‘I remember Gay Byrne one night referring to me simply as ‘bass’ ’

Jazz composer Ronan Guilfoyle reflects on his father, his influences and session work

For a jazz composer, Ronan Guilfoyle had a better start than most. At a time when rock'n'roll was sweeping all before it, the Guilfoyle house in leafy Dun Laoghaire was resounding to altogether more esoteric sounds.

The bassist's father, Brendan, was as unlikely a parent as you were likely to find in suburban Dublin in the 1960s. The son of Joe Guilfoyle, one of Michael Collins' 12 apostles, Brendan worked in life assurance by day, but once he got home to his sitting room, he would immerse himself in some of the most complex and "difficult" modernist music, with a record collection ran from Bela Bartok to Charlie Parker.

"He was complex person, and that's putting it it mildly," Guilfoyle says over good coffee in his Sallynoggin home, barely a mile from where he grew up. "He was very volatile – you could tell by the music coming from the sitting room what kind of humour he was in. If you heard [Prokofiev's] Dance of the Knives, you stayed well away. But if you heard [Erroll Garner's] Concert by the Sea", he adds, laughing, "you could maybe ask him for money."

The bassist and composer, who celebrates his 60th birthday this year with a forthcoming tour and a commission from the Irish Chamber Orchestra, vividly remembers the day when the jazz virus first took hold.


"My father bought a Stereogram, a massive thing like a side board, with two giant speakers on each side. I might have been about 11, and everyone was out. I put on one of my father's records, Charles Mingus' Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, turned the Stereogram up to eleven and sat down in the middle of the room. I don't really know why I did that, but it was shockingly great. I remember the hair on the back of my neck standing up, just the physicality of music, the way it can inhabit you."

I hated the session music thing, absolutely hated it.I played the pantomime, I did radio shows, I worked in the Late Late Show house band

It's hardly a coincidence that Ronan Guilfoyle's story mirrors the journey of jazz in Ireland from an obscure, self-taught genre music in the 1960s and 1970s to a professional, academically taught art-form in the 21st century. The bassist and composer has been one of the prime movers on that journey, an auto-didact who earned his spurs on stage with the players of the previous generation, including a prolonged stint with the great Louis Stewart.

Then in 1986, determined to push beyond the lore he had gleaned from Stewart and others, Guilfoyle attended the renowned jazz summer school at the Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies and suddenly a new world opened up before him.

"The first time I ever sat in a class, ever, and had a guy showing me some stuff was [legendary Miles Davis bassist] Dave Holland. " He pauses to let that sink in. "Ever!" he repeats. "I was 28."

‘Over here, bass’

He returned to Ireland, determined to start giving aspirant Irish jazz musicians the education he never got himself. Over the course of the ensuing three decades, with characteristic energy and force of will, Guilfoyle more or less single-handedly dragged Irish jazz education from an informal, once-a-week improvisation class at Newpark Music Centre to a fully fledged degree course in jazz performance, now at Dublin City University and affiliated to Berklee College of Music in Boston, the most prestigious jazz school in the world.

After secondary school, Guilfoyle went to work in a delicatessen in Bray, but over the ensuing decade, the call of music grew steadily louder and following the Banff experience, he threw in the day job and started looking for work as a jobbing musician.

“I hated the session music thing, absolutely hated it”, he says with typical conviction of his early years as a struggling jazz musician. “After I left work, I played the pantomime, I did radio shows, I worked in the Late Late Show house band with Frank MacNamara. But I just didn’t like being treated like a servant. I remember Gay Byrne one night referring to me simply as “bass”. “ ‘Over here, bass’ ,” he mimics Byrne’s patronising tone.

“So at the end of that year, I said ‘I’m going to make a pact with myself – when someone asks me to do something, I’m going ask myself the question ‘Is this the reason I stopped making ham sandwiches?’ ’ and if the answer was ‘No’, then I wasn’t going to do it.”

That determination to follow his own muse, that refusal to compromise, even if at first it meant eeking out a living from poorly attended jazz gigs and stints on the dole, is the key to understanding Guilfoyle the musician.

His performing projects, nearly always involving his own music, have included Devsirme, which won the prestigious Julius Hemphill award for composition in 1997, and Five Cities, an innovative blend of jazz, Irish traditional and South Indian classical music that toured Ireland and India in 2000 and was the subject of an RTÉ documentary (by this correspondent).

Through his teaching, he has built close relationships with some of the most prominent instrumentalists in jazz, including ex-Miles Davis saxophonist Dave Liebman, with whom he has toured internationally, and latterly with notable drummers of his own generation, including influential New York percussionist Jim Black, with whom he embarks on an Irish tour next month.

I honestly believe that the world needs what we do more than ever, right now, because the sh*t that's out there is so different to that

Also this year, Guilfoyle has been commissioned by the Irish Chamber Orchestra to write Pipe Dreams, a Concerto for Jazz Flute, to feature his long-time collaborator, saxophonist and flautist Michael Buckley.

“It’s actually a very attractive piece,” protests the composer notorious for the complexity of his compositions. “Of course there’s some gnarly bits in it, but the audience will find it quite difficult to know which parts are written and which parts are improvised, and that’s exactly what I want. I really like that on the three nights that it’s being played, the audience is going to hear a completely different flute part every night, so they’re hearing something that is unique to them.”

The influence of his father still looms large. In 2012, Guilfoyle recorded Renaissance Man, a suite of compositions in honour of his father, featuring the late, great John Abercrombie on guitar. Does he think his father would have been proud of his achievements?

“I didn’t start playing till after he died, so I couldn’t say. But I think he would be intensely proud, because his passions in life were modern classical music and modern jazz, and I have been active in both of those areas”.

But if Guifloyle the composer has come to the fore in recent years, he remains a jazz musician at heart. A tireless evangelist for the music he first heard in his father’s sitting room, music he regards as nothing less than an antidote to the modern world.

“I honestly believe that the world needs what we do more than ever, right now, because the sh*t that’s out there is so different to that. Jazz is collaborative, societal, supportive of each other, and yet respectful of individual personal expression. Jazz is built on a combination of great collectives and incredible individuals, and it’s this beautiful seeming contradiction that makes it into a unique thing. I don’t think there’s anything else like it.”

The Irish Chamber Orchestra will perform Guilfoyle's Pipe Dreams, Concerto for Jazz Flute at Glór, Ennis (October 18th), Siamsa Tire, Tralee (October 19th) and Monkstown Church, Dun Laoghaire (October 20th). See irishchamberorchestra.com for details

Ronan Guilfoyle's Life Cycle appears at Black Box, Belfast (November 14th), Dolans, Limerick (November 15th), Wexford Arts Centre (November 16th), Fumbally Stables, Dublin (November 17th), Campbell's Tavern, Headford (November 18th). More at ronanguilfoyle.com