Saturday 10 June 2017

Conor Guilfoyle - Supreme Jazz Drummer, Author and Educator

Irish Drummers; Conor, how did you get started?

I started playing when I was 14 years of age. I grew up in a house of jazz and classical music. My brother Ronan started to play guitar which later became bass so I had to pick an instrument and I picked the drums. It was really that simple.
Irish Drummers; Did you get any lessons?
I didn’t initially, but after a few years I studied with John Wadham. John was a modern jazz guy which was unusual for Dublin in the 70s to say the least. He had many students and was an important figure on the scene. There were a few of us aspiring jazz drummers that studied with him at that time. Stephen Keogh was one, a very good drummer who now lives in Spain. We were his jazz guys, so to speak. John’s lessons weren’t about technique and rudiments; it was more of a music lesson rather than a specific drum lesson. Later on in my 20s, I went out to Drummers Collective in New York to study, that’s really where I learned how to read and get my technique together.
Irish Drummers; What was the first band that you were in when you started drumming professionally?
 Well using the word professionally loosely as money never really came into it, Ronan and I along with our brother in law Ray had a band called Spectroscope when we were teenagers. We played what was called jazz rock,which is now fusion I guess. We did our own thing as a band, played around, did some festivals and even appeared on the telly, which was a big deal back then, especially being 16/ 17 years of age.
Irish Drummers; What was the driving force behind it and what kept you motivated?
We were so into the music, thought about nothing else, did nothing else. After my Leaving Certificate, I worked jobs for a few years but music was everything and in many ways it still is.
Irish Drummers; Who are your influences?
There are so many, it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ve always loved the classic jazz guys, I don’t have a favourite drummer per say but If I had to pick it would be one of the Joneses, Philly Joe or Elvin, Of course I also love Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Billy Higgins, Billy Hart, Al Foster, Victor Lewis and on and on. I’ve been heavily into Latin music for a long time and that has also influenced me hugely. I have had various salsa bands over the years and wrote a book called “odd meter clave for drum set” which was a mix of my two worlds of jazz and Latin.
 Irish Drummers; Conor, can you describe your role at Newpark?
Right now I’m one of the drum teachers but I would’ve been there from the very beginning, when we started out our first jazz classes in the late 80s. That evolved into a full time course, which 10 years ago became the first Jazz BA programme here. Ronan, who has always been at the helm, is now taking it to DCU this year so that’s a huge move for all of us and a big step for the development of the school.
Irish Drummers; What advice would you give to someone that wants to take up drumming as a career?
Things are very different now than what they used to be, the post internet generation are much more technically advanced on their instruments and you have to be too. It’s just taken for granted. You have to know various styles and be able to read well etc. People say you have to have connections to get a break and it’s often true, but you also need to be prepared if it happens.
Irish Drummers; Is it more difficult for drummers nowadays?
It’s always been difficult.  Nowadays those difficulties are just different. I’d say there’s more opportunity to learn and it’s much easier to be technically better. Years ago it was harder to get the information, if it wasn’t for certain people you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on in the world.
Now it’s just the click of a mouse and it’s all there, which is great but in many ways you can feel like you’re competing with the world, something I didn’t have to contend with.
Irish Drummers; Do you find that it’s easier to teach students nowadays because they have much more access to information?
Yes and no, remember, information and knowledge are not the same thing. Playing well and appropriately for the given musical situation is still something you have to do on the gig, regardless of how many videos you’ve watched. As I said it’s great that the access to information is there but it doesn’t make it any easier really, you still have to do the work yourself. Things are still the same in that way. I sometimes wonder if I had a computer in my room would I have done the same amount of practice. Who knows?
Irish Drummers; What are some of your own favourite recordings?
I did an album with saxophonist David Liebman back in 1989 that really started me off. It set a standard to which I tried to aspire for many years.  I also like the recording of my Cuban band called ‘Saoco’. That was the first time salsa, as it’s known now, was recorded in Ireland. Later on I recorded with another of my groups called “Havana Son”, which I like too.
I’m proud of a trio recording with Ronan and Michael Nielsen,where we took standard tunes and played them in odd meters. This was back in the early 90s and was actually pretty ground-breaking for its time, and in many ways still is. It was never released, but I managed to digitise it and you can download it free on my website.
 Irish Drummers; Describe to us your drum gear?
I play Zildjian cymbals and Pearl drums. I have endorsements from both companies. I have two kits both from the Masterworks series. Beautiful drums. One of them is jazz sizes with maple shells, the other is bigger with maple/mahogany shells. I’ve had them both for 15 years and no plans to change. Unlike me they are sounding better with the years (laughs).
I have many cymbals, Zildjian have been very supportive. My favourites are the KCon models which I honestly believe to be the best cymbals in the world and I’m not just saying that because of my endorsement.
Irish Drummers; What type of drum sticks are you using?
I like Vater 8D or 7A depending on the situation; mind you the Vic Firth models are nice too.
Irish Drummers; What kind of instruments are you using for percussion?
I play timbales and bongos when I’m playing Latin music, again both made by Pearl.
Irish Drummers; In your opinion, what makes Irish drummers unique?
That’s a hard question to answer because the world has shrunk and your country of origin has less to do with how you sound than it used to. I don’t mean that as a criticism, it’s just a fact and often an advantage. Pre-internet, we had a much closer relationship musically with America, that and the fact that traditional Irish music is based on triplets helped us to relate to Afro American music in a way that was unique to us. Maybe that gave us something that was ours, I don’t know.
Irish Drummers; Apart from drumming, what other interests have you got?
I love sport actually, though more from the armchair these days. I used to do a lot of competitive running and I still like to run for fitness. I also love to read and spend too much time in the garden, but to be honest music has been, is and always will be my hobby
Irish Drummers; What projects are you involved in at the moment?
Music education has been my direction over the last 10 years and I’m working on a new book, but I always need to keep creative musical projects going on too. There are a few things at the moment. I’m playing in an organ trio with Julian Colarossi who is an Italian guitarist living here. I’m really enjoying that. I also have a Latin jazz quintet called Conclave where we mix jazz and Latin in a unique way.  I’m playing in a trio with saxophonist Michael Buckley this week, so there’s lots of things going on at the same time. I’ve just finished an album with a singer/songwriter called David Rooney, which I thoroughly enjoyed and I believe sounds very good, but it’s the move with Newpark to DCU that is the big thing at the moment.
Irish Drummers; What’s your preference, recording or performing live?
Live, without a doubt, I mean I enjoy the studio, but I prefer performing live, particularly smaller gigs rather than concert venues, I want to be able to see the people I’m playing to, I want to be close to them and them close to me. I’m not talking pubs but rather music club venues where people come to see the band and they are in close to the musicians. That way you get that whole feedback from them. I do enjoy the recording process but there’s nothing like playing live gigs.
Irish Drummers; What are your favourite venues?
I was playing in this place called Arthurs recently, it’s a new club that opened in Dublin and there’s a lot of music going on in it. As for the bigger venues, I like playing in Vicar Street as it still has a club atmosphere. JJ’ Smyth’s which has now closed, was always great; you could almost smell the crowd never mind seeing them (laughs)
Irish Drummers; What are your favourite venues internationally?
That’s a difficult one to answer. In the type of music I play we don’t tend to play big venues, though I have. Every city in Europe has nice theatre venues and clubs and I have had the good fortune to play in many.
Irish Drummers; I recently saw Ronan, are there any plans for the family to play together?
We play together all the time depending on the various situations. Ronan’s son Chris is a fine guitarist and we do a trio thing called 3g. Ronan is seriously busy at the moment with the move to DCU, but we’ll be playing again soon. I’m sure of it!

Main photo credit; John Cronin, Dublin Jazz Photography