A CD that lets Irish set dance strut its stuff

Perhaps the best metaphor to evoke the Irish set dance is to think of that odd piece of furniture – you know, historically and aesthetically valuable, but tricky to set up, doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the décor, and so it sits off by itself mostly out of sight and out of mind.

But a recently released CD conceived by the Boston-area Irish dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher Kieran Jordan and involving local musician Sean Clohessy may just help land the set dance a well-deserved place in the 21st-century parlor of Irish tradition.

Set dances – such as  “The Blackbird” and “St. Patrick’s Day” – are a perfect union between music and dance, each specifically attuned to the other. The dancer composes a set of steps to the tune, which in turn gives time and space to the dancer; that might mean an extra phrase, or a tempo or rhythm that’s just a little different than your typical reel, jig, or hornpipe.

The 15-track “Cover the Buckle” is all set dances all the time played by Clohessy on fiddle and Sean McComiskey on accordion and tin whistle, with accompaniment by Josh Dukes on bouzouki and guitar and Matt Mulqueen on piano. Jordan’s dancing feet can be heard on four tracks.

The title of the CD, Jordan explains, is multi-faceted in meaning: In the historical descriptions of Irish dance, “cover the buckle” might refer to the name of a particular tune, dance, or dance movement, but it also can encompass the overall display of step dancing itself. 

By the same token, “Cover the Buckle” can be appreciated on several levels, from the practical to the aesthetic. Dancers who are interested in exploring the set dance tradition now have a source of music that suits their needs. Musicians likewise can utilize the CD as a resource for their own work on building a set dance repertoire.

But non-dancers and non-musicians, and even casual listeners, also have the opportunity to consider the characteristics of a somewhat overlooked facet of the Irish tradition – presented here with a respect for the past but with a 21st-century perspective.

“Set dances are, for the dancer, an exercise in designing and composing,” says Jordan. “It’s not something you learn right away – as a beginner, you generally do the jigs and reels, hard shoe and soft shoe. Set dances are more complex, and it’s when you really see how important the connection between dancer and musician is, because the music for these dances isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing. The melodic approach to what the feet are doing invite the dancer and musician to tune in with one another.”

Jordan says the idea for “Cover the Buckle” arose from necessity. It was challenging to find the right recording to use to teach her students set dances, she explains – many of the recordings that exist were made with competitive dancing in mind, as opposed to the performance variety, so the selections are truncated or just don’t have “the right feel.”

But Jordan also thought musicians less familiar with set dances would enjoy the album. “These aren’t necessarily tunes you would hear a lot in sessions,” she says. “Now and then, somebody might play ‘The Blackbird’ or ‘St. Patrick’s Day,’ but set dances are just not part of the usual session repertoire – they tend to have a different structure and character to them.

“So the thought was, let’s have an album of set dances that are geared for performance rather than competition, played by musicians who really get what set dances are all about. And while we envisioned it as a resource for dancers and musicians who are relatively new to set dances, we also wanted to put set dances in a new light to appeal to those who are experienced in them. There are some set dance tunes we’ve heard all our lives, and after a while they might get a little stale. We wanted to bring some fresh, new energy to them.”

Clohessy and McComiskey, along with their accompanists, certainly accomplish that. The playing is crisp and bright, and while conscious of tempo and rhythm, is hardly stiff and regimented – the discourse between music and dance is especially apparent on the tracks in which Jordan appears, such as “Mount Phoebus Hunt”; and in fact, Clohessy and McComiskey transform the tune into a reel, an idea they came up with practically on the spot during rehearsal for the album, Jordan notes. That spur-of-the-moment spirit also is manifested by Clohessy’s “Here we go!” exhortation at the start of “The Priest and His Boots,” a particularly lively number that feels like it could (and should) go on forever.

“This was, of course, a ‘dance album’ so we couldn’t go totally experimental,” says Jordan. “But I thought it was important for there to be a certain artistry to it, one that gave space to creativity and also some spontaneity – just as you would want if you were doing this on stage or in a pub.”

The album’s version of “St. Patrick’s Day” well represents what Jordan and her cohorts sought to achieve. Do a web search for the tune, and the renditions you’re most likely to find are uniformly bouncy and sturdy. But on “Cover the Buckle,” the track opens with Dukes’ moody, introspective guitar intro, before Clohessy and McComiskey enter with the melody; Dukes’ accompaniment throughout is similarly laid-back and expressive, and Mulqueen’s piano -- which comes a little later on -- delineates the rhythm without hemming in the fiddle and accordion. There’s an overall sweetness and gentleness to the tune here that is significantly different than what you’d hear at a typical fleadh or feis.

“It’s kind of a pity set dances aren’t played more in the general repertoire,” says Clohessy, a Limerick native from a musical family. “Most of the tunes are very beautiful, and you can find a lot of fascinating little details in them. I think it’s most likely that they tend to be so associated with competitions, where the playing is very strict in terms of speed. So that’s why, in this more relaxed context, we wanted to show how you can explore set dances melodically and see the possibilities in them.” 

Jordan adds her own imprint with “Three Ducks and a Goose,” a set dance she composed to the tune of the same name written by late Boston-area fiddler and composer Brendan Tonra, and “O’Carolan’s Draught,” a piece by legendary harpist Turlough O’Carolan that – as she points out – is technically not a set dance but is an example of how tradition can be augmented.
“’O’Carolan’s Draught’ is usually played slower, but I remember hearing some friends play it a little more up tempo and rhythmically, and I always wanted to try dancing to it,” she says. “That’s what I encourage in my teaching of sean-nos [old style] dancing, and in the non-competitive setting: Listen to the tune, think about it, think about the steps that you can do with it.”

The “Cover the Buckle” project served to only deepen Jordan’s appreciation for set dances, and the musicians had a similar revelation: “Recording this album – coming together, trying things out – was such a good experience,” says Clohessy. But the defining comment, according to Jordan, came from Mulqueen, who was heard to exclaim “Set dances! Who knew?”

“Hopefully, this album might help move set dances more to the forefront of people’s awareness, so they can see and hear for themselves how important these dances and pieces of music are to Irish tradition.”

To find out more about “Cover the Buckle,” see kieranjordan.com.