Open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion

Chris Guil­foyle’s Um­bra is unit­ing old ways with ur­gent new ideas

The Irish Times - - Arts&ideas - Tony Clay­ton-Lea

Math-jazz? Heaven knows what Acker Bilk or Kenny Ball would say to Chris Guil­foyle’s self-de­scrip­tion of the mu­sic he cre­ates and per­forms with his genre-melt­ing group, Um­bra. The but­toned-up, old-school prac­ti­tion­ers would surely shake their heads in puz­zle­ment at even a loose def­i­ni­tion. Which, by its very na­ture, says Guil­foyle, is open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“It is al­ways the hard­est ques­tion to an­swer. I feel that Um­bra fall some­where be­tween the cracks of jazz and math-rock/ math-me­tal. The mu­sic is un­mis­tak­ably jazz when it comes to how we ap­proach the im­pro­vi­sa­tion in the tunes, but the tunes them­selves sound very close to what a math-rock or math-me­tal band might write. There might be a few more ‘jazzy’ chords in there, too, so that’s an­other link to Um­bra’s jazz side.”

As part of the Sofa Ses­sions line-up for the forth­com­ing Kilkenny Arts Fes­ti­val, Guil­foyle has added to Um­bra vo­cal­ist Theo Bleck­mann (Berlin), trom­bon­ist Nils Wo­gram (Zurich) and sax­o­phon­ist John O’Gal­lagher (New York). Named Su­pe­rum­bra, the in­ter­lac­ing of polyrhythms with ge­og­ra­phy, of bound­ary-break­ing with nat­u­ral in­stinct, is in­dica­tive of not only Guil­foyle’s back­ground but also of an an­i­mated, ur­gent strain of jazz mu­sic cur­rently unit­ing old ways with new ideas.

Guil­foyle, of course, has his­tory and her­itage to call upon. His fa­ther, Ro­nan, and his un­cle, Conor, are two of Ire­land’s most acclaimed jazz mu­si­cians (and, along with mu­si­cian Tommy Halferty, co-founded the jazz pro­gramme at New­park Mu­sic Cen­tre, Black­rock, Co Dublin in the mid-’80s). Con­sid­er­ing the fam­ily his­tory, he ac­knowl­edges, he was never go­ing to be any­thing but a mu­si­cian.

“I got my first in­stru­ment, a gui­tar, at the age of 12. I re­alised I could pick up the chords very fast, it was kind of nat­u­ral, and so I was hooked, ba­si­cally. From that age, I wanted to play the gui­tar con­stantly. There was no other choice in the mat­ter. It’s fair enough to say that I wasn’t go­ing to do any­thing other than to play mu­sic.”

Par­ish hall be­gin­nings

Jazz and punk col­lided at the age of 15 when his ad­ven­tures in unit­ing cool with chaos found an out­let in the then flour­ish­ing DIY punk scene in his lo­cale of Bray, Grey­stones, and Kil­coole. The epi­cen­tre of that scene, he re­calls, was a de­serted par­ish hall (aka Paddy’s Hall) in Grey­stones that the teenage mu­si­cians were given ac­cess to for the best part of five years. Cue a se­ries of week­end gigs by nu­mer­ous bands from the lo­cal­ity and else­where. Guil­foyle views his in­volve­ment in this raw hot­bed of cre­ative ac­tiv­ity as be­ing cru­cial to his devel­op­ment as a mu­si­cian. “I went from play­ing the gui­tar in my bed­room by my­self to be­ing in a band, so I re­ally got a taste of what it was like to be a mu­si­cian.”

Bands came and went: Kidd Blunt, Mar­gin of Er­ror, Fid­dle­sticks, The Scavengers, The Spun­gos (“with my best friends Patrick, Sal Sta­ple­ton, who now per­forms as Bad Bones, and Conor Lums­den, who plays with The Num­ber Ones”). Guil­foyle also played drums in Frig­its (with one of the DIY scene’s pri­mary mo­ti­va­tors, Dy­lan Hask­ins) and was in an­other band called Me­toikos. Around this time, he started study­ing jazz at New­park, wherein he be­gan to mix math-me­tal and punk rock.

“I guess you could al­most call Me­toikos a pre­cur­sor to Um­bra,” he posits. “I also feel it was hugely in­flu­en­tial in how I ap­proached play­ing mu­sic, and how it in­formed my po­lit­i­cal view of the world. My tastes changed as I grew older, and my pas­sion for im­pro­vis­ing re­ally started to come through.

“The way I see it – then and now – there’s no such thing as half-assed in punk. When you play that mu­sic it re­quires 100 per cent com­mit­ment not only to the mu­sic but also to the en­ergy you put into it. It’s in my na­ture to be like that when I’m play­ing jazz, too, and it has def­i­nitely car­ried over to the sound of Um­bra. The group has com­mit­ment and en­ergy, and works best when there are other el­e­ments in­volved – I’m also into mu­sic acts like Square­pusher, from Eng­land, and the pro­gres­sive me­tal band Meshug­gah, from Swe­den.”


Ar­eas in Guil­foyle’s life as a mu­si­cian have flipped to a de­gree. Ten years ago, he was study­ing jazz at New­park. Now, at its new base in DCU (where his fa­ther is the direc­tor of the jazz depart­ment, and his un­cle se­nior drum tu­tor) he is teach­ing gui­tar to first, sec­ond, and third-year stu­dents, and con­tem­po­rary jazz en­sem­ble to fourth years. “The fa­cil­i­ties are great, the teach­ing en­vi­ron­ment is re­ally good, and it’s great for stu­dents to have ac­cess to all the nor­mal col­lege things they never had be­fore when they were in Black­rock.”

Hav­ing been a prac­ti­tioner within the Ir­ish mu­sic scene for so long (as well as be­ing an ed­u­ca­tor), Guil­foyle is well po­si­tioned to gauge the de­vel­op­ments in Ire­land of jazz and its strains over the past 10 years. He has seen a def­i­nite in­crease in the num­ber of jazz mu­si­cians, for which he cred­its

Chris Guil­foyle’s Um­bra: Chris En­gel (saxes), Barry Dono­hue (bass), Matthew Ja­cob­son (drums), Chris Guil­foyle (gui­tar) and Sam Comer­ford (saxes).

the high level of grad­u­ates from New­park (as was). Iron­i­cally, he feels there are fewer venues in which to play the mu­sic, cit­ing the clo­sure of Dublin’s JJ Smyths as a low point for res­i­dent and vis­it­ing mu­si­cians alike.

“Of course, venues such as Arthur’s Pub, on Thomas Street, filled the vac­uum left by the clo­sure of JJ Smyths, but his­tor­i­cally there has never been a fully func­tion­ing ded­i­cated jazz club in Dublin. I’ve al­ways main­tained that if there were, it would make the mu­sic flour­ish in the city – and Ire­land – but so far there hasn’t been the op­por­tu­nity for that to hap­pen. While Arthur’s, and the Sugar Club also, are great places to play in and to feel com­fort­able in, they’re not the same as Lon­don’s Ron­nie Scotts or the A-Trane in Berlin.”

A size­able num­ber of former New­park/DCU grad­u­ates – émi­gré mu­si­cians, mostly – choose to stay in Ire­land, con­tends Guil­foyle, be­cause Ir­ish peo­ple and mu­si­cians are very wel­com­ing. Cer­tain Euro­pean cities, he says, are prob­lem­atic for out­side mu­si­cians to per­form in. “The most fa­mous jazz city out­side New York is Paris, and it’s no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to get into that city’s scene. In­deed, France in gen­eral has al­ways had a bit of a his­tory in be­ing hard to even tour there.”

Ire­land is dif­fer­ent, he says. There is a com­pact jazz mu­sic scene that – un­like, say, New York – mu­si­cians can eas­ily find their way into and not get lost.

“That’s def­i­nitely an el­e­ment of why peo­ple stay. They feel as if they’re ac­tu­ally part of the mu­sic scene here. If they go back home af­ter grad­u­at­ing, they might feel they have to start their ca­reer again. Whereas in Dublin, they are al­ready play­ing, they’ve made th­ese im­por­tant con­tacts in the city and beyond. They can build a ca­reer from here and see where it goes.”

‘‘ I got my first in­stru­ment, a gui­tar, at the age of 12. I re­alised I could pick up the chords very fast, it was kind of nat­u­ral, and so I was hooked, ba­si­cally

Chris Guil­foyle’s Su­per um­bra per­form sat Set The­atre, Kilkenny, Wed­nes­day, August 15th. Visit kilken­n­ for fur­ther de­tails

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