Ronan Guilfoyle: Rhythmic Being

Ronan Guilfoyle
Rhythmic Being

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin

Padua, Italy: Ronan Guilfoyle's jazz treatments of traditional Irish folk music featuring swinging Uilleann pipes, whistles, accordions and fiddles were so revolutionary that a friend once predicted he would become "the Irish Salmon Rushdie."

Guilfoyle was interviewed after a midnight set with his Celtbop quartet in the historic Cafe Pedrocchi, where Stendhal and Gabriele d'Annunzio once sat, during last month's well-tuned Padua Porsche Jazz Festival. Dublin born and bred Guilfoyle, who plays a post-modern instrument called an acoustic electric bass, said that he "had never wanted to be just a jobbing bass player."

Looking for something more ambitious to do with the rest of his life, he began to perform and record a combination of Celtic folk music, the Broadway song form, the music of Thelonious Monk and his own compositions with his band Lingua Franca, and gig with the likes of Dave Liebman and John Abercrombie. Recently, he toured Canada and Greece with local musicians. Currently, he is completing a saxophone concerto for Liebman and the Manhattan School of Music symphony orchestra commissioned to be performed at the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) convention in New York in January.

Mostly, however, Guilfoyle has become known for teaching musicians how to become what he calls "rhythmic beings." Fortunate to be born with a good sense of rhythm, he never had to worry about his time. He'd taken the talent for granted and never gave it much thought until his awakening to rhythm's deeper implications -- he calls it an "epiphany" -- in 1989, followed by a decision to explore them full time.

With the increasing popularity of so-called "world music," unusual time signatures have become more common. Musicians have had to learn how to be comfortable in as many of them as possible. Guilfoyle's specialty grew increasingly mainstream. "When you try to play, say, 'Stella By Starlight' in seven," he explains, "you are forced to change the length of your melodic lines and learn how to resolve the chords in new places and make it all sound natural and swinging and not freakish. It's delightfully refreshing."

His book, Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation ("catchy title," he comments with an ironic smile) describes how to expand rhythmic horizons. He lectures on "Rhythmic Counterpoint" at conservatories, workshops and festivals and teaches classical instrumentalists, including members of the London Symphony Orchestra, how to swing (he insists it's possible).

"For a jazz composer, the first rehearsal with classical musicians can be a frightening experience," he has written. "They have absolutely no understanding of the concept of a groove. What seemed easy and effective on the page is ruined by a lack of any kind of cohesive feel by the players. Half the players are early, half are late. Some rush, some drag. How is this possible? These are highly trained musicians. When jazz musicians see 'funk groove' on a piece of music, everybody knows what that means. We acquire an interior rhythmic template so that the beats are placed in relation to different grooves like bebop, salsa, samba."

He defines a groove as "the generation of good musical feeling through rhythmic means alone." And swing is "how the musicians relate to the groove." Guilfoyle points out that such things are not taken very seriously in Western classical music conservatories, because, "the concept of a groove is very African. We find ourselves being moved emotionally simply by the way the notes are placed -- in front, on top, behind, with a particular attack. We call that 'good time.' But a groove is its own reward. It is does not necessarily have to go anywhere. Count Basie's four to the bar, George Clinton with Bootsy Collins on bass, Tito Puente's Afro-Cuban music and the Modern Jazz Quartet are some examples. African music is all about the interlocking of polyrhythms."

Guilfoyle loves teaching non-musicians. He guaranteed a music appreciation society in Galway that he could get them to do three with one hand and four with the other in 30 seconds, "or your money back." His use of South Indian carmatic syllables instead of numbers to represent different time combinations simplifies the problem. In any case, "you don't need mathematics. The class had trouble at first because they were thinking in the European way --three against four. When you try to count three against four, you are relying on all that left and right brain stuff. And so something that should be simple becomes complicated. The African way of thinking is that contrapuntal rhythms are all one."

The people in Galway were without instruments. Guilfoyle holds that "if you can't sing and clap what you hear, an instrument is not going to help. It will only complicate things. You've got to learn how to hear it first. To become a rhythmic being, you need to be musical and not intellectual about it. You can only develop your sense of rhythm with your body, not your brain."

Mike Zwerin first published this article in the International Herald Tribune.

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