a “fast ballad”. Again it’s notable for its rich horn voicings and features Michael Buckley soloing on airy soprano sax, alongside brother Richie on tenor.
The leader’s piano introduces the modally flavoured “Reflect On This”, which includes some richly textured ensemble playing that is again indicative of Donegan’s skill as a composer and arranger. Cogent solo statements are heard from Michael and Richie Buckley, Hamilton and Donegan, while Bodwell and Daly keep things ticking over nicely.
“Along Came Freddie”, named for one of Donegan’s grandsons, is another “fast ballad”. One suspects that the title might also represent a tip of the hat to the late, great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Bodwell makes his first appearance as a soloist with a melodic double bass feature. Michael Buckley follows with a concise alto solo, before handing over to Donegan at the piano. There’s a tenderness and lyricism about the music that is reflective of a composition presumably dedicated to a new born.
The sextet up the energy levels once more on “Seb’s Story”, another ‘family composition’ dedicated to one of Donegan’s numerous grandsons. Driven by propulsive bass and drums the horn section sometimes come on like a ‘mini big band’, with the Buckley brothers breaking ranks to deliver powerful solos, followed by the ebullient Hamilton on trumpet and finally the leader at the piano.
The title track is a more impressionistic affair, a melodic lyrical composition in waltz time in which Guilfoyle detects the influence of Maurice Ravel. With Hamilton and Richie Buckley sitting out the group is reduced to a quartet with Michael Buckley featuring on flute. There’s a luminous, ethereal quality to Buckley’s flute soloing, and a slightly chilly quality that contrasts well with the warmth of Donegan’s lyrical piano solo. Bodwell and Daly offer sympathetic support, playing with great sensitivity as Daly deploys brushes throughout.
The medium paced swinger “Showtime” ups the tempo once more and features some of the most complex ensemble writing on the record. But there’s also plenty of room for self expression with all the band members featuring as soloists, albeit briefly in some cases. Donegan is particularly effusive and Richie Buckley, Bodwell and Daly all feature strongly.
“Sonorial” is a brief solo piano interlude that clocks in at just over two minutes. Guilfoyle compares the lyrical quality of Donegan’s playing with that of Keith Jarrett.
“Sinto-me Bem” introduces a breezy Latin / Brazilian flavour and features some tight ensemble playing allied to the colourful drumming of Daly. Donegan stretches out joyously on piano followed by Michael Buckley on alto and Richie on tenor. Finally there’s some scintillating interplay between all the horns as they dovetail on the outro.
The album concludes with “Blues For KJ”. I’m not sure if this is a dedication to yet another family member or to the aforementioned Mr. Jarrett. A rollicking blues rhythm is overlain with exuberant horn melodies and provides the launch pad for barnstorming horn solos with Michael Buckley going first on alto, followed by Hamilton on trumpet and then by Richie on tenor. Donegan’s piano soloing is similarly exuberant and I’d wager that this piece goes down a storm at the sextet’s concerts, where it probably also closes the show.
Guilfoyle’s notes meditate on the importance of language and community, of how these six Irish musicians share a national culture but also share the international language of jazz. As a composer Donegan takes the language of American jazz, and particularly the Jazz Messengers / Blue Note dialect,, and gives it a distinct Irish accent. His writing is varied, intelligent and unfailingly melodic, and most importantly of all it swings. His arrangements are colourful and show great attention to detail, whilst also offering plenty of scope for the soloists. I’ve now reviewed three of his albums that have been recorded in the sextet format and all represent the sound of a master craftsman at work.
Of course it helps that he has such talented musicians around him. Donegan himself is an inspired soloist and this equally applies to Hamilton and the Buckleys. They are also superb ensemble players. Meanwhile Bodwell and Daly form a versatile, intelligent and flexible rhythm section who provide excellent support to Donegan and the frontline soloists.
Donegan also leads an English sextet and it this version of the group that will officially launch the album in the UK and Jazz Cafe POSK in London on Friday 1st December 2023. Ticket link here;
“Light Streams” is available via Donegan’s Bandcamp page;
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