In a musical context, the word “quartet” can point to a small group of four classical performers as in a string, a baroque, a wind, a vocal or a piano quartet. It can also refer to a small jazz ensemble consisting of a horn, a chordal instrument, a bass instrument and a drum kit. Released on 251 Records on 27 October 2017 last, The Blue Room by the Martin Hayes Quartet flirts exquisitely with this ambiguity, while remaining firmly anchored in a traditional Irish music repertoire.
Assembled by traditional Irish fiddler and The Gloaming founding member Martin Hayes, the eponymous quartet is the fruit of an artistic partnership with the University of Limerick initiated in 2016. The quartet also includes long-time musical partner and minimalist maestro Dennis Cahill on guitar, classically trained and traditional Irish musician Liz Knowles on Hardanger d’Amore (a custom-made Hardanger fiddle) and New-York-based jazz musician Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet.
The Blue Room refers to the blue-coloured walls of Bantry House’s library, the 18th century stately home in West Cork where the music was recorded. The historic house is also used as a venue for the Masters of Tradition festival which takes place in late August every year. Originally launched in 2003 with Martin Hayes as its musical director, the festival strives to provide “a platform where subtle and sometimes obscure elements of the music can be heard.”
The historic location is perhaps key to understanding how the four musicians approached the recording and the repertoire played. Instead of developing long and elaborate suites of tunes – as Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill would in their trademark duo performances, in a contemporary fashion with The Gloaming or more recently with American string quartet Brooklyn Rider – the Quartet reverts to an older style of music playing focused on single tunes.
Pairing tunes and arranging them into suites is prevalent when preforming for dancers or at a concert. In a set dancing context, a dramatic key change from one reel to the next lifts the dancers and cranks energy levels up a notch. Over the years, modern era performing bands like The Chieftains have introduced multiple time and key signatures within their complex musical medleys while bands like Planxty or The Bothy Band have instilled a rock’n’roll attitude in their music with energetic tune pairings that still stand today. Traditional Irish music sessions habitually involve sets of tunes, and only rare show pieces are played on their own.
A lot of older recordings did feature single tunes, yet such an approach doesn’t exclude innovation. The Liffey Banks for instance, the extraordinary 1971 recording by Dublin fiddler Tommy Potts – a major influence on the playing of Martin Hayes too – consists mainly of single tunes.
Focusing only on single tunes not only allows musicians to highlight several melodic gems of the repertoire such as “The Orphan”, “My Mind Will Never be Easy” or “The Humours of Scariff” but also to delve deep into the hidden structure and intricacy of the music.
Instead of repeating the tune two or three times as is the norm in a traditional performance, all tunes on The Blue Room are repeated five or six times at least, and some reels like “Joe Bane’s Unusual Key” or “Tommy People’s” are reiterated 10 or 11 times. As is often the case in the way Martin Hayes engages with the traditional repertoire, even the simplest circular jig becomes a fertile ground for subtle changes, ornamentations and arrangements.
Following a long and quasi Eastern-sounding introduction on the bass clarinet, “The Boy in the Gap” is repeated three times over before a single phrase from the first part becomes a riff over which Doug Wieselman starts to improvise. The third part of the “Port Sadhbh” jig is used as an introductory motif on the fiddle before guitar, Hardanger fiddle and clarinet come in. “Paddy Fahy’s Reel” is arranged in a Baroque fashion while “Brennan’s Reel” or “Monastereden Fancy” are performed in a more traditional manner.
What is fascinating to hear throughout is the interplay between all four instruments, constantly swaying between chamber, folk and jazz music. Bass clarinet, guitar, fiddle and Hardanger fiddle successively embrace rhythmic, harmonic or contrapuntal roles, suggesting yet again a fresh and compelling reinterpretation of a living contemporary tradition.