Tell us a little about your background in music.
As far back as I can remember I was excited by music. In my childhood I was listening to 1950s style rock and roll and the revival stuff, like Stray Cats. From there I got into blues, hillbilly, gospel and really anything that was going on in America up until the 1960s.
In the days before the internet, the library and record shops were vital. Music education in my high school was abysmal. There were a few teachers – not in the music department, though – who encouraged us to play guitar, but for most part it was bleak times.
How did you go from playing in garage and rockabilly bands to composing for the Lichfield Festival and leading a 16-piece ensemble, Surge?
In the early 1990s I started listening to more jazz and funk and put a band together with trumpet, sax, guitar, bass and drums. At the first rehearsal, the rhythm section started jamming but the horns just stood there and said they needed sheet music. I got some books form the library and figured out how to write some parts for them. It was my first fix. I haven't looked back and creating music with notation is now one of my greatest passions.
Of the many genres you've played, produced and become associated with, what was it that drew you to jazz in particular and what's sustained your pursuits in that area of music?
When I started listening to jazz music I also began to read and learn about the history of African Americans. As I learnt about how they overcame prejudice and oppression to create the most amazing musics of the 20th century, I realised the obstacles in front of me were nothing in comparison.
My own music incorporates many styles but for most part I have drawn from jazz theory and work with jazz musicians in my groups. There is an openness and fluidity in jazz, and it's musicians that enable innovation. Plus the groove and swing is essential.
Did you jump at the chance when you first learned of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Artist Career Enhancement Scheme?
For the most part, when making applications, you tend to be trying to develop your existing work. When I read the ACES brief I thought that this could be a chance to develop an idea that I'd had for a while but might never have had the chance to do. You're never quite sure if your idea is as good as it sounds in your own head, but after a chat with Ciaran Scullion, head of music at ACNI, I thought I'd give it a shot. I'm glad I did.
Do you feel its benefits differ for musicians compared with artists involved in other areas?
I can't really speak for other art forms but the benefits for me as a musician are excellent. As well as pursuing the project itself the ACES award also generates a wider interest in our work. This is encouraging but also a good push to deliver quality results.
How much freedom does the award offer you to experiment beyond the music you'd otherwise be working on?
Lots. I am fortunate to have a few good commissions for 2014 and I have wanted to include more elements of trad music into my compositional style. ACES gives me the time to ensure I do this from an informed position rather than busking it. The project is not target driven. There will be lots of music created, some of which will be successful, some of it not. The freedom to make mistakes is the best part.
Where did the idea of combining jazz with traditional music come from? Have you heard it being pulled off successfully prior to this endeavour?
It's one thing to know of something and another thing to know something. I have heard lots of great music mixing jazz and folk musics from artists such as Christine Tobin, Aidan O'Rourke, Tim Garland and many more. I've also included folk styles in my own music and covered trad tunes. However, I couldn't tell you with any degree of sincerity if I was adhering to any elements of a particular tradition beyond the fact that I was using a particular tune.
Hopefully after this project I'll be a bit wiser and incorporate things in an informed fashion and be inspired creatively by ideas and techniques I find in trad music culture. I've been reading up and working on stuff already and I can safely say, so far so good. It probably won't be what folks are expecting though.
As a result of the award, you will be partnering with Moving On Music and An Droichead. How will they be involved?
I have worked with Moving on Music on various projects, most recently the Beyond the March during Derry~Londonderry's year as UK City of Culture. They are a great organisation and I am totally confident when supported by them. This will be my first time working with An Droichead. It's great to able to approach them with questions and get authoritative knowledge on Irish culture. I'm really excited to be working with them.
In your opinion, how important is ACES to the country's artistic community?
They are vital in supporting and developing artists abilities, careers and confidence. I hope they continue to benefit many other artists.