December 4, 2019
BY SEAN SMITH
Martin Hayes & Brooklyn Rider, “The Butterfly”
Hayes is a paragon of East Clare fiddle, with its somewhat slower, relaxed feel compared to other traditions, marked by long, fluid bowing. He’s also shown himself adept at bringing East Clare fiddle into a contemporary milieu, vis-à-vis his partnership with guitarist Dennis Cahill, and their exploration and “deconstruction” of Irish tunes; the two also are members of the experimental quintet The Gloaming, and Hayes’ eponymous quartet.
So it seems quite natural for him to collaborate with the self-described “omnivorous” string quartet Brooklyn Rider (Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violins; Nicholas Cords, viola; Michael Nicolas, cello), which has gone well beyond the classical and chamber music dominion to work with Sting, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, newgrass banjo pioneer Bela Fleck, and jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, among others.
Irish/Celtic/classical crossovers have been around for a long time: Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops’ “Irish Night at the Pops”; works by Charlie Lennon; Bill Whelan’s “Connemara Suite”; the chambergrass sound championed by Fretless; Lúnasa’s album with the RTE Concert Orchestra. On “The Butterfly,” Hayes and Brooklyn Rider seek out and zoom in on the intersections between their respective musical idioms, in the context of Irish tunes, all but two of them from tradition; the others are from the pens of Hayes (“Maghera Mountain”) and Peadar Ó Riada (“Bob and Bernie”). Most of the tunes – there is one per track – will be familiar to musicians and listeners alike, such as the title track, “Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie,” “O’Neill’s March,” “An Rogaire Dubh,” even “The Drunken Sailor” (the hornpipe, not the sea chantey).
In fact, as Hayes and Brooklyn Riders’ members have said, the familiarity of the tunes is the whole point of this collaboration: it’s easy for a musician or listener to get jaded about them, especially when, as Hayes has put it, they get dragged through the kitschy dirt. Reframing them with a string quartet holds the promise of reinvigoration and reappreciation, and the album achieves that goal. For one thing, there’s a very conscious effort at forging a partnership, as opposed to casting Brooklyn Rider simply as Martin Hayes’ Backup Band. While sometimes the quartet may be in a supportive role, playing rhythm, held notes or chords around Hayes’ lead, at other junctures their variations on the tune become the dominant sound, and Hayes is more in the background.
The arrangement on “O’Neill’s March” is a masterpiece of build-up and anticipation, as gradually the instruments coalesce around the melody – Nicolas’s cello at one point seems to summon the solidarity – before the intensity softens, as if a parade was passing. The title track begins with an aural landscape of mainly atonal dashes and darts, until along comes that recognizable E-minor theme in 9/8, and Gandelsman, Jacobsen, Cords, and Nicolas swoop and glide on all sides of it. Another bit of enjoyment is when the guys zero in on a phrase or other component of a particular tune, such as the first two notes in the B part of “Mulqueen’s” (to almost comic effect – at one point, it’s as if they’re imitating a locomotive blowing its horn); they do a similar two-note emphasis in “P Joe’s Reel” – associated with Hayes’s father, P.J., himself a celebrated musician.
Hayes and Brooklyn Rider take a different tack on “Port Na bPucal,” focusing on wringing just about every grain of emotion out of this gorgeously mournful air, and the result is stunning. It serves notice, as if any were needed, that this collaboration isn’t about experimenting for its own sake, but about illuminating Irish music from new, even unusual angles. And the beauty of that music is as profound as ever. [“The Butterfly” is available for download at brooklynrider.bandcamp.com.
The String Sisters, “Between Wind and Water” • There are some musical ventures that require a lot of patience and forbearance, both on the part of the musicians involved and the listeners who eagerly await the results. So it is with The String Sisters, an occasional ensemble that includes some of the foremost female fiddlers around, representing the Irish (Liz Carroll, Liz Knowles, and Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh), Scandinavian (Annbjorg Lien and Emma Hardelin) and Shetland (Catriona Macdonald) music traditions. All of them have plenty on their creative plates – Ni Mhaonaigh, for example, is a member of Altan and Na Mooneys, Macdonald is part of Blazin’ Fiddles, Hardelin plays with Garmarna and Triakel, Knowles with Open the Door for Three – so finding time and energy to gather and perform, let alone record an album, is a rare and wonderful thing.
Which is why it took nearly a decade for the Sisters to release this, their second album, coming 17 years after the six first joined forces at Scotland’s Celtic Connections festival. And, yes, the anticipation was definitely justified. Part of the enjoyment, obviously, is to hear how the fiddlers are able to fit snugly into one another’s music traditions, often transitioning between them over the course of a single tune set.
And because they – Carroll and Lien in particular – also are accomplished composers, and some of their originals are included here, you can appreciate the way traditional and contemporary influences intersect with one another. The very first track, “The Crow’s Visit,” starts with Carroll’s “As the Crow Flies,” relentless in its modal, Appalachian-like groove, and segues into Lien’s “A Visit,” which changes the vibe (and key) while holding onto the momentum; in the liner notes, Lien says the tune is meant to evoke those occasions when musicians visit and jam with each other – “These sessions have no borders.”
Can’t go this far into the review without acknowledging the outstanding work of the Sisters’ rhythm section (sometimes known as “The Misters”): Pianist David Milligan, bassist Conrad Ivitsky Molleson, guitarist Tore Bruvoll and drummer/percussionist James Mackintosh are brilliant, whether in full ensemble or smaller combos; Milligan in particular is a revelation, contributing some masterful solo breaks as well as undergirding the rhythm.
One highlight is “Open to the Elements,” opening with Knowles’s “Walking Intro” – a pattern of plucked notes set against bowed ones – that becomes a counter-melody for the traditional Irish/Scots reel “Gravel Walks to Grannie,” then going into Milligan’s “Resistance Reel” before firing up a brisk “Glen Road to Carrick.” Lien’s hardanger fiddle is the linchpin in the “Hjaltland” medley, as she leads a traditional Norwegian tune “Dolkaren between Macdonald’s “Hjaltland to Flatland” and the way-cool Shetland tune “Up Da Stroods Da Sailor Goes.” Lien’s driving, churning “Late Night in Førde” somehow becomes a pensive hardanger solo, until Milligan’s piano restarts the engine. For good measure, the Sisters even have a go at a trotto, a medieval dance tune.
There’s fine singing from Ni Mhaonaigh and Hardelin, too. They combine on “Wind and Rain,” an American version of the old British Isles ballad “The Two/Twa Sisters,” a tale of fatal jealousy and magical redemption, with Knowles’s stately “Parker Street” interpolated throughout. Hardelin sings a traditional Swedish song, “Det Bor,” with spare, dramatic backing from Milligan, and Ni Mhaonaigh offers up one of her own, “Mo Níon Ó,” a lullaby in Gaelic she wrote for her daughter – Knowles’s string arrangement, the accompaniment from Milligan and Molleson, and Hardelin’s harmony vocals tie the proverbial bow. [stringsisters.net]