Belfast-based jazz musician Rebecca Montgomery on her passion for drumming and learning from some of the best local artists in the business
If you stopped to ask Rebecca Montgomery about herself, then it’s fair to say that "music", "jazz" and "rhythm" would be the first words out of her mouth. Recently singled out by Gary Kelly at Culture Northern Ireland for her "impressive", "manic, Gene Krupa-esque" drumming, the Belfast musician is currently enjoying a weekly slot with the Fiona Scott Trotter Band at Bert's Jazz Bar in The Merchant Hotel. We catch up with her in advance of her next live performance...
As far back as you can remember, did you always want to be a musician?
Yes I did... music is my passion, and I can't imagine my life without it. I am a great believer in "feeling the music" and am in a different world when I'm sitting behind the drum kit. It all began when I was about seven years old and started to learn the piano; I always knew I wanted to learn an instrument, but I had to find the one for me, and because we had a piano in the family home, I started there.
I took my exams up to Grade 7 and participated in numerous small festivals and competitions along the way. However, when learning the piano and finding my feet in the music world, I found that learning the rhythmic side of an instrument had always been my strength. Indeed, I used to get told off for tapping the rhythm with my feet while sitting at the piano! But it wasn't 'til the age of fourteen when I realised that I wanted to perform on stage, and that the piano wouldn't be for me if I truly wanted to do this.
It so happened that a couple of my friends had drum kits, and when I went to their houses and sat down with the equipment, I wouldn't move until I'd mastered the rhythm I wanted to play. My next hurdle was persuading my parents that this new found musical interest wasn't a phase. So I constructed a makeshift drum kit with my first pair of drum sticks and some old books, and played along to some different CDs. Once my mother and father saw that the books were completely battered, they and I knew that I had found my instrument – and my first proper drum kit was only a couple of weeks away.
What attracted you to the jazz scene? Why jazz, of all genres?
I joined the Jazz Band during my fourth year in school, which is taken by Ken Jordan, founder and director of the Ulster Youth Jazz Orchestra (UYJO). During a three-day summer course which took place before the school year began, I had literally just started reading drum charts, and found Victor Lopez's arrangement of "The Chicken" in front of me. Before I had time to panic at the sight of it, I had missed the drum cue.
So, after a bout of self-criticism I listened to, learnt from and played along with some previous UYJO CDs for the rest of the summer. Back at school, I swung through "The Lady Is A Tramp" at the first Jazz Band Rehearsal, and three weeks later, I had the brass hits off! For the rest of my school career, Big Band became my focus, and in 2005 I joined the UYJO for seven years. I get such a buzz from the syncopation, hits, swing, hi hats on the off beat and the domination of the bass line that you find in jazz music.
But it wasn't until I went to university, in 2009, when I realised how different Big Band drumming was to playing in a smaller band. Tutoring from jazz pianist Paul McIntyre and drummer David Lyttle helped change my approach and style completely. By this stage, I wanted to play pure jazz, and about a year later, I met jazz musician John Trotter, who has since been my mentor in addition to one of the most influential musicians in my musical development and appreciation of jazz.
How significant do you believe the drums are overall in sound, both on stage and in a recording studio?
Trying not to be biased, of course, I believe they have great significance on stage. The drums provide the groove and when the feel of the music changes, I believe it should be the drummer who makes that significant change. Then again, I could say the same thing about bass players, or keyboard players... It's really all about working together as a band.
How were you "spotted" on the music scene, so to speak?
I did many gigs around Ireland with Ken Jordan and the UYJO over a seven-year period, and also toured with them to France in 2010. Without Ken's opportunities, encouragement and patience, I probably wouldn't even be answering this question. Being a drummer with the UYJO led me to discover both a love for jazz and confidence through playing. For this, I can't thank him enough.
Then, two years ago, I was asked if I wanted to do a gig in Bert's Jazz Bar at the Merchant Hotel, Belfast. I had heard of Bert's before, but it was relatively new at the time so I didn't know what to expect. All I knew was that I was extremely nervous. As far as I was concerned, I was a big band drummer and I hadn't quite mastered the small band technique or style.
But then I met John Trotter’s daughter, Fiona Scott Trotter. Fiona is one of Ireland's finest Jazz singers. And I got so much buzz from playing with her and a band in Bert's that first time that I had to go back the following week, and the week after... but I knew I still had a lot of work to do. As the weeks flew by, however, I learnt more, listened more, played more and was encouraged more.
Now I am playing with the Fiona Scott Trotter Band in Bert's Jazz Bar every Friday night, with John Trotter on keys and Gay McIntyre on Alto Sax and Clarinet. Throughout the past year, these musicians have not only guided me as a player, but taught me different styles, rhythms and genres through their experience, music and love for what they do. I've also played numerous festivals, including the Limavady Jazz Festival, Guinness Cork Jazz Festival (with the Harry Connolly Band) and the City Of Derry Jazz Festival.
What's been your most satisfying and enjoyable live performance to date?
Definitely another tough question! I love playing in Bert's every week, but I should probably also single out recent big band gigs with the Ken Jordan Jazz Orchestra, soul gigs with Manukahunney, and of course the first gig of the 'Satchmo' Tour.
Ah, yes, the "Satchmo" Tour! Tell us more...
"Satchmo" – A Tribute To Louis Armstrong – is a project directed and co-ordinated by trumpeter Rick Swann. Rick and I have studied and performed many times together both at university and through the UYJO. We’ve taken very much a Dixieland approach to this tour, with John Trotter (trombone), Gay McIntyre (clarinet), Jon Somers (guitar/banjo) and David McCracken (bass) joining Rick and me in the band line-up.
The opening night, in Derry's Playhouse Theatre, was great; we sold out and had a very positive response from the audience! I’m really looking forward to the rest of the tour, and, of course, to further tours and jazz festivals in the future.
The "Satchmo" Tour resumes on Friday March 1 in Dublin’s Civic Theatre. For more information on the tour, check it out on Facebook or on Rebecca Montgomery’s official site, www.rebeccamontgomerydrums.com.