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What Makes an Irish Fiddler Stand Out?
The remarkable case of Martin Hayes
By Rick Anderson
Anyone who has spent time listening to traditional Irish music will know that one of the hallmarks the genre is virtuosity. The ability not only to play a tune, but to play it fast, without sacrificing expressiveness, and creating new musical ideas on the fly while staying within the melodic and harmonic territory defined by the tune — that’s what characterizes the playing of Irish music’s most famous players. Placing a premium on not only manual but also mental dexterity is something that traditional Irish music has in common with jazz and bluegrass as well.
Which is what makes it all the more remarkable when an Irish instrumentalist turns his or her back on ostentatious virtuosity and focuses instead on ideas and emotional expression. Several outstanding artists have done this over the years, but the one I consistently find most compelling is a fiddler named Martin Hayes.
I was introduced to Hayes about 20 years ago when I received a review copy of his second album, Under the Moon. I had spent a lot of time listening to and writing about Irish music at this point, and this was unlike anything I’d heard before: where other fiddlers tended towards virtuosically elaborate ornamentation at thrillingly headlong tempos, Hayes’ approach was — while not exactly slow, certainly deliberate and even contemplative. Listen to the opening track, a set of two barndance tunes: although both are intended for dancing, he resists the temptation to take them at rollicking tempos and instead carefully lays out the melodies and then creates variations with elaborate care, sliding into and around melody notes, inserting trills and cuts and strikes in different places and never letting the listener lose sight of the melody. Or consider his take on the session favorite “Rakish Paddy,” which he imbues with plenty of rhythmic vigor while keeping it at a stately tempo. Its modal melody sounds positively eerie in this setting, making his version truly unique.
Interestingly, seeing Hayes in concert is quite a different experience from hearing Hayes in a studio recording: there’s more flash, more flamboyant energy. I love both experiences, but it’s his albums that really get me where I live.