(This essay was commissioned by Music Network for the programme notes for the Teetotallers first tour in February 2012.)
Revealing the tune
John Doyle has been promoting his solo album, has just finished accompanying Kevin Crawford on the latter’s solo CD, and will be back touring in the USA with Karan Casey shortly. Kevin Crawford has just finished producing the Kilfenora Céilí Band’s latest CD, is about to release his aforementioned solo album, and will soon be back on tour in the States with Lúnasa. Martin Hayes has just finished a new CD with Peadar Ó Riada and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (as Triúr), will soon be playing and recording with his new band The Gloaming, and will be bringing the Masters of Tradition package to America in April. Amidst all this activity, these three esteemed musicians have made time for a Music Network tour of intimate venues around Ireland, playing mostly little-known tunes, many with a Clare connection, and somewhat obscure songs dug up by Doyle.
Chance has played a major part in bringing this trio together. In 2010 they were paired up at the Swannanoa Gathering ‘to see what it would be like’, and as Hayes puts it, ‘We had a really good time and enjoyed playing with each other, so we agreed afterwards that we should do a few gigs together.’ But it may well have ended there, as just an intention, if something else had not prompted each of them to make it happen. As Hayes continues: ‘It fitted in with what I’m trying to do these days, to expose myself to some different experiences’, or in Crawford’s words: ‘You can get a little institutionalised.’ Hayes explains that the trio brought out a clash of styles that was very interesting, stylistic differences that had to be worked on to produce something worthwhile. ‘The group is an exercise in forging something,’ he told me.
The difference in styles is reflected, somewhat simplistically perhaps, in their respective careers. Doyle’s work with the likes of Solas and Liz Carroll has given him the reputation as a ‘driving’ accompanist, and could be expected to enable him to fit in easily with Crawford’s hearty style, which, in turn, is influenced by his playing with a modern band with a big sound. The differences arise with Hayes who is best known for his spacious, gentle way of opening up tunes and whose main collaborator, Dennis Cahill, tends towards a more plucked and ambient accompaniment than Doyle is associated with. Toner Quinn of The Journal of Music has summarised Hayes’ signature style as tentative and searching, emphasising ‘the soft aspects of music’ – much more suited to solo playing than group.
This clash of styles finds a way towards resolution through the common ground that exists behind these schematics: firstly, in Crawford’s and Hayes’ ‘great love of melody’ (Hayes), of old tunes and of the playing of people like Paddy Canny and Willie Clancy, and then by extension a three-way love of songs, which Hayes and Crawford rarely get a chance to explore in other contexts. Even though Doyle is best known for his accompaniment work, he often matches lead players chord for note and he is an excellent melody player himself. He said in interview once: ‘If you don’t have a great melody, you’re lost’, and his singing and tune composing are indicative of this attitude.
As well as that common ground in terms of interests, there is a also a shared approach to playing – ‘a lot of intensity’, as Hayes describes it. All three are equipped with a level of musicianship that comes from a lifetime of listening and playing, as well as innate talent: with it they can sustain levels of musical concentration that enable each of them to respond to others, adjusting subtly while maintaining the shape.
The responsiveness in their playing is helped by their maturity as artists. Hayes points out that at this stage they are not as concerned about careers and are no longer trying to prove themselves. ‘It isn’t about you and your playing,’ he explains. ‘The beauty is in the melody. And the degree to which it becomes a reality, sitting out front, depends on how you get it out. What it is you see in the melody has to become the thing transmitted.’
Somewhat paradoxically, I have a feeling that this trio may enable Hayes to more easily achieve his ideal of getting himself out of the way of the music. The ‘pregnant spaces’ (Toner Quinn) in Hayes’ celebrated approach create the opportunity for far more individual expression in the playing than a fast pace does, not just at the level of ornamentation but also in the very timbre of each note, and thereby there’s more of the player in the music and more focus on the musician. I think the influence that Crawford and Doyle will have on him in terms of power in the guitar and sonic competition from the flute, will enable Hayes to ‘get the melody out’. (He is, perhaps, finding something similar, though slower and quieter, in simply playing the old-style tunes that Peadar Ó Riada is supplying for Triúr.)
Furthermore, as Crawford points out, although Hayes is known for ‘a particular way of approaching a tune’, he can actually be ‘aggressive, rhythmical and driving … which is more my arena…’ Crawford explains that a lot of the tunes they’re playing (a version of the East Clare reel going into a version of Sporting Nell, for instance, heard recently on the Geantraí na Nollag programme on TG4) ‘…have that in them and we’re exploring it, trying to make them our own’ using different sonic combinations, like alto flute with high register fiddle, to see if a new sound helps them discover something new in the tunes. ‘We’re taking our time with each piece to see if there’s something in it. If there is, we send it to John for further exploration.’
In preparation for the tour and the possiblity of recording, they have been building up repertoire: Hayes and Crawford have been exchanging tunes and Doyle has been proposing songs. Crawford, who admits to being ‘as excited about this as anything I’ve done’, has been excavating his archive of rare recordings. ‘When I moved back to West Clare from Birmingham I found myself wanting to unearth my love of the place and found it in the music of the likes of PJ Crotty, Junior Crehan and Bobby Casey.’ This West Clare slant is complemented by an East Clare connection with Martin’s birthplace in the tunes of Joe Bane and PJ Hayes (Martin’s father). Other material is not Clare connected but chosen to highlight the flute-fiddle sound that is so important to Crawford. ‘The combination,’ Crawford reminds me, ‘has been a major part of the traditional soundscape. With, for example, pipers, you can be boxed in a little, whereas in this ensemble we’re able to experiment in a wider range of keys to see if a new sound can be more revelatory of a tune.’