(Disclosure – the author knows Jack and Paddy and has worked with them.)
I got an early listen to the music of Jack Talty’s and Neil O’Loghlen’s Ensemble Ériu over a year ago, and because I was so excited about the line up as soon as it came in I hit play and didn’t think about what to expect. That was a good thing. All of a sudden, I found myself transported to another world. It was magical music (I think it was what they now call ‘3 College Square’ that came on), as if a spell was cast on the plain tune. It took the music outside, into the landscape and filled it with delighting details. (Suddenly, the thought of a tune played in the corner of a pub induced an acoustic claustrophobia in me.) I was a child again, playing in the woods, kneeling by streams, leaping in my imagination from leaf to bubble, small, sprightly and open to everything.
Such a childlike initial response is odd considering, as I see now, the sophistication of the music. (It reminds me of how I responded to my first listens to Martin Hayes’ music.) As the disc’s artwork reflects, although the music has an old core, there is a modern, mathematical overlay of complex jazz-derived harmonies and contemporary repetitions.
Not surprisingly, then, the full ensemble features quite a few young jazz musicians, namely joint-leader Neil O’Loghlen on bass (who also plays traditional flute), Paddy Groenland on guitar (who is very interested in and has begun interpreting traditional music in his band Leafzang), Matthew Berrill on clarinets, Matthew Jacobson on marimba and drums, Sam Perkin on keyboards and Colm O’Hara on trombone. Jack Talty, Jeremy Spencer and Úna McGinty are the trad heads.
There are six tracks on the disc. Jurna is Reich-like in its building up of rhythm and melodic motifs before the tune itself (a version of ‘The New Custom House Reel’ by Paddy Kelly) comes in. ‘April’s Fool‘ (a Jimmy Keane composition) and ‘3 College Square’ (a version of ‘The College Groves’) take a different and somewhat simpler approach, cleverly finding space in the altered tunes to weave related fragments in and out of the melody or just layering other instruments on and off the concertina-fiddle mainline. ‘Gleann na Réimsí‘ (‘Seán Ó Duibhir an Ghleanna’), stated clearly on whistle, gradually gets overwhelmed by simpler fragments of derived melodies developed first on marimba and then on clarinet, fiddle and so on. It could be a mess, but actually with the careful ebb and flow of instruments and good mixing it works perfectly, easing itself out in a rocking chair-like movement. It’s great to see such ‘pieces’ developed fully into five, six and seven minutes duration.
‘Caoineadh do Leanbh Marbh‘ is a deep, altered, slowed-down version of, I think, the keening song, ‘Caoineadh na dtrí Mhuire’, played first on the double bass by O’Loghlen, then with Talty on the concertina providing a contrasting pull, before it goes into a mellow jazz original by O’Loghlen called ‘Tírdhreach Garbh‘ (rough landscape), and then on to a slow version of ‘Bobby Casey’s‘ jig, with the ensemble’s signature offsetting of related melodic fragments and harmonies. ‘Seachrán Sí‘ is a song sung in the Connemara sean-nós style by Saileog Ní Cheannabháin and minimally, ambiently set. It makes one see a spiritual side to this music, in the secular sense, and Ní Cheannabháin comes through the digital air like a vision, hovering above the landscape.
When news of the Ensemble came out, one reader commented on the Journal of Music website: “Jack is truly an amazing concertina player…..so, why ‘gilt the lily’?” There’s no denying that this is not what many would want or expect from Jack Talty, and in much of the music it’s outside the sound-world of the trad-only listeners. This is more brain teasing than body pleasing music, more imagination than sensation, but with the beautifully played tunes embedded within there is also a powerful charm to be discovered, if only people will let it in.
What we have in this eponymous debut recording is a setting out of a new stall, a taster menu of various approaches to the tradition that a new generation of musical polymaths like Jack and Neil can take, making something entirely new, at times overtaking the originals (as reflected in the titles of the pieces, which are takes on older titles) at others just supporting them with a new style of settings.
There are a plethora of Irish music groups who take their lead from the likes of The Bothy Band and Planxty, focusing on tight and lively arrangements of tunes and songs. And some of them are quite adventurous musically and put on thrilling live shows for very enthusiastic audiences.
There are, however, far fewer who are willing to take the big risks associated with creating entirely new sounds. They need to work harder to find listeners and audiences, often picking them up from other genres and often only slowly building up a following. Ensemble Ériu may find themselves on more international jazz festival stages than in town halls and pubs, but as long as they are recognised by some for the exciting music they are making, they probably won’t mind.
RATING: GOTTA GET IT (NEW SOUNDS)
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