by Ian Mann
April 10, 2020
An impressive offering from Donegan in which he demonstrates his command of a variety of jazz styles, as both pianist and composer. As a writer he also demonstrates an unfailing gift for melody.
The John Donegan Sextet
“A Kite for Kate”
John Donegan – piano, Steve Fishwick – trumpet, flugelhorn, Tommaso Starace – alto & soprano sax, Alex Hitchcock- tenor sax, Paul Jefferies – double bass, Greg McCarthy – drums
“A Kite for Kate” is the latest album release by the Irish born pianist and composer John Donegan.
Originally from Cork Donegan is now based in Hertfordshire, after living and performing for several years in Bristol. He has become a prominent figure on the UK jazz scene, as well as maintaining his links with his native Ireland.
My recent favourable review of Ulster trumpeter Linley Hamilton’s album “For The Record” prompted Donegan to forward me this CD for review purposes. Hamilton and Donegan had completed a short Irish tour just before the Covid-19 outbreak, a welcome reminder that in Ireland jazz, like rugby, knows no national boundary.
Donegan names his main pianistic influences as being Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Hampton Hawes, Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett and Kenny Barron. As this list might suggest Donegan’s music is a kind of modern mainstream with the emphasis on original composition.
British and Irish jazz artists with whom Donegan has worked include trumpeters Bruce Adams and Steve Waterman, vocalist Christine Tobin, guitarist Louis Stewart and bassists Arnie Somogyi and Jeff Clyne.
International artists with whom he has performed include such big names as drummer Art Blakey, trumpeter Art Farmer, guitarist Barney Kessel and saxophonist Greg Abate.
Donegan has toured internationally and has performed at jazz clubs and festivals in the UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and the USA.
Released in 2019 “A Kite for Kate” represents Donegan’s sixth album as a leader. Previous releases have featured his playing and writing in a variety of formats, ranging from solo piano through trio, quartet and quintet.
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.
“Jen’s Progress”, released in 2016, was dedicated to Donegan’s second daughter and was a solo piano album comprised entirely of original material.
“Amarie”, dedicated to the pianist’s wife Marie, was recorded while Donegan was still living in Bristol and follows a similar format to his début.
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.
Perhaps it was Kate’s performances on the “Siamsa” albums that inspired Donegan to dedicate his next album to her, although in truth the title track “A Kite for Kate” was actually written many years ago. It would seem that following recordings dedicated to his wife and two other daughters that Donegan simply felt that Kate’s time for her own dedication had come.
The album was recorded over the course of two days during the summer of 2019 at recording engineer Dick Hammett’s Red Gables Studio in Greenford, Middlesex. Hammett made a substantial contribution to the success of the project, as did Donegan’s regular producer, Bernard O’ Neill, who had also worked on the “Siamsa” project.
Donegan, O’ Neill and drummer Greg McCarthy represented a close knit Irish contingent, while Fishwick, Starace and Jefferies were all musicians Donegan had worked with before. It was Fishwick who suggested rising star Alex Hitchcock for the tenor chair, and this impressive young musician, already a bandleader in his own right, rose convincingly to the challenge.
With only two days available for recording the team started early each day and worked hard. There had been no time for rehearsals so this was essentially a ‘live in the studio’ recording, although not all of the pieces were necessarily first takes. O’Neill had a considerable say in the creative process and is pictured on the album packaging with the musicians, with Donegan clearly regarding him as being a member of the band. The recording methods were based on classic sextet recordings of the 1950s and 60s, and although not specifically mentioned Blue Note can perhaps be regarded as a blueprint.
The programme features ten original compositions by Donegan and the album commences with “Interfuse”, a modal style piece introduced by the leader at the piano that later finds Donegan stretching out further and displaying a flowing lyricism. The blending of the horns on the melodic theme is attractive and the fluent Starace, on alto is the other featured soloist. Jefferies and McCarthy offer empathic support with the latter turning in a performance rich in terms of detail, colour and nuance.
As its title suggests “Boa Bossa” is a breezy Brazilian inspired composition that again displays Donegan’s gift for melody. Again the horns combine smoothly on the head with subsequent solos coming from Hitchcock on tenor and Fishwick on trumpet, both displaying a rich fluency and considerable inventiveness. Donegan himself features on piano with Jefferies’ double bass also coming to the fore. Indeed the rhythm section as a whole display an impressive command of Brazilian and Latin idioms.
Next we hear the title track, one of the few to be nailed on the first take, an impressive feat given the subtleties of the arrangement and the subtle interplay between the horns. There’s an essential joyousness about the piece that finds expression in Donegan’s sparkling piano solo, a veritable outpouring of ideas. Fishwick follows, lithe and inventive on muted trumpet with the rhythm section playing at a brisk clip throughout. Towards the close there’s an engaging series of exchanges between Donegan and Fishwick, before the kite is eventually reeled in and brought back to earth.
Captured on the second take “Reflect On This” deploys a more relaxed tempo, with Latin inflections. Jefferies and McCarthy provide a subtly propulsive groove that complements the rich horn voicings of the theme and subsequent solos from Donegan on piano, Starace on airy, swooping, probing soprano and , finally, Fishwick on flugel.
“B’On Ami” has the feel of a jazz or bop standard about it, with an arresting theme and a swinging tempo acting as the framework for expansive solos from Fishwick on trumpet, Starace on alto, Hitchcock on tenor and Donegan on piano, all of them stretching out with imagination and conviction. There’s also something of a feature for McCarthy at the drums.
Donegan, McCarthy and O’Neill all worked with the Waterford born guitarist Louis Stewart (1944-2016), arguably Ireland’s best known jazz export and a musician with an international reputation. Stewart famously performed with Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott as well as being a ‘first call’ for any American musicians visiting Dublin, among them Benny Goodman, Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan. He also enjoyed working with other guitarists, most notably Martin Taylor. I was lucky enough to see Stewart perform with the British pianist Frank Harrison when the pair co-led a quartet featuring bassist Aidan O’Donnell and drummer Stephen Keogh back in 2007. I saw the Harrison-Stewart Quartet at Cheltenham Jazz Club when they were touring in support of the excellent album “You’ve Changed”. My review of that recording can be read here;
Turning now to Donegan’s tribute to Stewart, a delightful composition titled “A Ballad for Louis”. Part celebration, part lament the piece is introduced by a decorous horn chorale that provides the gateway to Fishwick’s elegant and eloquent flugel solo. There’s an air of hushed reverence that signals Donegan’s sadness at Stewart’s passing, but the mood lightens with Donegan’s own solo, a lyrical offering with subtle allusions to traditional Irish music. Donegan regarded Stewart as a mentor and his admiration finds expression in this lovely, heartfelt dedication.
As the title might suggest “Rumba De Ciudad” finds the sextet returning to Latin climes with a lively performance that was also captured quickly. Again the members of the sextet display their command of Latin idioms and rhythms with Donegan’s piano at the heart of the music and with succinct solos coming from Starace (alto), Fishwick (trumpet) and Hitchcock (tenor). Donegan then flashes his Latin chops on piano before the collective bring it home. Donegan’s fellow Corkonian McCarthy again impresses with his colourful performance behind the drum kit.
“Blues for AM” is one of those pieces with a feel from a previous jazz era, but is none the worse for that. A genuine blues it opens with the three horns working in unison on the head as the rhythm section establish a groove. O’Neill comments that the lack of rehearsals entailed that decisions regarding arrangements and the order of solos were often made ‘on the fly’. Thus Jefferies takes the first solo here on double bass, followed by an authentically bluesy Hitchcock on tenor. Next we hear from the leader on piano and Fishwick on trumpet and Starace on incisive alto. The three horns then exchange phrases, enjoying the joust before coming together again for a restatement of the theme.
Introduced solo by Donegan at the piano “It’s Up To Her” also sounds as if it’s been around for years. The thoughtful intro soon gives rise to a complex, but lively and punchy piece that provides soloing opportunities for both saxes plus a series of powerful drum breaks from McCarthy, who remains an energetic presence throughout.
Jefferies’ bass introduces the closing “Simply Put”, which continues in the same vein as its immediate predecessor and concludes the album on an upbeat note. The bassist sets the tempo for a swinging piece that provides final soloing opportunities for Hitchcock on tenor, Donegan on piano, Fishwick on trumpet and Jefferies himself at the bass.
“A Kite for Kate” represents an impressive offering from Donegan in which he demonstrates his command of a variety of jazz styles, as both pianist and composer. As a writer he also demonstrates an unfailing gift for melody and the personal nature of several of the compositions also constitutes a nice touch.
The standard of the musicianship from all concerned is superb throughout with producer O’Neill and engineer and studio owner Hammett also deserving credit for ensuring that all of the players are heard at their best.
For me, the focus on original material is very much welcomed, and although some of the music is very much ‘in the tradition’ it still sounds fresh, exciting and inventive. All in all “A Kite for Kate” represents a very classy piece of work.
I have to admit that I didn’t really know anything about Donegan until this CD dropped through my letterbox accompanied by a press release, an article by O’Neill on the making of the album and a very nice letter from John Donegan himself. Truth to tell I was more familiar with his sidemen, having covered Starace, Hitchcock, Fishwick and Jefferies in the past – often quite comprehensively. Naturally I was encouraged by the involvement of these musicians, their presence on the date pretty much representing a guarantee of quality.
I’m very grateful to John Donegan for sending this highly enjoyable CD my way and once the Covid-19 crisis is finally over I hope to catch him at a live performance somewhere.
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“A Kite for Kate” is available via http://www.johndoneganjazz.com