Uncorking the Fabulous Textures of Big Band

Paul Dunlea (c) RIchie Tyndall Photography

He has the chops for punchy and aggressive, and the depth for sweet and kind. Trombonist and bandleader Paul Dunlea from Cork, Ireland coaxes the best out of his ensembles. Part of that is making excellent choices, as all the personnel are cherry-picked with perfection. After all, Paul is a rabid fan of Old Blue Eyes and this big band’s incredibly cohesive sound is inevitable.

When did you start playing?

I started trombone at the age of 11 at a local concert band here in Cork – The Barrack Street Band. I had already been involved with the band for a number of years in the percussion section.

Come from a musical family?

Yes. Two uncles on my mother’s side were involved with the Barrack Street Band (both tuba players). They have played a huge part in my career. On my father’s side, there are also lots of musicians. Most are involved in original folk/singer-songwriter material. 

Why did you choose the trombone?

To be honest, I didn’t choose it. The band at the time had only one trombonist in the senior band so when they initiated a policy to educate young players from within the band, I was chosen as one of three musicians to start on the trombone. The three of us had lessons on a Tuesday and Thursday night for an hour and I was hooked from the beginning. 

Top musical influences on trombone, and in jazz?

On trombone, I began (and still do), by listening to and studying JJ Johnson, Frank Rosolino and Jack Teagarden, to name a few. There are also a lot of contemporary trombonists who are very important voices on the instrument: Elliot Mason, Marshall Gilkes, Ryan Keberle, Ray Anderson, Trevor Mires, Steve Davis, John Alred and Andy Martin. These guys and a lot more are very inspiring and are constantly pushing the boundaries of what the instrument is capable of.

My influences in jazz are varied. Apart from the trombonists listed above, there’s also- John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner and Clifford Brown. I’m a massive fan of big bands and large ensembles so I’m heavily influenced by composers for those types of ensembles – Maria Schneider, John Hollenbeck, Darcy James Argue, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Duke Ellington, Sammy Nestico, Bill Holman, etc.  

What inspires you when you compose?

I’m trying to create music that I’m going to enjoy performing. My music, for the most part, is very melodic, so I try not to over-complicate things and create opportunities for the members of my ensembles to stretch out and express themselves.  

With no valves/buttons to press on the trombone, you must have developed a superior muscle memory to hit notes. How long did this take to master?

The slide does have seven set positions on it but I suppose I have developed muscle memory as to where those positions are! And although I play the trombone to a certain standard, I wouldn’t dare to say that I’ve mastered it. I’m happy with the progress I’ve made to date but strive every day to get better.  

Do you prefer the upwards glissando or downwards?

HA! Depends on the circumstances! I’m happy to either really! Being able to do either properly is one of the main things that sets the trombone apart from all other brass instruments. I remember when I started improvising. At first, I used to play in a lot of traditional/Dixieland bands and used to do it quite a lot in those settings but I don’t do it enough these days.

What are some of the different items you’ve placed inside the bell for effects?

Playing in big bands, you get called on to use a whole host of different mutes. Cup, straight, plunger, plunger and pixie, bucket, solo tone, etc. I think the most unusual one I’ve come across was in a contemporary music project a few years back when I was to use half-filled glasses of water as a mute and also to play with the bell fully submerged in water. There was a mic in the end of the water tank and the composer was manipulating the sounds with effects.

My favorite is the bucket mute though. I’ve always loved the sound from that. 

Talk about the personnel in your own group, and the quintet.

With my group, I’m very lucky to have a lot of my friends and long-time collaborators involved.

Davie Ryan (drums), Cormac McCarthy (keys) and Eoin Walsh (bass) are each super musicians/players in their own right, are great friends of mine and we’ve been involved in loads of different projects over the years together.

Also in the rhythm section is Julien Colarossi. Originally from Italy, now living in Dublin, Julien is a super player and also a very important member of my big band.

The horn section of the band is myself, Ryan Quigley (trumpet) and Karl Rooney (sax). Karl is one of the best musicians in the country. Extremely hard-working and reliable. He also just happens to be a monster sax player. Ryan is one of the best trumpet players around full stop. Originally from Derry by way of Glasgow, Scotland, he’s now one of the most important trumpet players on the London scene.

The Quintet is co-led by myself and my close friend and composer/arranger/guitarist, David O’Rourke. David is originally from Dublin but has been living in New York for nearly 25 years. We had originally planned on recording an album of duos together but as the project began to come together we expanded the group to a quintet.

We recorded the album at the Bunker Studio in Brooklyn, NY. Cormac McCarthy came with me from Cork and in New York, David enlisted legendary bassist Peter Washington and the amazing Billy Drummond on kit. 

How long has each ensemble played together?

The group has been playing since 2011 and although there have been a few personnel changes along the way, the core of the group is still the same. We have a new album due out early 2018.

The quintet album was released in 2016 and we subsequently did a short tour of Ireland in September 2016. David and I have plans to release more material in the future. 

What is the jazz scene like in Cork?

The jazz scene in Cork is very healthy for a city of its size. Cork has a huge tradition of live music in all forms and the venues and venue owners in the city have been, and continue to be, instrumental in the live music scene but particularly with jazz.

We have a weekly jazz jam session that’s been running for approximately eight years and the session has been somewhat of a focal point for the improvising community in the city. There are also a number of regular jazz gigs dotted throughout the city.

The Cork School of Music has also played a massive part in the health of the local scene with many of the teachers and faculty members being important local jazz musicians.  

Talk about the Cork and Limerick Jazz Festival.

The Cork and Limerick Festivals happen annually. Limerick’s is normally towards the end of September and I’ve been lucky enough to perform in some capacity in all 10 of the festivals to date.

Three years ago, I headlined the festival with my big band and last year I played with a long-time New York based collaborator, David O’Rourke. I played this year’s festival with the Dublin City Jazz Orchestra. The festival’s success is down to the very hard work of the Limerick Jazz Society and particularly John Daly.

The Cork Festival takes place on the last weekend of October and this year celebrated its 40th year. It’s become one of the biggest and most important festivals in Europe. I’d been playing gigs on the local jazz trail that accompanies the festival for years but my biggest gigs for the actual festival have been headlining the festival in 2014 with my big band and also playing with Cassandra Wilson at this year’s festival.

I must also add that although the headline artists in the bigger concert venues always get the headlines from the festival every year, the real stars of the festival, in my opinion, are the local smaller live music venues. There are a couple in particular that are fundamental to the local scene all year ’round and without them, Cork wouldn’t have its very vibrant and healthy jazz scene. So special mention to all at the Crane Lane Theatre, Coughlans, The Bodega, El Fenix and The Oliver Plunkett. 

Why do you love Sinatra?

Where do I start! He was a genius! The repertoire, the musicality, the arrangers, the bands and of course that voice! I’ll leave it at that or this answer could turn into an essay.

What venue have you not played yet that you would like to?

Obviously there are thousands of beautiful venues around the world and I’ve been very lucky to perform in some of them. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have performed in them. Some of the larger venues are special but so too are the smallest ones. Coughlans in Cork holds about 50 people but it’s magical to perform there.

Talk about your latest CD.

My latest album “Fraternal” was recorded in New York and is a project lead by myself and David O’Rourke. We each contributed a couple of original tunes and did one or two arrangements of other music. We were very lucky to enlist the help of NY heavyweights Billy Drummond and Peter Washington and another good friend and collaborator Cormac McCarthy (who is also a killin’ piano player) came over from Ireland to record. It was a very enjoyable session and I’m very happy with the results.

How many instruments do you own and do you have a favorite?

I’m not really a gear junkie but there are quite a few instruments around the house. I currently own five trombones from alto to bass with my favorite being my main weapon of choice – my Edwards T-302. I’ve had it for 10 years and I love it.

I’ve recently become an Edwards artist so it’s great to be associated with such a great instrument company. 

Why big band rather than other sub-genres of jazz?

I guess being a trombone player, I’ve been playing in different big bands since I was able to. I’ve always loved the experience of sitting in a section and over the years I’ve been lucky enough to play in really good bands…in fact as I write this, I’m on a tour in the Caribbean with the Great Syd Lawrence Orchestra from the UK. I also play in jazz ensembles of varying configurations but I do love writing for and performing in large jazz ensembles.

What is the most challenging part of composing a full score for a big band?

It’s creating the sound you are going for while also trying to give all of the guys in the band parts that they’ll enjoy playing. I’m very lucky to have top players in my band and it’s important to try and challenge every chair in the band while also trying to create an overall ensemble sound.

In “California Love” you can hear the guitar’s melody in the beginning and then pick out the other instruments. What inspired it?

Niall McCabe is the featured vocalist on that arrangement. He’s a fantastic singer and musician. The arrangement actually comes from a band Niall and I were in a few years ago called Souldriven. I’m still an active member of the group and full credit for the core arrangement has to go to the seven members of the band at the time. David Duffy, Davie Ryan, Katie Runde, Emmanuelle Armaforte, Roberto Carrazza, Niall and myself. I just expanded the arrangement for big band. 

Do you enjoy conducting and is it a thrill to hear what you created played by full band?

To be honest, when I first put together my band and began to write for it, it never dawned on me that I’d have to conduct. I knew I’d have to direct rehearsals but conducting from the front during performances wasn’t in my mind.

I used to book three trombones and jump from the section to conduct when needed but the missing voice in the section used to cause problems, so gradually I’ve moved to the front full-time and booked a full section.

I’m not the greatest conductor on the planet but I’m studying the craft all the time while getting more comfortable with it. 

How would you characterize your own sound?

I’d like to think I make a nice noise with the trombone. I’m always conscious of trying to produce a consistent sound in all registers which is a lot harder than it sounds. I practice long notes a lot. 

What areas would you still want to develop?

There are loads of ways in which I want to develop as both a player and a writer. I’m constantly inspired by other musicians, especially the ones I get to perform with both at home and abroad.  

Current projects?

A few projects at the moment. Mixing a big band album due for release in 2018. I’ve also got a new septet album due out soon. One or two things with my partner in crime David O’Rourke.

For more information, visit www.pauldunleamusic.com

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist. Second photo (c) Richie Tyndall.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017



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