Guitarist/composer/teacher Aengus Hackett is fast becoming a pivotal figure of the Irish jazz scene. He’s currently curating an exciting series of jazz concerts in his hometown of Galway, in the West of Ireland, at the Black Gate Cultural Center. This is a series of jazz-themes concerts featuring some of the country’s best jazz players and pays homage to some of the greatest interpreters of jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Nina Simone, among many others. The JAZZGate Summer Series kicked off June 7 and is currently scheduled to end on September 8, with a celebration of the music of saxophone legend John Coltrane.
We caught up with Hackett to learn more about the series and for a snapshot of the current Irish jazz scene, but also to learn more about him, the origins of his passion for jazz and some of the fascinating projects that he is currently involved with. Among them, the Galway Jazz Festival, for which he curates, that runs this year on October 2-6, and In Flow, a music education and performance project for adults with intellectual disabilities funded by the Arts Council of Ireland.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Video: Aengus Hackett performing “Four on Six” live with Irish jazz guitar legend Tommy Halferty, who has played with Lee Konitz, Benny Golson and Dave Liebman, among others.
JAZZIZ: When did you discover your passion for jazz?
AENGUS HACKETT: I started playing guitar when I was around eleven and did the classic heavy metal and blues thing. I had a teacher early on; it was a family friend. I suppose because I took to the guitar naturally, he kind of started challenging me a bit more with doing jazz. And I just got really into it. Jimmy Fitzgerald was his name. It was him who kind of started the ball rolling for me.
There was the Galway Youth Jazz Orchestra as well; that was maybe started when I was around 14, 15, so I was able to get into the big band stuff through that. That was a great education. I also started taking lessons with Mike Nielsen and then, after that, I went to Holland. I went to Amsterdam and Groningen and studied jazz there in the conservatory. There was a program in Groningen run by Joris Teepe called New York Comes to Groningen, with all these amazing people like Ralph Peterson and Alex Sipiagin, and all these amazing people.
What was it that you liked about jazz?
I was drawn to music that expressed certain things, certain emotions. Early on, that was heavy metal and punk, and all that stuff. But when I discovered jazz, I was blown away because to me, it seemed like this was the one music that could express everything from anger to frustration to happiness to joy… Everything!
Do you remember who the first artists you got into were?
Guitar-wise, it was Wes Montgomery. I also got into Miles Davis early on… and once you get into Miles Davis then you get into everything else.
What was the jazz scene in Galway back then?
It’s hard in Ireland for kids who are into music because, typically, it all happens after nine when they’re not allowed in the pubs. So, it was definitely difficult to see live jazz. But back then, there was something called the Galway Jazz Club in this bar, The Cellar. It was a group of people that put on some amazing gig – and some really far out ones too. There would be three people in the audience and the musicians on stage going nuts. But it blew my mind every time and they were pretty lax about letting kids in. So, that was a really inspiring thing for me to have early on, along with the Youth Orchestra, which taught me a lot about the big band tradition.
How much of JAZZGate Summer Series is inspired by a lack of a proper jazz scene in Galway?
I was describing the series to somebody the other day and they said, “It sounds ike audience development,” which it kind of is, and it’s a nice way to put it. Also, it’s great for the jazz audience of Galway to know all the greats. Even though you hear these names a lot, they may not be familiar with their tunes. So, it’s nice to come to an environment like the series where they’re played, and where you’re given a bit of background on the people and the music, which is something that you wouldn’t necessarily get at a typical concert. That’s important because to me, it’s kind of nice to share all that. It always fascinated me – the whole history of jazz and all the anecdotes and the culture.
Who are you paying tribute to in the series?
We started with Herbie Hancock. Then there was Nina Simone. Then we had Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington. There will be a couple of singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. We’re going to do a Sarah Vaughan one as well. Then there’s Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It should be cool.
I suppose the idea was to start with the household names, to kind of get a base audience who will learn with you and go along with you. I’ve suggested a few names for future concerts, like Wes Montgomery. Maybe later, we could do a Joe Pass one too.
The band formation changes a bit throughout the series. Is it challenging to curate the series in terms of actually getting the right players for each one of these concerts?
It can be. For instance, Ireland is pretty bereft of jazz trumpet players. There’s only a handful of them playing jazz in the country. In Galway, there aren’t too many piano players who play jazz either. But we kind of just make do with what’s around. It would be great to have a piano and trombone at every gig but it’s just not possible all the time when people aren’t available.
That’s the idea as well with branching out. There’s a bunch of musicians who come down from Dublin to play with us, because there’s a much wider net there. And I suppose because Ireland is so small, people are pretty up for the craic and just come down to play, to the gig, have a good time.
That’s also because there’s not a lot going on. Even in Dublin; there’s stuff going on but I’ve heard that the scene there can sometimes be a bit disparate. There’s never really been a successful jam session that’s kept going every week, as far as I know. You’d think that a city that size would have that, because when I was in Amsterdam, there was a jam session every night, and some of them would be more beboppy, others would be more funky, and so on…
So, what would you say if you were to define the jazz scene in Galway and Ireland?
I’d say there’s a healthy amount of straight-ahead stuff, which is great. There’s also a lot of wild stuff. In Dublin, there’s a lot of people who love to play free. So, there’s that whole side of things. I don’t know where that comes from but it’s pretty well-developed, which is kind of interesting; there’s a lot of odd meters. But as I said, it’s a bit disparate and not well-connected.
It’s getting better all the time, like with the Galway Jazz Festival and IMC in Dublin promoting a lot of gigs in Dublin, Bray, Derry. It’s all starting to come together slowly but surely. All it takes is more communication and better communication. It’s not so much that everybody is just fending for themselves anymore, as it always has been.
You’re one of the curators of the Galway Jazz Festival. How has that been developing over the years?
The whole focus with that is community and accessibility. I think this will be the 14th year, so it’s actually been around for quite a while. It was founded by different people who run it now and then it kind of went through a few tough years with the recession. Funding totally dwindled to nothing. Then, there was a changeover of personnel. The new people now, especially Ciaran Ryan, the general manager, has gotten the whole community involved.
The new artistic director is Ellen Cranitch; she’s one of the presenters on Lyric FM. And Matthew Berrill is another guy. That’s kind of the core team, and the focus on the community has made it go from strength to strength. So, there’s a really nice vibe about it now whenever it’s on. Tourists are starting to come back to it and there’s been a following that’s growing slowly but surely.
You’re also working with an interesting arts education program, That’s Life. Can you tell us more about it?
Yeah, it’s a nice way in which I use my knowledge in music and improvisation by working with adults with intellectual disabilities. That’s Life is the name of the arts program, and they do all sorts of prop making in theater and physical theater and music with adults with intellectual disabilities. Our project is called In Flow, and I received funding from the Arts Council of Ireland to come up with a way to use improvisation to make music on the Javanese gamelan from Indonesia.
It’s a project where I use my knowledge in music and improvisation by working with adults with intellectual disabilities from County Galway. The project is called In Flow, and it’s part of That’s Life, an arts program working with adults with intellectual disabilities in which they do all sorts of things, from prop making to physical theater to music and beyond.
For In Flow, I got funding from the Arts Council of Ireland to come up with a way to use improvisation to make music on the Javanese gamelan. So, we have a set of those instruments here in Galway and I work with another facilitator, Andrew Madec, on it, and with a group of adults with intellectual disabilities. It was a really fruitful and rewarding experience. I feel it affected my own definition of improvisation, by breaking it up into its simplest terms and by trying to come up with a way to teach it in a really accessible way. It made me view it in its purest terms.
At the moment, we’re developing it into an audiovisual show, which will be premiered at the Galway Jazz Festival this year. There will be the gamelan ensemble, which is seven or eight of us. And then, a drummer. In fact, one of the best jazz drummers in Ireland, Matthew Jacobson, will be joining us. There will also be live visuals, which will be performed and improvised during the show. And we’re going to be putting sub-bass speakers under the seats too. We’re just kind of going to town on the immersive aspect of it!
Why is the project called In Flow?
One thing that governs the thinking behind the project is the concept of flow that was developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He developed the concept of flow in psychology where you get into a state where you forget everything else and you’re absorbed in the task that you’re doing, which could be playing music, that inspiration starts to come. If you’re writing, writers or composers will describe that feeling as if the pen were starting to write by itself. When you get into that state, he calls it “flow.”
He has a whole way of helping you access that state, and he’s studied it in all sorts of different ways all over the world. It’s really fascinating. So, that whole thing kind of fascinated me because I’ve definitely experienced that sort of state. When you’re playing jazz, when you’re improvising or when kind of go beyond playing the licks – that’s real inspiration on the spot. I was thinking about this a lot in my project and that’s why we called it In Flow.
VIDEO: Aengus Hackett performing a take on “Body and Soul” with Conor Guilfoyle & Barry Rycraft.
Do you find it’s harder to get in that state nowadays, given today’s general rhythm of life?
Yeah, there’s so many things that distract you. But also, his concept of flow and how he defines it is that the level of difficulty of the task has to match the level of your skill. When they’re well-matched, that’s when flow happens.
Going back to the JAZZGate Summer Series, we spoke about it as audience development. But do you find there’s also an element of self-development in putting this series together?
Yes, and I’m really enjoying it because when you’re in college, in jazz school, in the conservatory, you’re challenged every second of every day. And it’s really invigorating to be around people who you think are so much better than you. It can feel frustrating but it’s actually really good for your brain. But when you come out of that environment, it’s hard to keep that pace going. That’s when you risk getting a bit complacent and not challenging yourself. So, it’s been great to work on this series; it’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve done jazz-wise.
Is there anything you feel influences your music work about the city of Galway?
The vibe is so great; it’s so welcoming. You hear stories of, say, New York, where you go to a jam session and it’s not welcoming. They’re pretty standoffish and you have to prove yourself because the city is just so competitive. That pushes the standard up, which is good, but maybe it’s not the most pleasant of experiences. But in a place like Galway, on the other hand, if somebody wants to sit in, and if they can actually play, they’re generally welcome to do so.
But even in general, Galway is just a welcoming city. Tourists find that as well; it’s pretty easy to just go up to somebody in the street and just start talking to them. That vibe; I missed it when I was away and it’s great to be back in it. That’s what definitely inspires me about Galway.
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