Trumpeter Linley Hamilton is a giant of the Northern Ireland jazz scene. Not only is he the country’s most acclaimed musician but he is a revered jazz educator, he promotes gigs by artists of international renown in his own home, Magy’s Farm, and until recently he presented a weekly programme, Jazz World, on BBC Radio Ulster. His current album Ginger’s Hollow, like its 2020 predecessor For The Record, features American heavyweights Adam Nussbaum (drums) and Mark Egan (bass), who between them have worked with legends like Stan Getz, Gil Evans and Pat Metheny, and top Irish musicians Derek O’Connor (tenor) and Cian Boylan (keyboards).
Hamilton speaks of his music and career with evangelical zeal. “I believe there’s a sincerity when I play. I’m not doing this because I want to or because I like it. I feel compelled to do this,” he declares. “I feel compelled to be a servant to the music, I feel compelled to translate what I’m feeling to the people and I feel compelled to bring my knowledge and passion to the table. And I feel that what I’m bringing to the table is really, really important. I’m trying to put the people first, I’m trying to make them part of the performance, I’m trying to do for/with rather than to/at. I’m trying to build a community that’s permanent and on solid foundations.”
Hamilton explains how he joined forces with Nussbaum and Egan. “I met Adam at the Sligo Jazz Festival. He was a bouncy, bubbly guy and a brilliant drummer of course. He’s on many of my favourite records – stuff with [Michael] Brecker and John Abercrombie and Steve Swallow – so I just plucked up the courage and asked him, ‘Would you like to do an album with me?’ And he said yes! I put a post on Facebook saying ‘You’re not going to believe this everyone: Adam Nussbaum has agreed to do my next record.’ I’d recently interviewed Mark Egan [on Jazz World] and then I got a message from him saying ‘So have I!’ So then I did my sums and thought ‘Ah, shit, I’ll not change my car this year.’”
Boylan and O’Connor contribute crucially to the music. “Cian has strengths and experiences I wouldn’t have as an arranger and writer and he helped me realise what my head was telling me I wanted. He’s been a great musical partner throughout this project. And Derek’s my best friend and I love him with all my heart so I just love him getting a chance to show everybody what he’s got. In a gig, whenever he’s soloing, I’m looking at the punters and I know they think ‘He’s peaking, his solo’s going to be over any second now.’ And I know it isn’t! And he looks at me … and then he presses some kind of nuclear button! I just love it.
“Booking my two best friends Derek and Cian for this band gives me a real lift and it’s developed into friendship between us all. Adam and Mark have become part of the team and it’s become a brotherhood.”
Working with such world-class American musicians has been a learning experience for Hamilton. “Totally. We’ve been listening to [jazz] on CD and vinyl and watching it on YouTube but both of them have been in the melting pot of where it all happened and they’ve been living it. They’ve been talking to the great players, they’ve been playing with them. They’re able to introduce high-level jazz history in real time. I respect them and admire them and like them both an awful lot.”
‘I’ve been studying with the great trumpet player Gerard Presencer and he’s tightened up a few things for me and I think I’m more equipped now to play post-bop stuff’
As a musician Hamilton believes his skills have developed in recent years. “Definitely. I’ve been studying with the great trumpet player Gerard Presencer and he’s tightened up a few things for me and I think I’m more equipped now to play post-bop stuff. For example stuff like Stonky [on Ginger’s Hollow] which is a pretty brutal head. I don’t know if I could have tackled that quite as well in 2020 so it’s the kind of thing where you can feel the progress of your practice.”
Nonetheless Hamilton worries about how long he can maintain his standards. “It’s an age thing,” he says. “I’m nearly 60 and I’ve been playing for many, many, many, many years and I’ve got a highly responsible university lecturing post, I had a radio show which took up so much time and we have Magy’s Farm where we run about 25 gigs a year. And I’m human. There’re only so many hours of energy going and I assume at some stage the physical thing – the lip – and the technical thing – the breathing, the ability to play range, the ability to hold breath for long and drive power – will start slipping. It hasn’t yet but I’m realistic that it might at some stage.”
Despite his colossal work commitments Hamilton maintains a disciplined practice schedule. “I do about two and a half hours a day on the instrument but I’m able to practise a lot of stuff without the instrument by cueing up ideas in my head and ways to deliver them, like articulation and the shape of lines.”
Hamilton’s melodic gifts are striking on Ginger’s Hollow. “Melody is everything because I’m playing a single-note instrument. But whenever I play a melodic line I know what the harmony is. I can hear the harmony whenever I’m doing it. A lot of the time I’ll be introducing stuff outside the chords, like altered harmony or whatever. [The other musicians] will hear that and it will give us a chance to make tension and release happen in a more significant way which is always the goal in jazz. And if you partner tension and release to dynamics so your tension’s loud and your release is soft with vibrato towards the end of a line then there’s a huge emotional connection there. You’re almost guiding the listener how to react to the line.”
Certainly Hamilton’s playing is exceptionally lyrical. On the album’s title track, for example, he communicates both tenderness and sadness. What inspired that tune, I wonder? “Ginger was a pussycat that lived near the farm and was being bullied by other cats. It moved into this hollow and I fed it two or three times a day and one day I went down to feed it and it had been knocked down. So we named the tune after him to give him eternal life.”
The story behind another affecting track, Jason’s Dream, is even sadder. “Jason was Cian’s brother-in-law, quite a young man, who died during the making of the record so, again, this was a way of immortalising him.”
Hamilton has thought deeply about his improvising. “A facility on a trumpet is the ability to play what your heart and head tell you. I’ve done roughly 46,000 hours on the trumpet since I started so I’m able to autogenerate in real time. I’m feeling the room, feeling the response from the punters and feeling the energy of the band. I’m trying to lead but I’m also trying to be led. I’m in the middle of an experience and the people who are part of this, the receivers, are hopefully able to experience what I’m feeling. That’s what it’s about. Music isn’t about what you play, sometimes. It’s about how you make people feel.”
‘I’m trying to turn those lights on . . . Teaching is a great opportunity for me to turn that light on and change people’s lives’
Hamilton’s pedagogic style of answering some of my questions is hardly surprising for he is hugely admired as an inspirational teacher of jazz at Ulster University. “I’m trying to turn those lights on,” he says of his students. “Some people say ‘Is that guy ever going to make it?’ and I say ‘Well, I haven’t had a chance yet to turn the lights on. I haven’t told them the message yet.’ [Teaching] is a great opportunity for me to turn that light on and change people’s lives. Probably my proudest moment as a teacher was when my university jazz band supported my album band at Magy’s Farm. I floated on to that stage afterwards!”
Given all his other commitments, I suggest to Hamilton that it seems strange that he, with his wife Maggie Doyle, has taken on the responsibility of also running jazz gigs, and in his own house at that. He is aghast. “You’re joking! The best players in the world staying in our house, us hanging out with them and laughing and playing music and building a relationship with them over breakfast and dinner? Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart going out to feed the donkeys with carrots! And then doing the gig and then having a few jars and telling us about their experiences. I cry nearly every gig.
“And the punters: there are at least 10 that never miss a gig. I don’t think any of them had ever seen a jazz gig before and they’ve now seen 45. And they’ve seen 11 Grammy winners.”
Ginger’s Hollow is released by Whirlwind Recordings. “They have been incredible,” enthuses Hamilton. “[Owner and bass player] Mike Janisch is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. He’s a hero to me now on the strength of how he’s conducted himself. I love him.”
Hamilton is unconcerned with sales targets. “How it sells is record company stuff. I play for the people. I am part of their community. I care. And I just want when people listen to the record that they feel an emotional connection, that it makes their heart sing or makes the hair stand up on the back of their neck.”