An interview with Irish pianist Kieran Quinn

Blending Musical Styles: An Interview With Irish Pianist Kieran Quinn

When you hear Kieran Quinn play piano, you can expect anything from boogie-woogie to Bohemian Rhapsody, from solo piano to big ensembles – all in the name of fun and inspiring people through music. In 2017 alone, he has released a 6-song EP of self-penned songs, each sung by a different singer, and also a duo album with traditional Irish music legend Seamie O’Dowd, in which they daringly attempt to combine that genre and jazz. I caught up with Kieran in between gigs and had the chance to ask him about his musical concept and outlook. Here’s the interview:

Ron: Hey Kieran, it’s great to talk to you after enjoying your playing on the videos I’ve seen. How did you learn piano? Did you take traditional classical lessons?
Kieran: Hey Ron – great to talk to you too!

I have a strange history with learning piano…learned the traditional way through classical lessons until the age of 12. Hated it though! Convinced my parents to let me give the piano up, and thankfully they did because if they had forced me to keep going against my will I’m not sure I would be still playing.

I found my way back to it around the age of 16 or 17 and started to get a real buzz when I realized I could pick up melodies by ear. I continued in that vein, just figuring stuff out myself on a very irregular basis until the age of 23 or 24. At that point I needed to make a decision of how I was going to make money in life. I did two years in a jazz college in Dublin, and have been gradually completing my musical education in the big bad world ever since.

I’ve seen this too, that a lot of kids quit piano at around that age if they’re not playing the kind of music they want. Even if they enjoy classical, they often want a variety. 15-16 seems to be a key time when kids find their passion for music. I became serious about piano at that age too. How would you describe your music?
Ah that’s interesting… varied!

OK – I’ll focus on one particular musical project I have going on and will try to describe that…it’s a duo of which I am part – the other member is Seamie O’Dowd. In this music, we try to explore the similarities between jazz and traditional Irish music and try to create new and exciting music combining the two. The music is free-flowing, new, original, full of improvisation, and it swings!

I enjoyed the performance the two of you did on the traditional Irish tune called The Musical Priest.
Yes – that was fun!

What are the similarities between Irish music and jazz?
Firstly, they both are based on a large number of standards, which serious players of either style are expected to know. There is lots of room for improvisation in each style. In traditional Irish music for example, the accompanist is free to use whatever chords he chooses to accompany the melody. When played well, they both swing.

Are you the only ones combining jazz and Irish music, or is this part of a bigger scene?
Seamie knows more about it than me. There have been a few examples of it over the last 100 years or so, but I wouldn’t say there is a scene, no.

Traditional Irish music has been slow to change over the years, and it can be frowned upon in conservative circles when you mess too much with the structure/melody of the standards.

Well, I love the sound you two have come up with! As I see it, there are two “streams” of traditional Irish music, the instrumental session tunes, and the folk songs. They’re very different in style. Is this correct? The session tunes tend to have phrases that keep on going without many pauses between phrases. Like running on a treadmill, but in a very compelling way.
Ah thanks!

Yes, I’m not sure they are the only streams, but certainly two of the main ones. The melodies of the ‘tunes’ do have those characteristics – players in a session seem to love playing the tunes over and over again and getting deeper into the melody each time. I wouldn’t play in many sessions, but when you hear people talking about a good one, it is often because the melodies were really sitting well, and people were getting ‘stuck into them’, whatever that means!

And yes, then you have the songs, which have less notes, but are often slow and mournful in nature. Possibly to do with our emigrant history as a nation!

Watching your hands on the video, the physical motions are very similar to playing bebop. Have you ever felt a connection between these types of Irish melodies and specifically bebop?
Interesting question! I never thought of it that way, but now that you mention it. The speed is obviously one similarity, the emphasis on eighth-note phrases. However the scales used in traditional Irish music would not be as complex as those used in bebop.

Yeah, I can see that about the scales. It may be similar to how some jazz musicians have been inspired by Indian ragas. There’s a parallel but it’s not exact. You also play pop and rock songs, with a lot of improv as well. Do you view them very differently than the jazz you play? Or is there a similar approach?
OK let me think… One major difference is to do with length of solos. In a pop/rock song you have your 4, maybe 8 bars, but that’s it. You have far less time to express your ideas. There wouldn’t be the same freedom in terms of harmonies either as there would be in jazz…you need to stick more to the triad notes and maybe the odd 7. However, in terms of trying to create nice and tasty phrases on top of a set chord pattern, the overall idea is the same.

Right, there seems to be a great deal of freedom in your piano textures when you play these songs. You’re not just playing a standard groove.
Yes, I hate being too tied down when playing to be honest. Possibly if I’m playing on someone else’s stuff of course I will follow their instruction, but on my own stuff, I like to play as freely as possible, as long as it’s what the song or tune needs.

Do you mix styles on the same gig? When I play solo performances, I’ve found that the audience will go along with just about any type of piece I play, especially if I talk about it a little bit first to bring them along on the journey. We’re kind of in a post-modern age, stylistically. Especially with millennials and younger generations. It’s wonderful: if they like something, they don’t care what style of music it is. As Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it IS good.”

And speaking about mixing up styles, I really enjoyed your piano version of Bohemian Rhapsody which even in the original is stylistically diverse.

Queen’s recording is so iconic that it can be challenging to come up with a way of interpreting it in a personal way. Even Rick Wakeman said that he tried to do it for his solo piano cover album but couldn’t come up with a way of playing it that he was happy with. But you pulled it off. What was your process on that one?
That’s some question! Let me break it down…

So the answer to the first question is yes. I do mix styles, on my own gigs (non duo gigs) especially. And you’re right – if you bring the audience with you on the journey by telling them a bit about the song or tune, they will come with you.

Having so many styles can be hard when trying to market yourself, but once people are in the gigs, they seem to really enjoy the fact that the music is varied.

And I’m glad you liked Bohemian Rhapsody! I have played that tune since my teenage years, and as I have grown as a musician, that song has stayed with me all the way and I still play it to this day…and it changes every time – I find I can express whatever I am feeling on a particular day through it. So I didn’t have a process with this – it was’t like I sat down one day and tried to come up with a solo piano arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody. It has evolved from the 17 year old playing it note-for-note from sheet music, to someone 20 years older improvising around the chords!

What does the future hold for Kieran Quinn?
Good question!

2018 will hopefully be a good year for the duo I mentioned earlier (which is now a trio)! We have added John Joe Kelly, a wonderful bodhran player, who gets what we are doing and adds a considerable punch to the music. Our more recent gigs have been really well received and so we hope to reach a wider audience with the trio in 2018.

Other than that – lots of playing, writing, collaborating, improvising, and lots of fun – I hope!

What’s a bodhran?
A drum. Let me see can I find an example of his playing on YouTube. (Shows me video)

Wow! It sounds like 3 drums in one! I can’t wait to hear what you guys come up with, musically. Good luck!
Thanks very much Ron! You too!

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