By Sean Smith
This month’s column focuses on recent recordings by a pair of Irish/Celtic trios with Massachusetts and New England connections.
New Leaf, “New Leaf” • Based in Western Massachusetts, this band comprises fiddler Kira Jewett, a former pupil of Sligo-style master Brian Conway who has performed and taught in the Greater Boston area; accordionist John Tabb, part of singer-songwriter Sean Tyrell’s short-lived band Apples in Winter and long a mainstay of the southern New England Irish scene; and vocalist Adam Braunschweig, who also plays guitar and banjo and has been active in several music genres, including as a songwriter.
Much as its very name conjures up a New England landscape, New Leaf’s sound and repertoire, while predominantly Irish, reflects the polyglot character in New England traditional music. Alongside solid Irish trad material like “Lad O’Bierne’s,” “My Love Is in America,” “The Blackbird” and “The Rainy Day” are a set of Quebecois tunes, for example, and “The Bluemont Waltz,” written by New Hampshire fiddler and tunesmith Rodney Miller. “Sarah’s Valentine,” a jig composed by Limerick-born and onetime Boston resident Eamon Flynn, points up the continual infusion immigrants have provided to American music, in New England as elsewhere. The Americana thread, meanwhile, is underlined by Braunschweig’s excursions into flatpicking and jazz-flavored accompaniment, notably on the hornpipe set “The Hawk/The Golden Eagle,” and by the three songs he contributes.
There’s a very pleasing, unhurried spaciousness to New Leaf and their approach to the music. Tabb does a slow solo to begin the “Bluemont Waltz,” showcasing its lovely nuances, before Jewett and Braunschweig enter to perk up the tempo; the trio takes some time to explore the waltz in its fullness, Jewett adding some well-crafted harmonies and counter-melodies. Similarly, Jewett plays “The Blackbird” as an air, then in its more familiar set dance incarnation with Tabb. Elsewhere, the jig combo “Sarah’s Valentine/Caledon Line” is about as sweet, relaxed, and tender as they come, and a quartet of polkas is simultaneously sprightly and temperate.
Which is not to say New Leaf doesn’t play with intensity – the medley of reels, “The Rainy Day/The Penny Candle/The First Year in Buncrana,” is an excellent primer on how to construct and arrange a tune set with an ear to building tension and anticipation. The band also experiments with putting together a set of seemingly disparate elements: “Memories of France,” an unusual jig penned by Eddie Kelly, segueing into Billy McComiskey’s “The Music Teacher,” and finishing off with the traditional “My Love Is in America.”
The song tracks are charming and affable, thanks to Braunschweig’s mellow, understated delivery: “Johnny Todd,” most recently associated with the late Scottish singer Tony Cuffe, who spent his last years in the Boston area; “Handsome Molly,” to which Braunschweig lends an Appalachian/old-timey flavor; and his own pensive “Nightingale,” which has a singalong-ready chorus: “Gonna find my way, find my way/Gonna find my way by the nightingale’s song.” An ode to one of the most celebrated songsters in the natural world seems quite apt for a band so strongly rooted in the New England terrain. [newleafirishband.com]
Will Woodson, Caitlin Finley, and Chris Stevens, “The Glory Reel” • Although this trio hails from Maine, its members are familiar to many in and around Boston, whether appearing at local sessions, performing at area festivals and other events or, in the case of Stevens, teaching at the Boston Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Music School. Woodson – who also plays as part of another trio, Daymark – is renowned for his phenomenal work on flute and uilleann pipes; Finley, a Philadelphia native whose collaborations include Mick Moloney and Dylan Foley, has studied with such exponents of the Sligo fiddle tradition as Rose Flanagan and Brian Conway; Stevens, an accomplished melodeon and concertina player and member of The Press Gang, here unveils his heretofore lesser-known talent on piano.
If New Leaf [see above] evokes a rural New England panorama, “The Glory Reel” is suggestive of longtime northeast urban hot spots for Irish-American traditional music, namely Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. The tight, brisk playing of Woodson, Finley, and Stevens often recalls Irish dance bands from bygone eras, and a lot of their repertoire testifies to the venerable legacies of Sligo-born New York fiddlers Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran ,and James Morrison, as well as Donegal fiddlers Mickey and John Doherty, and Leitrim-born flute player John McKenna, among others. At the same time, these three are mindful of, and open to, more recent influences and developments within the tradition, distilled through recordings or interactions with friends and acquaintances – many of them in the aforementioned three cities.
As melody players, Woodson and Finley display a striking contrast and chemistry. Woodson's flute-playing often has an almost percussive quality to it, while Finley's fiddling exhibits the Sligo/New York push on rhythm and tempo, all quite prominent on the "Flood on the Holm/Glory Reel" set – the command both show on the B part of the latter reel in particular is breathtaking, literally so in the case of Woodson. A combo of marches features a lovely harmony by Woodson at one point on the first ("My Love Has Deceived Me") and his addition of piccolo on the second ("Battle Cry of Munster"), while Finley provides a veritable bounce to their rendition of the slip jigs "Kitty Come Down to Limerick/Gusty's Frolics." Broadening the canvas, the three also have a go at a trio of highlands (kind of a Donegal take on the Scottish strathspey), including the jaunty "Dúlaman Na Binne Buí," and another of hop jigs, "The Promenade/The Surround/Comb Your Hair and Curl It," both sets enlivened by Boston-area step dancer Jackie O'Riley, who appears on two other tracks.
Both Woodson and Finley get solos on the album: Woodson goes to the repertoire of Donegal John Doherty for the highland "Lady Ramsay" and reel "Trim the Velvet"; Finley revisits a pair of reels recorded by Morrison, "Paddy on the Turnpike" and "Jackson's," which is an expanded version of the splendid "Dublin Reel."
The dynamics are somewhat different when Woodson switches to pipes, of course, but no less enjoyable: Check out the jig set "Repeal of the Union/Scotsman Across the Border," for example, or the reels "An Bhean Tincéara/High Road to Galway" – both associated with the legendary piper Willie Clancy – or the concluding track, a meshing of "The Jolly Tinker" with good old reliable "The Wind That Shakes the Barley."
And there's no overlooking Stevens through all of this, who keeps things moving along with alacrity while giving Woodson and Finley plenty of space. He also makes a welcome cameo on melodeon for the reels "The Enchanted Lady/The Holy Land/Sailor on the Rock."
The challenge, and the joy, when musicians play together is merging individual repertoires and influences. It’s a process Woodson, Finley and Stevens have clearly warmed to, as indicated by their sleeve note for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley": Woodson's version comes from Seamus Ennis, the description reads, Finley's from Michael Coleman, and "The way we play it here meets somewhere in the middle." That middle ground is a glorious place. [thegloryreel.com]