As a music student in London, Laoise Leahy was surprised to one day receive an invitation to record with Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz.
“One of my lecturers brought me in to do a session with Damon Albarn. He was writing a Chinese opera at the time (Monkey: Journey to the West). There were six singers brought in. He was writing ideas and recording vocalists singing them in real time. He had a four-string Chinese instrument and an engineer. He was singing these ideas and they were popping it on to a laptop, printing it out, and bringing it in to us. We were singing it for him. He was getting an idea of what his ideas sounded like with real singers.
“It was amazing to see him work; what an incredible voice and vocal range. The creativity is very obvious. To see him at work was amazing.”
Collaborating on a Chinese opera with the singer from Blur is just one of many career highlights for Leahy, an acclaimed jazz vocalist and musician, who has now been unveiled as a Cork Opera House jazz artist in residence for 2023. Given Cork’s long association with jazz, it’s a prestigious posting. And one with lots of moving parts, as the position will see Leahy curate monthly jazz concerts in the Green Room venue at the Opera House, starting on February 17 when she will be joined by her house band of Johnny Taylor (piano), Barry Donohue (bass), and Dominic Mullan (drums).
Jazz and Cork are made for one another she feels, pointing to the success of the annual Jazz Festival. “There’s a wildness to jazz. Definitely a streak of mischief. There are stricter confines in some sub-genres of jazz. There are some forms that are very complex musically. Everything needs to be absolutely pristine. But when you get to that point where the music is solid, you can then let loose. That’s where jazz comes into its own. You have the rules and you can break them and have fun. For me, the spirit of jazz is that.
“The music is complex and interesting and musically evoking. You never know what is going to happen until the musicians are in the room and we start playing with that. That’s when the magic of jazz happens and evolves.”
Jazz also breaks down the barrier between audience and performer. A great jazz gig is all about the interplay between the two. It can produce an energy unlike anything in music. Leahy hopes to evoke just those feelings, at the Green Room, which is located on Half Moon Lane.
“It’s that feeling you get when you know that you are part of something that is happening in real time,” she says.
“You can see the interactions between the musicians. You can see it’s as exciting for them as for the audience. Doing this small ensemble thing for me is really exciting. I love to be intimate with my audience. I love to have my audience on board. My music is very evocative. There’s always hypnotic type songs. People can go anywhere. It’s based on human experience, nature, the stars. For me, the audience are as much part of it as at the musicians. It’s really exciting to play in this intimate venue and have an opportunity to let loose and share it.”
A LIFELONG LOVE
Leahy is speaking from the home she shares with her husband and children, aged six and four. She has a long association with the jazz scene in Cork.
“I loved languages. I went to UCC to do European Studies. I joined the Dramat society, went into a musical.”
Her father, a musician and mathematician, felt she was selling herself short. “My dad marched me up to Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa (which offers a number of third-level courses in music). He said, ‘You need to do music. That’s all you think about.. I don’t know that you could really study it. I had done all my classical grades. I had played violin, orchestra, played some guitar. In my head, I didn’t think of it as a career. I met Chris Ahern, an amazing mentor. He lectures now at the Cork School Of Music (where Leahy also teaches). He took me under his wing.
“I did two years of the music management and sound in Stiofáin Naofa and met some amazing people. Lifelong friends. Mick Flannery was in the year ahead of me. There was that big indie rock thing. It was really happening. I started writing songs in that style. We were all playing bands with each other. I played electric violin with [Cork instrumental group