Hats off to Hard Bop: Sheer Energy from the Jamie O’Donnell Quartet

Jamie O'Donnell Quartet

Fingers fly and notes explode into the air; this is Jamie O’Donnell’s sax singing the plaintive theme from “Star Eyes.” His solo is exuberant, tasty, abstract and hurtles into space. The other members of his quartet add a jungle mood; the drums rock out and the song spins off to its conclusion. You are breathless too.

Lit on fire with inspiration from the catalogue of the late-great Phil Woods, Jamie’s body of work is largely a tribute to the alto master.

How did you first get interested in music?

My mother was a pianist. She would play standards all day while I played with my toys under the piano. My parents loved older musicals and there was always jazz playing in the house. When I was 17, I really started listening to jazz so my Mum bought me an alto sax for Christmas. I loved altoist Richie Cole’s playing, and happened to meet him in London. He told me to check out Phil Woods and all those greats.

After studying psychology at University (basically practicing saxophone and gigging for three years) I took a year out busking, before attending the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London for a postgraduate jazz course. I’ve been playing and teaching in London ever since.

When did you form your quartet?

My current quartet has been going since 2014. I’d known pianist Rob Barron for some years and we’d talked for a while about playing together. We started getting together with drummer Matt Fishwick and bassist Dominic Howles for regular plays, and it just felt good straight away.

I’ve never really felt the need to “get a band together.” I just like to play with people I like and when it feels good, a band naturally comes out of that.

I’ve started composing a lot for the quartet, and we’re also playing a number gigs in tribute to Phil Woods.

What do you look for in your ensemble musicians?

Players who have a great grasp of the language, who listen and who swing.

Rob Barron is a terrific pianist who has checked out all the great players, including Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and my own mentor, Barry Harris. He manages to find nooks and crannies in tunes that I didn’t know were there – even when I wrote the tune!

Matt Fishwick is one of the greatest drummers around. He has played with so many great musicians, including Cedar Walton and Nancy Wilson, and his swing is so genuine and musical. Matt has a fantastic ear for the whole band, and always gets us playing in the pocket.

Dominic Howles is one of my oldest friends and plays bass with such a huge sound and great time feel. We’ve been playing together for 26 years.

What do you like most about trading solos?

Whom I’m interacting with when we play makes all the difference, and the detail of how they play matters.

Once you start a tune then you start finding things to talk about; you find a groove that fits the style, you hear ideas that the other players are playing and you share some of your own ideas.

When you play with players whose music you love, it changes your own playing. The respect you have for them makes it easy to take some of their ideas as your own, and then you pass those ideas to other musicians you work with. 

When I play with long-time friends and collaborators, like guitarist Mike Outram, it’s so inspiring.

How does London’s jazz scene measure up?

I’ve been based in London since about 1990, but I’d been coming here for lessons and gigs for a few years before that.

It changes all the time, but it has always had a number of scenes co-existing with each other: old beboppers playing alongside more modern types, and the rest of us who just slip back and forth. Maybe there’s a little bit more separation between those camps these days, as players build their online worlds. 

What does make London very special is a certain kind of droll humor among the musicians. Ronnie Scott’s has always been the main club, and Ronnie himself was hilarious, telling the same jokes every night. There’s also a rich history of British musicians to listen to, like Joe Harriot, Tubby Hayes, Peter King or John Taylor.

Composing with “honesty and integrity”- please explain?

My favorite experience is when a tune or a solo just comes out naturally; you’re lost in a moment and suddenly there seems to be something there.

It’s the same with soloing, just letting the music come through you. I feel that you can hear a solo or a tune that’s been over-thought or a soloist playing by numbers, and that always sounds sterile.

Composing must come from the heart. There’s such a naturalness to a great song like “All the Things You Are” that I wonder if Jerome Kern wrote it in one sitting.

What is your favorite sax (soprano, alto etc.) and why?

I’m an alto player through and through. I’ve probably listened to Phil Woods, Lou Donaldson or Bird every day for the last 30 years. I love the range of the alto, how gruff it can be low down, how it can sing up high, or how Art Pepper can just make it cry. I love how alto players need to play perfect melodies when they solo, and how Bird flies over the music, dipping down into the harmony for air.

Johnny Hodges playing “Isfahan” is one of the great moments in jazz. There aren’t all that many alto players in London playing bebop, although there are a number of really great ones. When the internet came along, I met alto players online and got to play with people like Robert Anchipolovsky in Israel, whom I met through Phil Woods. It feels good to meet similar characters from around the world.

What do you like most about hard bop?

I love the players that followed Bird. They all took different aspects of his style and found their thing with it. I think of hard bop as a period where all these beautiful aspects of Bud and Bird and Dizzy came out in different ways. Hank Mobley, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver and Blakey came up with a style that was accessible to more people, but with a similar message as bebop. Two of the great albums are Hank’s “Soul Station” and Lou’s “Blues Walk.”

Do you enjoy playing lyrically too?

The cliché is for older musicians to tell younger ones that nothing is harder than playing a ballad, and that’s the truth. There’s a lot of technique involved with playing slowly. The sound of the alto for me was originally defined by Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, and it always sounds wrong to me when alto players don’t have some of their influence in their sound.

I also love how you can connect with an audience through a lyrical song. Art Pepper was a genius at playing an extended ballad solo without every becoming boring. I often find that the high point of a set is when we slow things down. The audience tends to really tune in at that point.

How would you like to stretch yourself as a musician?

I love to practice every day, and just soak everything up by listening to and playing with different people – putting myself into unusual situations. I think it’s a good idea to not always surround yourself with players who are into the same music as yourself. That helps me avoid getting into a rut. It’s good to take the leap into an uncomfortable musical place, and trust that your musicality will get you through it (doesn’t always though!).

Have you played in the U.S.?

I’ve only sat in with people in NYC, but have a number of friends living there now. I was lucky to meet drummer Anthony Pinciotti on a trip back in 2000, and he introduced me to some great players, including Rick Margitza; I also sat in with Spike Wilner at Smalls Jazz Club back then. I love the scene there, and always find it to be incredibly friendly.

A couple of years ago, I spent time on a jazz educator’s course at Jazz at Lincoln Center, but the highlight was when I bumped into Lou Donaldson at JFK on the way home. He was hilarious!

Favorite place to play and why?

A small bar in London called La Brocca, where my friends and I played on and off for 23 years. The owner was a sax player and it was so relaxed and fun. Some great musicians used to play there, including Jim Hart, Sam Crockatt, Dave Manington and Gwilym Simcock. We’ve all remained firm friends through that scene, which was a hidden gem of a gig.

What’s the secret of playing fast and accurately?

I guess that fast isn’t the goal; melodicism is the goal, so I practice slowly.

A lot of the alto greats came through Bird, and they’re great at making musical sense on a given set of changes. If you listen to those guys every day, then it feels natural to play that way. Studying with Barry Harris has really helped me, as he made me realize that every phrase has got to mean something, and it takes a lot of work and practice, knowing your scales and the rules inside out, and back to front.

Barry is a wonderful musician and a beautiful character. He’s got a knack for knowing his students better than any other teacher I’ve met or worked with, and he has hundreds of them! Meeting Barry was a real turning point for me.

You really cook on “Star Eyes”- talk about that song.

It’s a great tune from the mid-40s. Bird played the heck out of it, but at a medium tempo. Phil Woods often played it fast. When I’ve played with other alto players, like Robert Anchipolovsky (one of Phil’s students), the song always comes up and Robert can really play fast. Phil has had such strong influence on a lot of alto players!

No CDs yet?

I’ve been guilty of hoarding recordings without releasing them for years, but that’s all changing this year. I’ll be self-releasing a quartet album, with guests, in late 2018. I’ve been on a few releases as a sideman in the last couple of years, including a lovely septet recording by my bass player Dominic Howles. He wrote some great tunes for that.

Of your own songs, which is your favorite?

A tune I wrote for my sister Lucy O’Donnell. She was also the inspiration for the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” While at pre-school with Julian Lennon, John’s son, young Julian did this picture of Lucy with all these hearts and diamonds around her. He told John that the picture was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” In 2009 Lucy died, and at that time, Julian himself released a single called “Lucy” to raise money for the Lupus Association.

At a memorial gig for Lucy at The 606 Club, I played my own original tune for her called “Third Love for Lucy” (the third song written about her). Heightened emotions can make you more emotionally open in general, and that makes it easier for the music to come through. Music matters.

Most memorable festival ever?

The Paradise Jazz Festival in Cyprus. We used to play there every autumn. It was great music with great players, all on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. It was a wonderful festival! I remember Avishai Cohen (trumpet) being there one year, and there was a fantastic jam session at the end. 

Today’s biggest challenge for jazz artists is what – and how do you remedy it?

Actually, just staying true to your own love of music. One thing that’s so hard now is that the majority of people might hear you for the first 20 seconds of a Facebook video before moving on and not come out to gigs.

I think there’s a danger that some musicians will prepare themselves for that 20 seconds, rather than just explore the music. I hope that isn’t the case, as the music will become shallower while there’s so much more room for it to grow.

Goals for this year?

To compose for and record my quartet. I’m currently transcribing some unusual Phil Woods’ compositions for a Tribute to Phil Woods concert. I also have three young children, including two-year-old twins and I’m loving that experience.

For more information, visit him on Facebook at @jamieodonnellquartet.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jamie O’Donnell.

© Debbie Burke 2018

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