Interview: Guitarist Peter O’Mara on the Sun Dial Trio, Making Music with Kenny Wheeler, and Recording Six Albums with Bill Elgart

Born in Sydney, Australia in 1957, Peter O’Mara began his early musical studies at the Academy of the Guitar under George Golla and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. O’Mara also attended jazz clinics taught by musicians including James Aebersold, Randy Brecker, and Hal Galper. In 1976, Peter O’Mara first started playing regularly as a professional in his native country. He later won prizes for jazz composition, awarded by the NSW Jazz Action Society, in 1980 and 1982. Peter O’Mara released his first, self-titled album in 1980 and later received a fellowship for overseas study that led to his move to New York the following year where he studied under Dave Liebman, Roland Hanna, Jimmy Raney, John Scofield, and Attila Zoller. At the end of 1981, O’Mara relocated to Munich, Germany.

Peter O'Mara
a recent shot of Peter O’Mara

Over the course of appearing on more than 30 albums, Peter O’Mara has worked with players like Benny Bailey, Jon Christensen, Tim Collins, Robben Ford, Maria Joao, Tony Lakatos, Charlie Mariano, Albert Mangelsdorff, Willy Qua, Ack van Rooyen, John Taylor, and, in 1991, Kenny Wheeler, Wayne Darling, and Bill Elgart on their Kenny Wheeler – Peter O’Mara – Wayne Darling – Bill Elgart album on Australia’s Koala Records. This was the sixth full length album Elgart and O’Mara have recorded together, including three as part of the trio Sun Dial, along with Darling. Peter O’Mara is also an educator who has taught in Austria and Germany and has written several acclaimed books on learning jazz guitar and funk/fusion guitar.

Sun Dial Trio with Bill Elgart and Wayne Darling

Between 1985 and 1988, Sun Dial, a trio consisting of Wayne Darling on bass, Bill Elgart on drums, and Peter O’Mara on guitar, released Sun Dial and Illiad, on Austria’s Rst Records, and O’Mara – Darling – Elgart on German label Core Records.

Bill Elgart - Wayne Darling - Peter O'Mara - Sun Dial (1985) RST Records
Bill Elgart – Wayne Darling – Peter O’Mara – Sun Dial (1985) RST Records

Blue Note: How did you, Bill Elgart, Wayne Darling, and Kenny Wheeler first meet?

Peter O’Mara: We had a trio back in the 80’s, Bill, Wayne, and I [Sun Dial] and we came to a point where we decided it would be good for us to invite a guest musician, somebody who fitted with our musical concept and also somebody who was quite well known. So, the idea was we would musically benefit from it and also hopefully get more gigs, or higher profile gigs.

Peter O'Mara, Bill Elgart, and Wayne Darling from the Illiad (1986) LP back cover (photo by Heide Wannemacher)
Peter O’Mara, Bill Elgart, and Wayne Darling from the Illiad (1986) LP back cover (photo by Heide Wannemacher)

First we approached Dave Liebman but he turned us down. Then I somehow got Kenny Wheeler’s address–from somebody, I can’t remember who. Because we thought Kenny would be somebody suitable for our musical direction, and I wrote him a letter and he sometime later wrote back saying he would love to work with us. And the money he wanted was quite reasonable, so we set up a tour. Wayne set up the gigs in Austria and I set up the gigs in Germany.

Peter O'Mara - Wayne Darling - Bill Elgart - O'Mara-Darling-Elgart (1988) Core Records
Peter O’Mara – Wayne Darling – Bill Elgart – O’Mara-Darling-Elgart (1988) Core Records

Kenny Wheeler Unveils “Everybody’s Song But My Own”

BN: Where was your first performance?

PO: The first gig that we played with Kenny was in Münster. It was at a museum which is a series of concerts that still happens. It was also a WDER recording. We picked up Kenny from the airport, in Düsseldorf or somewhere. And when we got to the rehearsal before the gig he pulls out “Everybody’s Song But My Own.”

In those days there was no email. This was like 1987. Of course, there was FAX and stuff but, anyway, there was no music that was sent to us before that first gig, so we had to read it. Fortunately, we are all good readers: I played in big bands as did Wayne and Bill also. That was the first time that I played that song, and we ended up recording it in March 1990 [at Charisma Studio Munich] for our CD. It’s a wonderful tune.

BN: Was this a new tune?

PO: I had the feeling that “Everybody’s Song But My Own” was very fresh when he brought it to us for the first gig.

Kenny Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song But My Own,” featuring Bill Elgart on drums, Wayne Darling on bass, Peter O’Mara on guitar, and Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, is here:

Recording the Kenny Wheeler – Peter O’Mara – Wayne Darling – Bill Elgart Album

BN: What do you recall about the recording of Kenny Wheeler – Peter O’Mara – Wayne Darling – Bill Elgart?

PO: On that tour we planned on playing a few gigs and then in the middle of the tour I booked a studio near Nürnberg, which was really nice. I had recorded there before with Carlo Mombelli but unfortunately there was an issue with the engineer and we got a call during the tour that it wouldn’t work out with that studio but they said they found a substitute studio which was also somewhere in Franken but it turned out to be a real small, cramped studio and I remember Kenny not liking it. He was quite cranky about the studio but we got on with the recording.

We had the cramped conditions but we had the advantage that we had been playing live. That was our third tour with Kenny so we had definitely played the tunes quite a lot.

Kenny Wheeler - Peter O'Mara - Wayne Darling - Bill Elgart - Kenny Wheeler - Peter O'Mara - Wayne Darling - Bill Elgart (1991) Koala Records
Kenny Wheeler – Peter O’Mara – Wayne Darling – Bill Elgart – Kenny Wheeler – Peter O’Mara – Wayne Darling – Bill Elgart (1991) Koala Records

BN: How did you decide on which tunes to include on the album?

PO: Well, the concept of our project with Kenny was that he would bring some tunes and, of course, we had our own tunes. I wrote a lot of tunes back then [four of the eight tunes were composed by Peter O’Mara]. The other guys in the band were comfortable with that. Wayne also brought a tune [“Bill’s Place”]. You hear the tunes on the record, the CD with Kenny. It’s a mixture. Kenny didn’t want to just play his own tunes. He felt a bit taken advantage of when people just wanted to play his tunes.

BN: Which of your four compositions is your favorite?

PO: “Sun King” is one of my favorites because I wrote it with Kenny in mind. Not that he’s the king of France sort of thing but I certainly had an ECM sort of sound in my mind. And he also certainly liked that sound.

“The Beauty and the Past” is another tune, an older one of mine that I wrote in 1986, shortly before we started playing with Kenny. It somehow fitted his style and he played it so beautifully.

Kenny Wheeler in 1992 (photo by Krajazz)
Kenny Wheeler in 1992 (photo by Krajazz)

BN: I’m curious about the electronic sounds on the seventh track on the album, a composition by you entitled “Tik – Takn.” Did you use a keyboardist or synthesizer player for this?

PO: No, it was my first experience using sequencing. That’s an Atari computer, so we’re actually playing to a click track, which was an interesting experience. It’s the only track on the album we did with a computer, like a backing track. It gave an extra dimension, which we couldn’t do live–I didn’t want to carry around all that computer gear. These days you can do it with a laptop but in those days you had to have an Atari, MIDI keyboards, and stuff…

BN: “Terrible Ooze” is an interesting title for a song…

PO: Kenny’s comment on “Terrible Ooze” was that is sounds like “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” like the Charles Mingus song. I don’t know if that was a compliment or not, but he certainly played great on it. And he always played great. Kenny was always 100%. And I miss him very much. We as a band made some great music with him.

First Foray into Free Jazz with Bill Elgart

BN: Do you remember cutting “Under the Gun with Peanuts,” Bill Elgart’s composition?

PO: Well, Bill wrote that a long time before I met him. I think he wrote it back in Boston. I think it was about he was living in an apartment and eating peanuts one evening and above him there was some sort of drilling going on, that’s the “gun.” Or maybe it was a gun going off, I don’t know anything can happen in Boston… But I think it was just somebody banging on the walls, building something.

Bill Elgart and Wayne Darling with Sun Dial in 1984 (photo by Jerry Bauer)
Bill Elgart and Wayne Darling with Sun Dial in 1984 (photo by Jerry Bauer)

For me it was a new world. I had never played any sort of free music. This tune has no improvisational framework, you just play whatever you want. I think we worked out some things about getting faster or something but the rest of it was pretty open. I had to learn the themes. For me as a guitarist it was a challenge to get those notes. Bill being a non-guitarist or pianist managed to write a very rhythmic melody.

It was a challenge for me to get in my fingers and Kenny also but Kenny was more familiar with playing free jazz. He was in the Globe Unity Orchestra and different things, he had a big spectrum. Just because of the time that he lived, Kenny was active in the 60s and then in the 70s free jazz. The 60s and 70s in Europe was quite a big thing and he had a lot of involvement with it.

Kenny Wheeler - Peter O'Mara - Wayne Darling - Bill Elgart (1991) Koala Records CD booklet
Kenny Wheeler – Peter O’Mara – Wayne Darling – Bill Elgart (1991) Koala Records CD booklet

BN: What is the story behind the decision of Koala Records to press this album?

PO: Koala Records was actually the label of Peter Herbolzheimer, who is well known for his big band. Peter was a trombone player and an arranger but before he became a trombone player he was a guitarist, which is really unusual, as also was Albert Mangelsdorff. Also, something not many people know, before Albert played trombone he was a guitarist.

So I had a special connection with Peter Herbolzheimer as also with Albert Mangelsdorff. They liked me and they liked my style. That’s why when we were looking for a label to put out our recording with Kenny, I sent out it to Herbolzheimer. Well, I don’t know why he called his label Koala Records. I think it’s a bit corny but, anyway, it’s gone now, the label doesn’t exist.

One day I will have to try to get the rights back for these tunes, maybe republish the thing or put it on iTunes. It would be nice to have Kenny’s music and our part of his musical heritage still available.

a recent shot of Peter O'Mara in the studio
Peter O’Mara in the studio

BN: What do you recall about recording the Kenny Wheeler composition “Old Ballad”?

PO: I don’t remember when “Old Ballad” was brought into the program but it’s a beautiful tune. Kenny never explained much about tunes, he just put it on the music stand and basically just counted in.

Once he told me my comping was too busy. I think it was in the studio. He was quite angry with me, but I learned from that statement to leave a bit more space.

“Old Ballad,” a Kenny Wheeler composition performed by Peter O’Mara, Wayne Darling, Bill Elgart, and Wheeler, has recently been uploaded to YouTube:

A Pair of Albums with Carlo Mombelli’s Abstractions including Bill Elgart

Peter O’Mara and Bill Elgart made a pair of albums with South African composer-bass player Carlo Mombelli, Abstractions recorded in Germany in 1988, with Jürgen Seefelder, and Happy Sad in 1990, with Charlie Mariano.

Carlo Mombelli - Jürgen Seefelder - Peter O'Mara - Billy Elgart - Abstractions (1989) West Wind Jazz
Carlo Mombelli – Jürgen Seefelder – Peter O’Mara – Billy Elgart – Abstractions (1989) West Wind Jazz

These recordings also appear on the 2011 compilation Abstractions Retrospective 86 To 92, which is currently available in CD and as a digital download.

Carlo Mombelli and Charlie Mariano - Happy Sad (1990) ITM Pacific
Carlo Mombelli and Charlie Mariano – Happy Sad (1990) ITM Pacific

An audio file of Carlo Mombelli’s “Remember Lucia,” with Charlie Mariano on alto saxophone, Peter O’Mara on guitar, Bill Elgart on drums, and Mombelli on bass is online.

Carlo Mombelli - Abstractions Retropsective 86 To 92 (2011)
Carlo Mombelli – Abstractions Retropsective 86 To 92 (2011)

This Carlo Mombelli piece first appeared on Happy Sad and most recently on Abstractions Retrospective 86 To 92.

“Remember Lucia” featuring Carlo Mombelli, Charlie Mariano, Peter O’Mara, and Bill Elgart, is on SoundCloud:

Peter O’Mara Quartet Performs My Time Album Live

BN: When is the last time you saw Bill Elgart?

PO: In Waldheim several years ago, there was a little festival in November which was set up by Johannes Anders and Bill was playing with Larry Porter, and Thomas Stabenow was on bass. I was playing with Henning Sieverts, Matthias Gmelin, and Tim Collins, that’s a band I made a CD with called My Time about two years ago.

Peter O'Mara - My Time (2012) Marangani Records
Peter O’Mara – My Time (2012) Marangani Records

At that time, it was Henning’s group playing his music and really touching for me was Bill’s group played first, with Larry Porter. And they stayed around for our set. They sat in the audience and listened to the complete concert we gave after them, and then afterwards we hung out a bit.

The Peter O’Mara Quartet performed the music from My Time live at the Hofgarten in Düsseldorf, Germany on 17 August 2013.

A video, featuring Tim Collins on vibes, Matthias Gmelin on drums, Peter O’Mara on guitar, and Henning Sieverts on double bass, is on YouTube:

“Nobody played like Kenny”

BN: What was it like working with Kenny Wheeler?

PO: Kenny was a very quiet person, never said too much really. Unless you got to know him, and I was fortunate during the three tours we did we drove in two cars, my car and Wayne’s. And Kenny ended up riding with me, so we are sitting there in the front and he would sleep a lot of the time or he’d bring a cassette of music he liked to listen to, which might be Warne Marsh or Clifford Brown. It was usually older stuff. Once he also brought his big band recording with Dave Holland and John McLaughlin from the Sixties.

Kenny Wheeler and the John Dankworth Orchestra - Windmill Tilter - The Story Of Don Quixote (1969) Fontana
Kenny Wheeler and the John Dankworth Orchestra – Windmill Tilter – The Story Of Don Quixote (1969) Fontana

I love his music and “Everybody’s Song But My Own” has probably become his most well-loved composition and I feel very fortunate that we were one of the first groups to play it.

Many years later, I met him by chance in Australia. He was playing there with an Australian pianist named Mark Issacs and he said to me, “That’s a nice record we did, that’s a nice CD.” So Kenny liked it. That was a big compliment coming from him because he, of course, made a lot of CDs, and he was a quiet person, so he really didn’t have to say anything. But he did say to me backstage at this club in Sydney called The Basement that he really liked the CD.

BN: Any final impressions of Kenny Wheeler?

PO: Kenny is legendary. Nobody played like Kenny. He invented a style of playing that didn’t exist before him.

Several days after the legendary trumpet and flugelhorn player passed, Peter O’Mara composed this tribute to Kenny Wheeler, “When The Autumn Comes”:

The International SKODA All Star Band in 2014

In 2014, Peter O’Mara went on tour with Uli Beckerhoff and the rest of the International SKODA All Star Band.

BN: Were you the only musician in the International SKODA All Star Band fortunate enough to have played with Kenny Wheeler?

PO: Norma Winstone was our guest vocalist–Uli is a trumpet player from Bremen. Norma sang with Kenny Wheeler for over 40 years.

International Skoda All Star Band in 2004
International SKODA All Star Band, with Peter O’Mara on the far right

Kenny was very much on our minds during the tour. We even played  “Everybody’s Song But My Own.”

International SKODA All Star Band in March 2015 (l-r, Peter O'Mara, Norma Winstone, Glauco Venier, Ingo Senst, Bruno Castelluci, Uli Beckerhoff, and Matthias Nadolny)
International SKODA All Star Band in Germany March 2015 (l-r, Peter O’Mara, Norma Winstone, Glauco Venier, Ingo Senst, Bruno Castelluci, Uli Beckerhoff, and Matthias Nadolny)

The same year Peter O’Mara toured with the International SKODA All Star Band, his trio performed Charlie Parker’s composition “Chi Chi,” which first appeared on Parker self-titled LP in 1954.

The Peter O’Mara Trio’s interpretation of “Chi Chi,” recorded live 8 May 2014 at Rausch & Töchter in Munich, Germany, is on YouTube:

Wayne Darling, Bill Elgart, Peter O’Mara, and Kenny Wheeler Live in 1992

And something special, a full length concert of the Kenny Wheeler Quartet performing at Kempraten, Switzerland on 30 March 1992 featuring Wayne Darling on bass, Bill Elgart on drums, Peter O’Mara on guitar, and Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn. This video has been posted and removed from the Internet several times, so enjoy it while you can!

References

Sun Dial – Illiad (1986) Rst Records
Sun Dial – Illiad (1986) Rst Records

All About Jazz

Allmusic

Discogs

Wikipedia

personal website

And one final video from the Tim Collins Quartet featuring Peter O’Mara, with Imre Bajke on bass and Sebastian Wolfgruber on drums, recorded at the Jazz Studio Nuremburg on 20 January 2016.

The Tim Collins Quartet featuring Peter O’Mara’s “Caravan,” is on YouTube:

 

Author: Formosa Coweater

writer based in the Pacific Rim

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