Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill,
Welcome Here Again
(Green Linnet/Compass, 2008)

Ann Heymann,
Cruit go nOr (Harp of Gold)
(independent, 2006)

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill are two of the giants of the current Irish music scene. Born in County Clare and proficient in its particular fiddling tradition from an early age, Hayes moved to Chicago in the 1980s and now calls Seattle home. Cahill, a son of Chicago, had Irish-born parents. The two men first performed together in a jazz-rock band but -- happily for all of us who love traditional music -- elected in time to revisit their roots. Since then, they have fashioned a kind of chamber-folk sound out of just Hayes's fiddle and Cahill's guitar. Their Live in Seattle (Green Linnet, 1999) won plaudits and listeners outside the usual genre circles, no less than The New York Times hailing it as something of a "Celtic Kind of Blue," after Miles Davis's groundbreaking 1959 album.

Welcome Here Again, a worthy followup, is easily its equal, a deep exploration not only of tunes but of sounds, tones and rhythms. The result is no ordinary approach to airs and dance melodies, but in effect a kind of meditation on them, plumbing new depths of meaning. Welcome offers up a moody beauty out of intelligently and knowledgeably picked material, cliche-free in either tune or arrangement. The slow air "The Dear Irish Boy" in particular will stop your breath. Modern Irish instrumental music rarely if ever gets better than this.

From her home (like mine) in small-town rural Minnesota, Ann Heymann records and tours as a world-class master of the medieval, brass-stringed Irish harp (clairseach in Gaelic). Heymann is as much a scholar of the instrument and of the culture that created it -- subjects on which she knows far more than you and I could ever hope to -- as a musician. What counts to the CD listener, of course, is how accessible the recording is. Harp of Gold, for all its immersion in a history barely familiar (if that), is eminently accessible.

The music derives from a variety of arcane sources, only one them the Irish and Scottish folk tradition. Distinctions between low (vernacular) and high (court) musical cultures in the 16th and 17th centuries, however, were hardly rigid, each borrowing freely from the other, perhaps no more so than among harpers. In Harp Heymann, in the periodic company of Laura McKenzie (fiddle) and Julie Elhard (viola da gamba, vielle), transports the listener to a lost world of austere but intense melody. Her husband Charlie Heymann steps forward on occasion to sing in a fiercely affecting, eerily authentic voice.

Though Welcome and Harp approach old musical traditions in very different ways, both find ways to express them in unique, creative arrangements without diluting their core character and power. If you're attracted to Celtic music and its relatives, these recordings are essential.

[ visit Ann Heymann's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

24 May 2008

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