Sunday, March 18, 2007

An exceptional album of Irish fiddling and guitar

Up until now, I’ve never really gotten along well with Irish music. I’m not really sure why. I’ve tried a number of times over the years to develop an appreciation but could never really maintain my interest for very long.
It seems like it would be a good fit. It’s music that obviously lends itself well to the violin/fiddle, my main instrument. It has a rustic, earthy character, and thrives in an acoustic setting, all of which I approve of. It has strong ties with American Appalachian fiddle music, which I’ve always enjoyed. Finally, though I’m mostly a mixed bag, I have a large block of Irish blood in me, virtually the only ethnic heritage that I’m consciously aware of. But it just never really clicked. I kind of thought of it like I think of a lot of baroque concerti (such as from Vivaldi or Telemann) - little musical perpetual-motion wind-up machines, having a distinct character as a genre but all tending to sound alike, as well as lacking in drama or structural invention.

But do you ever have that moment when you finally figure out what it is in something that really makes it something? When you realize why people love it? Why they have conventions about it, spend their lives studying it or learning it or living it?

I saw a documentary recently on Charlie Parker, and the anecdote I remember best is a tale about how he used to hang out in a particular bar with a jukebox and he used to fill it up with quarters and play a whole row of country tunes. And everybody would look at him like he was crazy – an incredibly smart, gifted, hip, urban black guy listening to that hillbilly music? They’d give him hell, and he’d just say “Listen to the stories”.

I love that moment when something clicks like that. I’m not near the point where I’m going to dedicate my life to Irish music or anything, but I did have that moment recently. I went down to the grand state of Connecticut to work a music educator’s convention and my coworker was a fellow from Cape Cod who is an Irish fiddler. A beginner, really, having played mandolin for a few years but only a year or two into the fiddle. But he has progressed very quickly, and to my ears (admittedly inexperienced with Irish fiddling) he has a really feel for it, playing authentically in the style. In any case, he was playing a slow tune that I liked and I asked him what it was. He said “It’s an air by Liz Carroll called ‘A Long Night on the Misty Moor.’” An evocative title, I thought, and I went and bought the album a couple days later, which is actually a duo album with Liz Carroll on fiddle and John Doyle of guitar. The title is "In Play".

This album has completely blown me away. In all of a week, I’ve listened to it several times. I’ve simply never heard any fiddling before that has excited me so much, with its style, virtuosity, invention, structure, driving rhythms and overall energy. There’s even a wonderful tension, a suspension almost, to the slower pieces, the waltzes and airs. The ornamentation of the fiddle playing, which before has always seems like just that, ornamentation, comes through in Ms. Carroll’s playing as this endlessly surprising, visceral texture that is inseparable from the melodies and rhythms of the pieces themselves. It adds an incomparable richness to the whole affair without taking away from the exciting direction of the melodies themselves.

Is there something here that has not been there in other Irish fiddle playing I’ve listened to? Maybe. John Doyle’s guitar has been mixed a bit higher than is usual with these recordings, and I really think I’m hearing more harmonic invention and direction in this music than is typical. Many of the development sections and B sections really develop the character and story of the track rather than just seeming to be a linked ‘medley’. There’s a part in track 9, “Freemont Center/The Vornado/Minutemen” which has this feeling of the sun breaking out; you almost can’t avoid picturing jubilant dancing in a sunny green field.

But the best part is, however new and exceptional it might be, it has nonetheless opened up an understanding and appreciation for this type of music that really wasn’t there before. I went back and listened to an album my dad had recommended years ago called “The Lonesome Touch” by the fiddle/guitar duo of Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, and enjoyed it much more than I ever had before, especially listening for and noting their differences in style and execution from other players. Martin Hayes has a smoother and more open style, slower and with a more classical touch to his ornaments, certainly less percussive than the more rhythmic and surprising style of Liz Carroll. Both of them have a way with melodies, however. Liz Carroll composes the bulk of the pieces she records herself, and I think she is remarkably talented.

Anyway, if you have even a half-interest in traditional music like this (this album is all instrumental), I urge you to check it out. The album is “In Play” by Liz Carroll and John Doyle.

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