Our Friend Feature/Influence Friday posts have given you a bit of an understanding of the Ivy Leaf’s sound. Lindsay’s post on Marla Fibish and Jimmy Crowley will make you listen back to her playing of rhythm and melody on plectrum instruments, and you’ll have a better sense of how she conceptualizes the music, makes decisions, and puts them into practice on the fly – what she’s internalized, what she’s used as fuel for reflection. Caroline’s post on Dylan Foley could probably tell you something about her own upbeat, rhythmically-driven, crisply-ornamented, and sweetly-melodic style of flute and whistle playing; Caroline and Dylan share a kind of modern tradition, nurtured in Comhaltas competitions, which prizes a certain tasteful technical brilliance. As Armand mentions in his post on piper Joey Abarta, the two of them share a great deal in terms of expressive intonation outside of the classical Western equal-tempered scale, and I also find their choice of ornamentation to frequently coincide in tight triplets, startling glissando passages, and long smooth rolls. All of those musical influences can be heard – they make themselves evident – on the Ivy Leaf album, or at any of our live performances that you might happen to catch.
However, that’s really just one part of the full picture. Our music, of course, is much more than just “our music.” Whatever it is in full, it can’t be reduced to a series of sound files on a digital disc. Obviously, better scholars than I have gone to great lengths to discuss Irish music as a social phenomenon, and as a tradition of dance-focused musical rhythms (tunes are universally classified not by rhythm, like 6/8 or 4/4, but by the corresponding dance forms, jig or reel or what-have-you), so I won’t belabor the point. What I would like to bring up is how that fact also suggests that our friends and influences should, to be honest, extend further than other musicians. Beth Sweeney, the Irish Music Librarian at Boston College, has vastly changed my understanding of the tradition, and has made available to me numerous recordings of long-dead traditional musicians. She has her own lovely fiddle style, but it’s quite unlike mine; her influence on my music has been paradoxically non-musical. Our lovely friend Samanatha Jones, herself a sean-nós dancer, finished her graduated studies at Boston University with an extensive thesis entitled “Getting into the Groove: Dancing in Boston Irish Music Sessions” (it’s exactly what it says on the tin); her scholarship has indubitably deepened my appreciation for the living tradition, and for our part in it, but I’m still not certain that such an influence can be heard. Part of this is a kind of epistemological question, but the other part is a personal insecurity. I often find myself particularly pliable to the musical styles of the people with whom I’m playing. When I play with Joe Abarta, it’s a totally different Dan than when I play with the Ivy Leaf; indeed, if I’ve been listening to a lot of Denis Murphy, I’ll play much differently than had I listened to John Doherty all day. It leads me to ask one question – “What is my style?” – and then another – “What influences underlay all my playing?”
It’s an attempt to answer these questions which ultimately led me to choose Kieran Jordan for this week’s Friend Feature Friday. We play dance music, for sure, and we play it in a dancing style, so it’s something of a hilarious oversight that we’ve never mentioned any of the dancers who have passed through the Boston Irish music scene and contributed to our sound. The Ivy Leaf has frequently had guest dancers at performances – we’ve had Siobhán Butler and Jackie o’Riley at a few of our house concerts, we traveled to NEFFA with Rebecca McGowan, we were once graced by the spectacular step-dancing of Rhode Island’s own Kevin Doyle, and Erika Damiana (who went to high school with Armand and myself) will be joining us at our upcoming Blithewold Mansion performance. We love it! It’s a thick reminder of what the music is about, and where it comes from, and why it is the way it is. A collaboration with a good dancer is as rich and meaningful as bringing on another musician – it changes the sound, the rhythm, the whole groove of the thing. Of all those people, however, I chose Kieran for today because I think very particularly about her influences on me as a musician and dancer together, and how she’s helped me (as well as Armand and Caroline) shape a kind of rhythmic headspace which may not be evident on the album, but is much more obvious now.
Kieran is an extraordinarily accomplished dancer, and her whole story is on her website so you needn’t bother reading it here. Instead, I’ll let you know about the very first sean-nós workshop I ever attended. One thing to consider is that I wouldn’t have initially considered going, still quite sheepish about my dancing as I am, but that Kieran had hired me to play for the workshop. Once a month she makes a point of having live music for a proper sean-nós workshop. That should already tell you enough about her – that she understands the music and dance to have not only a rhythmic connection, but a social and personal connection. In particular, the improvised, free-flowing, close-to-the-floor style of sean-nós rather demands the energy of a musician right in the room, reacting to the sounds and movements of the dancers as they themselves react to the tunes. The dynamic is easy-going, yet rolling and relentless. It was preparation for that workshop which made me think about my music as totally dance music.
What really stuck, however, was Kieran’s introduction to the material. She explained to us – not a large group, but a few familiar friendly faces – that she teaches absolute beginners by asking them to think purely about rhythms. She thinks about rhythms in the body and the world: breathing, walking, your heartbeat, the sun rising and setting, the seasons. (She jokes that her classes, for some reason, always come up with other examples: eating and pooping! Getting your period!) To be honest, I’d thought about myself as a creature of habit, but never as a creature of rhythm. Jackie o’Riley has talked to me about coming to traditional music and dance – turning a corner from conceptualizing herself as an audience member, to conceptualizing herself as an active participant. In a similar way, I found Kieran’s simple suggestion to be an electric rail-switch. I once thought of my playing as something that had to be “fit into” a rhythm which existed outside of it (dancers need x/y tune at z beats per minute…). Kieran thought of the dance, and the music that accompanied it, more as clothes for the body of rhythm – fitted, but with some breathing room, clothes that make the body feel covered and sexy at the same time. Her philosophy is clear and clean in her dancing: rock-solid, light but sturdy, with a puckish sense of humor and a big smile on its face.
I could go on to describe Kieran’s immense role in churning up all of Boston Irish dancing into a beautiful traditional froth, and the amount of work she’s done to generally nourish Irish culture in the United States, but to me, it’s nowhere near as powerful as the realization of how a few simple sentences from her changed my understanding of one of the most fundamental concepts in my life.
Hey everyone! We’re a little behind on the Friend Feature Fridays lately, but here’s one to finish off your night.
Now the initial goal of these posts was to highlight recently released albums, but as a backer and singer, I’ve been kind of afraid to try reviewing an album that doesn’t heavily feature guitar, bouzouki or some other plucked string instrument, and I can’t think of such an album that was released in the last 6 months right now (send me your ideas!). So I’m going to dig juuust a little bit further back into the past and talk about the album my friend Marla Fibish released with Jimmy Crowley in 2011 called ‘The Morning Star’.
Marla is an amazing mandolin player from the Bay Area in California. I met her at Lark Camp three years ago when I was first immersing myself into Irish music, and since then I’ve gotten some of my favorite tunes from her, and did a fun set of gigs with her and Joey Abarta last November. You can read more about Marla, the album, and her other group, Three Mile Stone, on her site. I haven’t had the chance to meet Jimmy yet, but in addition to all the bouzouki+ he played on this album, he’s also known for his wonderful singing, which you can hear on his site.
‘The Morning Star’ is, basically, tasty tune after tasty tune (traditional Irish and some originals) played on mandolin, mandola, mandocello, and bouzouki, beautifully recorded and mixed. I have a hard time picking a favorite track, but I am partial to Marla’s “The Adephian Waltz/The Gneevegulla” and to the hop jig/reel set “The Rocky Road to Dublin/Comb Your Hair and Curl It/The New Moon Meadows”. Marla’s phrasing, sense of rhythm and variations are fantastic, and I love how Jimmy trickles in delicately with counterpoint that is as interesting to listen to as the melody but never detracts from it, and builds up gradually to rocking out on full chords in the B section of “Meadows.” Here’s another great set, “The Humors of Bandon/A Fig for a Kiss/The Dusty Miller”:
f you need to You definitely need to add some Irish music on the mandolin and bouzouki to your collection, a) because there just aren’t many albums like this around, and b) because I can’t imagine anyone not loving ‘The Morning Star’ as much as I do. And if you’re lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, keep an eye on Marla’s schedule and go see her in person when you get the chance!
Thanks for reading!
Hey dudes and dudettes!
Armand Aromin here writing my VERY FIRST post on the Ivy Leaf Music blog (!!). That’s right, since school is officially out, I no longer have an excuse for not being able to write up a little somethin’ somethin’.
So, I gave it a bit of thought and I think it would be appropriate for me to feature a dear friend of mine, one Joey Abarta. Originally from Los Angeles, California, I am quite happy to say that we Bostonians can call him our own. I could go on about his background blah, but providing that link above would mean me being redundant, and we don’t want that. But before I go on, I must mention that Joey’s new solo album will be released in the near future, so stay tuned! The tunes are awfully fun to dance to, as well. MMMMMMMMM!!
I’ve known Joey for about three or four years now and ever since our first encounter at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, his piping has played a significant role in the development of my musical me. It’s also thanks to the him that I no longer know what a western scale is supposed to sound like, but I suppose that’s the nature of the beast.. and I whole-heartedly embrace this. Flatter c-naturals, sharp g-sharps, really flat f-naturals, you name it and I’ll play ‘em! Anything to break free from the 12-note system! I love getting in-between the notes and really milking those bluesy notes for all their worth.
For those dying to know what lonesome sounds like, check out this video of the man himself performing a popular piping air, The Dear Irish Boy:
Anywho, it’s getting late and I kind of need to sleep, so here’s where I sign off, BUT not without leaving you with another tasty bit. Here’s Joey rocking out on two jigs (The Miners of Wicklow and My Former Wife), made famous by piper Patsy Touhey. Brian Ó hAirt, of the band Bua, steps it out with some equally tasty sean-nós dancing in the second tune:
‘Til next time!