Linley Hamilton and All That Jazz

The hardworking trumpeter on performing with Snow Patrol, the joys of broadcasting and releasing new album In Transition

Trumpeter Linley Hamilton, who has recently released a masterful album, In Transition, must surely be just about the hardest working musician in Northern Ireland.

Not only does he gig regularly with his own jazz band and frequently guest with a dizzyingly wide range of blues, soul, rock and pop groups – and with international stars like Van Morrison and Paul Brady – but he also runs the Making Music Workshop, an educational initiative in schools, owns an entertainment agency and presents weekly jazz programme on BBC Radio Ulster.

And, in his free time, he is currently completing a PhD in Jazz Performance. There is surely but one conclusion to be drawn. ‘Yes, I am a workaholic,’ he admits with a smile. ‘But I’m doing it all because I love it and I’m totally motivated and my life is my work.’

On In Transition, Hamilton is backed by a renowned, Dublin-based quartet comprising pianist Johnny Taylor, bassist Damian Evans, drummer Dominic Mullan and guitarist Julien Colarossi. The delight that Hamilton feels in working with them is almost palpable.

‘They’re great musicians and a very tight unit,’ he beams. ‘And they emotionally connect with the music, which is my big thing. I emotionally connect with it, I live it and I breathe it and I feel freedom whenever I play and these guys relate to that.’

Hamilton’s own playing on the album is characteristically sensitive and displays his exceptional melodic sense. Surprisingly, however, he only composed one track – fewer than Johnny Taylor, who composed two while there are interpretations of four other tunes.

‘I’m a very democratic guy,’ explains Hamilton. ‘Basically the originality of the album is the group sound and the communication we have whenever we’re creating arrangements. So the arrangements were more important to me than the compositions.’

Throughout his career Hamilton has worked with great saxophonists like the late Dermod Harland and Meilana Gillard. Surprisingly, however, he doesn’t use a saxophonist on this album. ‘A contemporary thing in jazz now is mixing the trumpet with guitar,’ Hamilton expounds.

‘Julien Colarossa is such a melodic player with a great contemporary guitar vocabulary, so when he came along I thought, “Here’s someone with a sound similar to my sound on the trumpet, a quite airy, soft sound. I wonder could we work together melodically and do some unison stuff and feed off each other?” And it’s worked fantastically.’

Many jazz musicians still derive their repertoire almost exclusively from the Great American Songbook, the songs written for Broadway shows and Hollywood films in the pre-rock’n’roll era. In Transition does have one song from that tradition, Rodgers & Hart’s ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’, but it also includes, surprisingly, ‘Dinner At 8’ by pop-rock singer Rufus Wainwright.

‘The Great American Songbook was the pop songs of that time. But people like Rufus Wainwright, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison are amongst the greatest songwriters ever and it’s wonderful that their music is now being welcomed by the jazz fraternity,' says Hamilton. 'Jazz has now become all-embracing, so if we just call it good music and let jazz be the father figure over it, then I’m all for it.’

In Transition is actually the second album Hamilton has released recently. In 2013 he released JazznBelfast, credited to DanaMeilana 6, using what was then his regular Belfast-based band, which included singer Dana Masters and saxophonist Meilana Gillard. The band had been a hugely successful live attraction on the Belfast jazz scene but Hamilton somewhat downplays the album.

‘I wanted to record the band for posterity, to reward the fans,’ he says. ‘It was never really supposed to be for public release. We recorded it in Dublin in five hours and got the mix sent up afterwards. There wasn’t a lot of tender loving care involved in the process but it served its purpose.’

A versatile and open-minded musician, Hamilton has often toured and recorded with esteemed singer-songwriter Paul Brady. He played, for example, on The Paul Brady Songbook album and RTE TV series of the same name, and on the ‘Hawana Way’ single, which he subsequently promoted with Brady on Top Of The Pops 2.

‘Paul’s a serious, serious musician,’ Hamilton enthuses. ‘He works his voice to the limit to get what he wants out of it. And when he delivers songs like ‘Nothing But The Same Old Story’ there’s such fire in his belly you can’t fail to be moved and grab the bit between your teeth. And he’s eager for you to put your footprint on what you’re doing, so if you play something that excites him he’ll be very encouraging.’

Hamilton has also worked on occasion with Van Morrison. He was, for example, in Morrison’s band at the outdoor gig at Belfast City Hall to celebrate the post-Peace Agreement visit of President Clinton in 1995. ‘It was nervewracking playing in front of 150,000 people,’ he laughs. ‘It’s not the kind of thing jazz musicians are used to. We’re not used to playing even in front of 150 people!

‘Did I meet the President? No, but I was more interested in meeting Van. Playing with him was amazing because he’s one of the most influential singer-songwriter-musicians there’s ever been. I mean, he’s God, isn’t he? And he was very supportive and generous to me.’

Hamilton reunited with Morrison recently when he led the band of Northern Irish jazz musicians who accompanied Morrison at his one-off New Year’s Eve gig in Belfast’s tiny Harp Bar. Hamilton can hardly contain his excitement when talking about the experience.

‘He’s my hero. He’s incredible. Who am I to even be talking about the greatest musician of all time? He cares about his songs, he cares about his musicians, he cares about the performance and he does everything he can to get the best out of people. He was just fantastic [in rehearsal] and we all had a good time at the gig. The audience was electric and there was a great vibe and he was in great form. It was a night I’ll never forget.’

Hamilton had another brush with the superstar world recently when he guested with three members of Snow Patrol at a benefit gig for the Alzheimer’s Research charity at Belfast’s Limelight Complex. Surprisingly, perhaps, Hamilton declares himself an admirer of the band.

‘I listen not just to jazz but to everything, and ‘Chasing Cars’ is a great song. I would definitely consider doing an arrangement of that in the future. The gig was very enjoyable and it was so refreshing to see the enthusiasm in their faces when they went on stage. They take it very seriously and they love what they do.’

Hamilton has something of a parallel career as a broadcaster and his self-titled weekly jazz programme on Radio Ulster is much admired. He does, however, quibble with the phrase ‘parallel career’. ‘I don’t see it as a parallel career because I’m a musician first and foremost,’ he insists.

‘But whenever I bring people round to the house and put on music and they ask me what’s so good about a track, I explain to them what the rhythm section’s doing or whatever. So with the radio programme I just think I’ve got people in my living room and I’m saying, “Listen guys, this is an amazing track I’ve just got this week and this is why I love it".’