John Leighton's Dramatic Life

The exciting young pianist and songwriter tunes up for the City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival

Eglinton-born pianist John Leighton’s 2011 debut album, Dramatic Life, had a remarkable impact on the Northern Irish jazz scene. Not only did it feature exceptional musicianship from an all-star lineup, which included saxophonist Michael Buckley, guitarist Mark McKnight and drummer David Lyttle, but, perhaps unusually for a Northern Irish jazz album, it comprised original songs.

And the songs, performed with English singer Anna Stott, were intriguing, being variously inspired by the natural beauty of County Derry, the poetry of John Keats, the Crimean War, and so on. Leighton, however, remembers the album with some ambivalence.

‘It was an important first step and I love the music,’ he says. ‘But I wasn’t as ready as I could have been as a player, so in terms of soloing I didn’t expose myself too much. For my next album I want to be sure I’m totally comfortable with my playing and can go for something a bit more challenging.’

Leighton drew his inspiration for the songs from a wide range of sources. The idea for one striking track, ‘Married The Messenger’, for example, came when he was listening to Radio 4. ‘There was this story about a woman whose husband was fighting in the Crimean War,’ he explains.

‘She ended up getting married to the guy who brought the letter to inform her that her husband had been killed and had a long life and a family with him. I just found it touching. I tried to research it after that but couldn’t find any more information, so I just imagined how it might have happened.’

Another song, ‘Ameltie’, is also unusual because there are only six different words in it – none of which is the word that gives the song its title. ‘It’s about a girlfriend I had for six years who I lived with in Paris,’ explains Leighton. ‘Her name was Amel and Ameltie was an affectionate name I had for her.

‘It’s a love song about a relationship that’s over but you’re not really sure it’s over. Maybe it could happen again. I did have versions where there were more lyrics and more of a story but it seemed to work better to have something really simple and just restating that idea of searching: “For you I would roam…”’

‘For Keats’, meanwhile, was inspired by the scenery around Eglinton, its title alluding to the English romantic poet John Keats. Elsewhere on the album there is an exquisite setting of the opening stanza of Keats’s ‘Endymion’, which famously begins: 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'

‘The way Keats used words to express things I applied to what I was feeling about the view from where we live,' Leighton adds, 'looking over Lough Foyle to the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal. You’ve got a huge expanse of view. It’s very beautiful, and in my head it was as if Keats was expressing [his feelings about] the view.

‘I had watched a film about his life, which put me onto him. It was mainly ‘A thing of beauty…’ that made a connection with me because that line is just perfect. It expresses so much.' 

Leighton, in fact, was a late developer. He left school early and only began learning piano when he was 17. He returned to education to do a BTec in music, in Derry~Londonderry, but he believes that subsequently studying at Leeds College of Music was particularly crucial to his development.

‘Derry Tech was great fun but musically I don’t think I started developing until I went to Leeds because I got a shock at how good the rest of the guys on the course were. So I basically locked myself into a practice room every day until late at night. I practised ridiculous hours to catch up, so it was three years of intense learning and finding out about loads of music I’d never heard of.’

After studying in Leeds, Leighton moved to Paris where he played, studied and worked in a bar. Eventually, however, he returned to Ireland and began making his name on the local scene. He credits acclaimed trumpeter, band leader and broadcaster Linley Hamilton as being particularly encouraging.

‘He was always willing to help and put me forward for gigs,’ Leighton says. ‘He’s like that. He’s very supportive of young musicians, helping them get playing experience and making things happen for them.’

As well as his career with his own band, Leighton has put together several Icons Of Jazz tours, for each of which he arranges a programme of music by a jazz legend. So far he has toured playing the music of Chet Baker, Miles Davis and others. ‘It’s a case of immersing yourself in an artist’s music for a few months,’ he explains of his preparation for the tours.

‘Like, for the Chet Baker one, I bought two books about his life and bought probably ten albums so that I got to the stage where I was singing along with all the solos. It’s nice to focus on someone for a while and try to understand their language and how they approach music, but it’s not important playing every note of the artist’s work accurately. It’s more having an authentic-sounding representation of the repertoire that that artist is associated with.’

Leighton currently runs a Sunday night jazz club in Bennigan’s bar in Derry. He launched the club after his passion for jazz was reignited by attending a masterclass run by the legendary American pianist Kenny Werner in Sligo.

‘I had been focussing on writing material that was more modern pop, with some jazz in it,’ he explains. ‘But Kenny Werner re-energised me about wanting to develop the jazz end of my playing more, to get refocused on practising jazz and improvisation.

‘I decided I really wanted to have a regular gig so I could be constantly working on things and Bennigan’s decided to support it. It’s been really successful.’

At the upcoming City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival, Leighton will be playing in Bennigan’s in three different contexts. He plays in an organ trio with blues guitarist Ronnie Greer on the Friday night. Then, on the Sunday night, he plays first of all in a quintet featuring saxophonist Meilana Gillard and then in a band with English singer Cleveland Watkiss.

‘The organ trio’s going to be bluesy, it’s going to be funky, it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be fun,’ he promises. ‘And Meilana is a fantastic tenor player. I’m a big fan of hers. And Cleveland Watkiss is probably the most established artist I’ve had singing my songs, so it’s going to be good to see what way he wants to do them. It’s very exciting.’