Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill

Live in Seattle

Green Linnet GLCD 1195

ďa Celtic complement to Steve Reichís quartets or Miles Davisís Sketches of Spain.Ē New York Times.

The problem with reviewing anything like this is that one can end up blowing an awful lot of street cred.  ďFred McCormick?  Oh God, donít invite him.  Heís the resident-in-house critic for anything hip and cool and ultra funky.Ē  Well, irrespective of what kind of music I write about, the list of places that wouldnít invite me grows exponentially by the hour.  Nevertheless, I feel the need to state unequivocally that modern Irish music is not my normal kind of gear.  Cover pictureIndeed, progressive trends in traditional music world-wide neither turn me on or tune me in.  All they usually succeed in doing is dropping me out.  In this instance, the above quote, which came in the form of a sticker on the jewel case, did nothing at all to win me over.  More of that quote anon.

In the meantime, why am I reviewing this disc?  Well, your beloved editor was stuck for someone to draw the short straw.  By dint of charm and charisma, he managed to convince me that I was the man for the job.  Oh God!  I approached the project fully intending to hate it, and almost succeeded.  I played the disc through twice, decided that the music made no sense at all, and that a third listen would be more than my genial nature could stand.  I plucked a quill from my favourite pet vulture, fermented a vat of vitriolic ink, and scribed a few blistering deliberations on a piece of the finest rattlesnake parchment.  Then I recalled the two golden watchwords of media coverage - objectivity and fairness.  You may not like this music.  There is someone out there who will.  You may not have sweated buckets of blood putting the thing together.  Somebody else has.  Above all, reflect with each note that passes, that some poor motherís son has poured his heart and soul into this.  Tear the review up.  Back on with the headphones.  Start all over again.  Imagine my astonishment when, against every febrile prejudice my cerebral senses possess, I found myself beginning to like the thing.

In the name of God, why?  What forced the biggest reversal of opinion since Napoleon decided not to call on the mayor of Moscow after all?  Well, even the most ardent of detractors would have to admit that Martin Hayes is a remarkable musician.  He has served a lengthy apprenticeship in the music of his native East Clare and, for all the experiment and innovation, his style never strays far from its roots.  Itís true that, for much of this disc his playing is rather subdued, although, after repeated listenings I begin to see why.  Moreover, when this disc flies, man it flies!  Martin Hayes displays a blistering technique, plus an ability to improvise around the tune which might have given Michael Coleman a few sleepless nights.  I did find a mechanical tendency to slide into certain notes, but I can live with that.  All the same, it wasnít so much the playing which raised initial objections, as the way the melodies were played about with.  Winning me over was simply a matter of my understanding why.

Okay, so Martin Hayes has got something going for him after all.  What do you get though, if you pays your money and buys your disc?  Well, at forty-six minutes and thirty-seven seconds, not a lot of playing time.  On first listening, I thought that was the way they play sets in Seattle, except that the last track fades into nothingness, as though audience and players have been spirited away by the fairies.  What happened?  Did the PA break down?  Did the two musicians pack up and leave?  Or did they keep playing into the sleepless hours?  I donít know, for the booklet merely says that this recording comprises the second half of a concert.  Does that mean the two lads performed in the first half, or was this their entire output for that evening?  I wish I knew because the problem is keeping me awake nights.

Let us, however, restrain from an excess of flippancy.  Martin Hayesí booklet notes are a treat to read.  They are reflective, intelligent, and well written.  Moreover, they show that he has spent a lot of time pondering the music and what he wants to do with it and what he wants out of it.  I particularly liked his quoted comment, ďYou should play what you want, but you should play it for the audience in a spirit of giving and communicationĒ.  As a singer, it took me a great many performance years to realise the truth of that one.

Those forty-six and a bit minutes embrace five tracks.  Four of them are fairly conventional, in that each combines two melodies and lasts between four and six minutes.  However, if the programming of these tunes is conventional, their treatment is anything but.  In fact the whole disc is characteristic of the dilemma in which Irish music now finds itself.  Over the past couple of decades the idiom has reached an impasse.  A generation of musicians, rooted by nationalism and upbringing into the musical folkways of rural Ireland, has sought to find a way out of the constraints which their music imposes upon their artistic inclinations.  For the most part better educated, and blessed with wider horizons than their fathers, they have been exposed to a world stage of sounds, and consequently seek to emulate the expressive freedom of Ravi Shankar, or Dembo Konte, or Miles Davis.

The problem is that Irish music doesnít work like the music of India, or West Africa, or Greenwich Village.  The melodies are too formulaic.  The idiom is structurally and rhythmically too circumscribed by its function as dance music to afford the musician much room for improvisation.  A little rumination on that point may be in order, for jazz was also a dance music once and it functioned in ways not very different from Irish music.  In the 1940s a number of musicians, Miles Davis among them, broke out of the then prevalent chordal limitations of the idiom and turned it from extrovert dance music into cerebral art.  If Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie could do that with jazz, why can't Eileen Ivers and Seamus Egan and Martin OíConnor and Martin Hayes not do the same with Irish music?

Well, the only ingredients which the moulders of modern jazz inherited from earlier forms were rhythm and swing, and a system of improvisation built around the notion of chord progression.  Jazz is quite simply not constrained by inbuilt structures in the way that Irish music is.  Therefore, it may act as a source of inspiration to the new generation of Irish musicians.  It cannot act as a source of emulation.  By the same token, because Irish music is founded on melody, it cannot follow the path which Indian musicians, or for that matter most classical musicians of the third world, have taken.  For these people, extended improvisation around a composed skeletal musical figure is the form of artistic expression, par excellence.  Such figures are known as ragas in India, or maqams in Syria, or dastaghs in Iran and their domain embraces a very large section of the globe.  Unfortunately, it does not stretch as far as Ireland.  The musician who wishes to break out of the cage of Irish music has to find his own key.  He has to find it within the melodies and rhythms of his inherited tradition.  That is what Martin Hayes appears to have done and that is why this disc eventually won me over.

The direction the wind has taken shows up most clearly on track two.  It is a massive work by Irish standards, which begins with the famous slow air from the Blasket Islands, Port na bPucai, and which ends with the oddly named P Joeís Pecurious Pachelbel Special.  The last item puzzles me.  P Joe presumably refers to Martin Hayesí father, a fine fiddler in his own right, and a lifelong cornerstone of the Tulla Ceilidh Band.  I presume also that there is some connection with that well-known extravaganza from the age of classical baroque, Pachelbelís Canon, although I cannot be sure.  Pachelbelís Canon is a perennial favourite with compilers of those awful Classical Relaxation CDs, the sort you might buy to fight off the ravages of insomnia, although Iím damned if I know why.  A bottle of whisky is a lot tastier and far more effective.  As a gesture towards artistic dignity I avoid such compilations like the plague and I have thus far also avoided Pachelbelís Canon.  Wherever it comes from, Pachelbelís Pecurious sounds no different to anything else played here, but what on earth does pecurious mean?  If the word existed it would be right there in my dictionary, sandwiched between pecuniary and pedagogue.  Donít bother looking.  Instead, cast your eyes towards this track.

Sandwiched between Port na bPucai and Pecurious, there is a further nine melodies, making eleven in all.  Those new to the music of Martin Hayes might be forgiven for expecting a long medley of tunes, as they would say of the Tulla Ceilidh Band - if the Tulla Ceilidh Band ever played medleys of this length.  However, the tunes on this track, or for that matter any of the others on this disc, do not form a medley, at least not in the conventional sense.  They have been seamlessly woven into something which approaches a continuous improvisation, so as to explore a single coherent musical idea.  Most of the tunes in the selection are extremely well known, but there is such extensive melodic re-formulation, to say nothing of switches of tempi, that I eventually found it hard to tell where one stopped and another started.

Letís get back to that headline quote.  I have voiced my dissent over beliefs about supposed national or racial traits in music often enough in this corner of the cyberspatial universe, and do not wish to indulge in further tautology.  I would though like to ponder one small question; namely that if there is something racial or genetic, which makes Celtic people play Celtic music in a manner which can be manifestly identified as Celtic, what on earth is a native of Hiberniaís lovely isle doing playing like this?  Personally, I find the rest of the quote much more interesting.  For those who may not know it, Miles Davis was not just one of the progenitors of modern jazz.  He was also one of the founders of that school of introspective musicianship, which exists within modern jazz, and which labels itself cool.  Steve Reich, on the other hand, is an avant garde classical composer, much involved in percussive ensembles and much influenced by Asian and African percussionists.  I am not familiar with his work and cannot pass any observations on complimentarity, Celtic or otherwise.  However, a perusal of the list of compositions, under his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Music, revealed no mention of any quartets.

As far as Miles Davis is concerned, it is worth noting that Martin Hayes is a fan of cool jazz, and I can see some of the cerebral character of this idiom in the way that he plays.  However, the only direct jazz influence I can detect in this music comes from Denis Cahillís guitar, and the interaction between the two instruments makes me think of parallels other than Miles Davis.  I am reminded of the interplay between Reinhardt and Grappelli, or between Brubeck and Desmond, or even between violin and piano in a Beethoven sonata.  Most of all, and especially on that long track, I was reminded of the rapport which builds up between pairs of virtuoso Indian musicians.  I am not thinking here of strict duet work, jugalbandi as it is known.  Rather, I am reminded of a sitar and tabla performance, where the tabla acts as a supporting voice to the main instrument, and occasionally breaks out into solo extemporisations.  That observation leads me into a plug for the guitarist, for Martin Hayes is far from being the only class act on this disc.  Just as Alla Rakha is a fine foil to Ravi Shankar, and a great artist in his own right, so too is Denis Cahill.  He is in fact one of the most impressive guitarists I have ever heard, either as accompanist, or in his all too infrequent roles as soloist.  I would certainly have liked to hear more of him - and of that guitar of his.  Iíve no idea what it is worth but, in Mr Cahillís hands, it sounds a very expensive instrument indeed.

That twenty-seven minute track makes comparisons with Indian music particularly apt, because it develops rather like a raga.  I do not mean that it is constructed like one.  Rather, I mean that that the piece combines an ostensibly disparate series of melodies into one discrete unit.  This unit is explored via different facets of rhythm and tempo and extemporisation just as a raga would be explored.  Indeed, it progresses, ala raga, through several distinct stages.  They begin with the opening Ďalapí of Port na bPucai and wind up with the all stops out climax of the Pecurious Mr Pachelbel.  In between, those ingredients of rhythm, tempo and improvisation combine and intertwine, just as they would in India.  Never having seen Messrs Cahill and Hayes in action, Iíve no idea to what extent their performances are premeditated.  Do they plan the structure before the concert, agreeing in advance where the tempos will change, and where the guitar solos will come in?  Or do they just hit the tunes and leave it up to God and intuition and concord and skill to work their combined magic?  Do they, as modern jazz musicians tend to do, and as Indian musicians tend to do, steer their way through these pieces by dint of mutual nods and visual signals while up on the rostrum?

So, youíve got rhythm, youíve got rapport, youíve got tempo, youíve got improvisation.  Above all, youíve got Irish music pushed in directions itís never gone before, and influenced by people Martin Hayesí dad probably never shared a stage with.  Anything else?  I mentioned gems of melody before, and I honestly donít know whether this is coming more from Martin Hayes or from the anonymous and long dead composers of the stuff - 'the secret people', as GK Chesterton might have called them.  Letís give the secret people at least a little of the credit.  One of the downsides of Irish music, and something which results from its function as a dance music, is that traditional modes of performance tend to cloud the fact that it is melodically very rich.  Those melodies, which supposedly all go 'diddlee idle' and all sound the same, actually contain some wonderful turns of musical phrase.  If you get nothing else out of this disc you will at least find Martin Hayes bringing to the fore some of the innate beauty and elegance that is the music of Ireland.

I mentioned golden watchwords before.  Hereís another one.  It applies not just to criticism, but to the enjoyment of music generally.  It is that great music needs its own space.  If the artistry of Miles Davis or Martin Hayes fails to grab you, there can be no harm in giving it a little time.  The chances are that there is nothing amiss with the sounds; they just need some acclimatisation on the part of the listener.  Having said that though, I still feel like the perennial staid parent in every 1950s pop movie, the one who ends up grudgingly admitting that this rock Ďn roll isnít so bad after all.

To be perfectly honest, I am probably too old and too set in my ways to be wooed and wowed by any new developments in Irish music, no matter where they are come from or where they are bound.  I am bred, buttered and buckled to an age when the idiom was defined by musicians who played in a more orthodox way and showed a more orthodox concept of the music.  If I number Martin Hayesí father and uncle, the aforementioned P Joe Hayes and Paddy Canny, together with Peadar Oí Loughlin, among the prime proponents of orthodoxy, initiates will infer a reference to a wonderful record which these three made in the early sixties.  It bore the matrix number 'Harp 10', although Iím not sure whether the harp in question referred to the national emblem of Ireland, or to the preferred instrument of the inhabitants of heaven.  Be that as it may, these gentlemen certainly played like angels and their LP is one of my most treasured possessions.  I will certainly imbibe the music of Martin Hayes from now on, but my heartstrings are wound round the Harp and the halo.

By the way, the watchful reader will note that this review has no sound clip buttons to press - I found it impossible to encapsulate any of this music within sound clip time limitations.

Fred McCormick - 4.12.99

Top of page Home Page Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by   Updated: 21.11.02