Two years on from Lost in the Loop, here’s the latest from Chicago’s Queen of the Fiddle. While Carroll composes almost all the music here (with two traditional tunes slipped in), there’s plenty of variety in found in the various reels, jigs, airs, waltz, slides and slip jigs.
Carroll’s fiddle is supplemented by various musicians including Chico Huff (bass), Michael Aharon (piano), and Emedin Rivera (percussion). Guitar supremo John Doyle appears on all tracks bar two, a similar ratio to his contributions on this album’s predecessor. It’s interesting to note that Doyle is also all over the last two CDs by Carroll’s New York counterpart Eileen Ivers, of whom the opening track “The Rock Reel/The Morning Dew/Reeling on the Box” is immediately reminiscent. It’s a brash, percussive set, full of complex twists and turns. There are five other sets of reels on the CD of which two are performed in a similar style to the opener, while two are taken at a steadier pace. One of these “The Ornery Upright/Sass Is Back” features low whistles from Kieran O’Hare and the guitar of Jim DeWan, whose delicate, paced style provides a neat contrast to the otherwise omnipresent rhythmic velocity of Doyle’s playing.
Doyle’s given a great opportunity to really set out his stall on “The Tractor Driver/A Tune for the Girls” where he provides the sole accompaniment to Carroll’s fiddle. He also gets to play both guitar and bouzouki on the jig set “Spinning Out of the Turn/Tom and Martin.” (We truly live in a blessed age for fans of the guitar in Irish music. It wasn’t so long ago that the main purpose of a guitar in a traditionally based group was to give the singers something to do with their hands during the tune sets. In recent years, however, players like Stephen Cooney, Donogh Hennessy, Ed Boyd and Dennis Cahill (to name but a few), have emerged as virtuosos every bit as distinctive as the melody players that they accompany. The fact that John Doyle is the first choice of Carroll and Ivers is proof enough of his position in this pantheon.)
I’ve always had a great fondness for slides (imagine a jig with the phrasing of a polka), which require melodic simplicity and driving rhythm to get the job done. Carroll has come up with a couple of good ones and invests them with a large portion of authenticity by performing them in tandem with box master Mairtin O’Connor, who also plays on the waltz, “Hanley’s House of Happiness.” This tune is named after an old music venue on Chicago’s 79th Street. Carroll notes that her parents used to visit Hanley’s on Sunday nights to hear Joe Cooley play the box. The music here is a world away from the kind of waltzes that Joe Cooley’s Chicago Ceili Band would have pumped out in the fifties and sixties, being more akin to the eye moistening emotion of Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham at their best.
Which brings us to the matter of the slow airs. It’s often said that the ability to perform these tunes is the mark of a truly great fiddle player (the theory goes that any barroom scraper can conjure the necessary excitement out of a reel). For my money, Carroll is, along with Martin Hayes, the very best in the business. Listen to her “A Day And An Age” and you’ll understand perfectly her intention to create “a tune for the singers who transport the emigrants back home.” Sensitively accompanied by Doyle’s guitar and Aharon’s piano and cello, this is truly a song with no words required. The CD’s other air “The Ghost” is a slightly more sumptuously arranged affair (essentially a string quartet) but is every bit as haunting as its title implies. This tune leads straight into two jigs with the same instrumentation.
The title track “Lake Effect” follows a traditional slip jig and is listed simply as a tune, taking the listener further into the field of arranged string music. The lineup for this one is listed as fiddle, violin, baritone violin, viola and cello. This piece will be a delight to lovers of much contemporary Nordic music, both melodically and in its occupation of a territory bordered by traditional, jazz and classical music. The fact that Annbjorg Lien is listed as one of “the girls” that Carroll’s jig “A Tune for the Girls” was composed for, is surely much more than coincidence. (In case you’re interested, the other “girls” named as Carroll’s “string sisters” are Catriona MacDonald, Liz Knowles, Natalie MacMaster and Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh. Now that would be a session to tell your kids about!)
It should go without saying that this is a very fine CD indeed, composed (in the main), by a towering musical talent and performed by a group of musicians, each of whom is among the very best on his or her instrument. For all that, there’ll still be folks who’ll castigate Carroll for showcasing innovation and technique over tradition and soul. Do they have a point? It’s prudent to note that while Liz Carroll and (especially) Eileen Ivers have been pushing the boundaries of Irish fiddle music ever further into the realms of jazz, classical, world music and techno, two of the original instigators of all this, Frankie Gavin and Kevin Burke, have both recently recorded CDs of very traditional, sparsely accompanied music.
There’s a case to be made for the argument that having seen the global expansion of “Celtic music,” the indigenous Irish musicians are reaffirming their historic ownership of the old music and proclaiming “this is ours.” Meanwhile, the Irish Americans, by looking outside the old territorial landmarks of church, Comhaltas, fleadh competition and Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), are asserting their own cultural identity as something distinct from their parents and grandparents. It’s conceivable that in subsequent generations the music of Irish Americans will evolve and transform at the same pace as the music of African Americans. Who can measure the relative distances between Joe Cooley and Solas, or blues and hip hop, after all?
Liz Carroll, meanwhile, stands at the crossroads of all of this debate. The note on the back of this CD reads “file under Celtic,” while her 1992 collaboration with Daithi Sproule and Billy McComiskey has “traditional Irish music and songs.” While she’s clearly a musician steeped in the tradition, (and quick to credit her mentors), she’s also a sophisticated, inquisitive and daring musician from an urban, cosmopolitan environment. The proof of any Irish traditional musical pudding is in the tunes, and in this respect “the tradition” always wins in the long run. The tunes that musicians love to play are the ones that survive. Fashions, fads and styles may come and go but a great tune endures for ever. Liz Carroll (like Ed Reavey before her) already has bequeathed a number of much loved and played tunes to both Ireland and the world.
With Lake Effect she’ll doubtless add a few more, and that should be enough for the begrudgers. For those willing to wholeheartedly embrace the Irish American music of the early twenty-first century on it’s own terms, this CD is as exciting and rewarding as you could possibly hope for.
(Green Linnet. 2002)