Eileen Ivers,
Eileen Ivers
(Green Linnet, 1994)

In 1994, Eileen Ivers was a revelation.

All the traditional Irish fiddlers I knew back then sounded -- well, they sounded traditional. No bad marks for skill or clever, distinctive arrangements. But you'd listen for a minute and you'd know, this is an Irish fiddler.

But not Eileen. You put in this disc, her first solo recording, and right away she knocks you flat with a set of reels that are just so not traditional, you wonder if maybe someone put the wrong disc in the case by mistake. It's definitely a fiddle, played with incredible skill, and I can hear the roots of familiar tunes. But that's ... isn't that improvisational jazz?

It says it right on the cover, "Traditional Irish Music." Ha, she fooled us all.

And she's not in on the joke alone, either. She has some amazing guest musicians working to turn Irish traditional music into something shiny and new. Take that first set of reels, for instance; joining Eileen are John Doyle on guitar, Kimati Dinizulu on asheko and rainstick, and Mairead Powell on dancing feet.

The second tune, "Magh Seola" by uilleann piper Gerard Fahy, sounds like something from a Kenny G album after Eileen and soprano saxophonist Charlie DeChant get a hold of it. Usually, a comment like that would be a bad thing, but in this case, it works. Joining them on this slow air are Joanie Madden on whistle and low whistle, Bob Mayo on hammond organ, Gabriel Donohue on guitar, Kasim Sultan on double bass, Dinizulu on kren, and Mike Braun on drums.

Then there's a set of strathspeys and reels that sounds distinctly Cape Breton -- no wonder, Natalie MacMaster is supplying the second fiddle and a piano subtext, and Dave MacIsaac is on the guitar. For the air "Gentle Breeze," Susan McKeown adds wordless vocals while Donohue adds a variety of subdued instruments in the background. Then -- ooh, a traditional set! -- Eileen joins Doyle (guitar) and Tommy Hayes (bodhran) for a pair of jigs.

Then -- oh, then. "Pachelbel's Frolics" dazzled me in 1994 and it dazzles me today. Eileen and Winifred Horan each shoulder a few fiddles, Alyssa Pava plays a viol da gamba and Donohue plays his usual variety to take the familiar "Pachelbel's Canon" and, after a magnificent reading in baroque style, transform it gradually into a fast and furious hornpipe. Wow!

The album gets a little more traditional, though no less creative, from here to the end. Eileen collaborates with Madden (now on flute) for a set of reels, then gets back together with MacMaster for the Cape Breton tune "East Neuk of Fife." Eileen plays alone for the gorgeous lament, "Caoine Ui Domhnaill," then wraps it all up with a fast jig and reel set.

The release of Eileen Ivers was a benchmark for me, the moment I began to see some new possibilities for a fiddle and an Irish tune. Eileen broadened my horizons even as she laid new ground for other musicians to follow. And this CD still sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did the day it was first released.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 11 October 2002

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