Since his professional solo début in the early 1990s, County Clare born Irish musician Martin Hayes has not only recharged the fiddle tradition on the national and international stage, he has also graced the music scene with one remarkable project after another. His highly expressive duo with Chicago guitarist Dennis Cahill – who sadly passed away in June 2022 – and which lasted over thirty years dazzled audiences worldwide with breathtaking live sets. As a founding member of Irish American supergroup The Gloaming, he experimented extensively with live collaboration and the deconstruction of conventional tune settings during the 2010s over four albums. The musician then further explored the performance of traditional Irish music in the context of a trio (as Triúr) or of a small ensemble with The Martin Hayes Quartet and through his collaboration with American classical quartet Brooklyn Rider.
Published in November 2021, the final chapter of Martin Hayes’ excellent memoir Shared Notes charts the formation of a new ensemble, which the musician introduces as his “ideal house band”. Comprised of Cormac McCarthy on piano, Kate Ellis on cello, Kyle Sanna on guitar and Brian Donnellan on concertina and bouzouki, The Common Ground Ensemble is the latest iteration of the musician’s perpetual quest for invention within the Irish tradition. That same chapter also concludes with the death of his mother Peggy, to whom the record is dedicated. Peggy’s Dream was released on 4 May 2023 last on 251/Faction Records.
As the grandson of fiddler Francie Donnellan – a Tulla Ceili Band member alongside Martin’s father P.J. for years – concertina and bouzouki player Brian Donnellan preserves a grounding of the ensemble’s sound in the East Clare tradition. Growing up in a family of traditional musicians, Cork-born Cormac McCarthy is a classically trained musician, composer and jazz improviser with two solo albums to his name. The artistic director of contemporary music Crash Ensemble, cellist Kate Ellis is a hugely prolific and in-demand musician and has shared the stage or the recording studio with countless traditional, folk, classical, avant-garde and experimental artists. As a New-York-based guitarist and composer, Kyle Sanna is also involved in a multitude of projects, including his long-lasting Irish Music duo with fiddler Dana Lyn.
Regardless of the context or supporting cast involved, Martin Hayes’ musical modus operandi has always been over the years to revisit staples of the repertoire, even allegedly simple melodies that tend to be ignored in favour of newly composed or more challenging tunes. These include for instance “An Rogaire Dubh” with Dennis Cahill and with Brooklyn Rider, “The Sailor’s Bonnet” with the Gloaming or “The Humours of Scarriff” with his quartet.
The approach remains the same on Peggy’s Dream and all the repertoire is well known. “We’ll be seeing what the tune wants to say and seeing how the band can support that” states the musician. A digitally-released Martin Hayes – Live at the NCH in December 2020 alongside Cormac McCarthy and Brian Donnellan predates the formation of The Common Ground Ensemble and already teases tune settings and instrumental combinations. Throughout his various band configurations, the musician has often favoured playing alongside additional string instruments – namely the hardanger fiddle (Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Liz Knowles) or the viola and the cello (Brooklyn Rider). On Peggy’s Dream, Kate Ellis (with whom the fiddler has performed a handful of duo concerts since 2022) allows further string experimentation with a majestic drone accompaniment on “The Boyne Water” march or “Garret Barry’s Jig” and a staccato introduction on “The Longford Tinker”.
Peggy’s Dream remembers his late mother, but it is also the name of lament collected by musicologist Reverend James Goodman in the 1860s and published posthumously as part of The Goodman Collection. The tune belongs to a convention within the Irish tradition of naming songs and tunes after dreams or visions. On the record, there is also a reprise of “Aisling Gheal” (Bright Vision), one of the big songs of the repertoire sung in the sean-nós style in which the poet encounters a woman of great beauty in a vision-like dream.
There is a delightful and dreamlike quality to the overall approach of every set and this pervading oneiric ambiance transpires magnificently in the interpretation of “The Glen of Aherlow”. Sometimes recorded as “Lafferty’s”, the reel was originally popularised by the legendary 1959 LP All-Ireland Champions which featured Martin Hayes’ father P. J. and has become a beloved standard of the repertoire. Cormac McCarthy’s improvised piano section allows for a breakdown of the traditional A and B part sequence to induce a beautiful improvised reverie.
On sets including jigs, reels or hornpipes, Dennis Cahill’s minimalist jazz-inflected backing chords and Thomas Bartlett’s progressive piano style meant that The Gloaming’s music was always verging on jazz. On “Toss the Feathers”, Martin Hayes finds his groove and locks the first part of the reel into a loop. Kyle Sanna’s minimal guitar backing and Kate Ellis’ cello plucked as a double bass provide the rhythmic backdrop to a rousing piano chorus. This concluding set in particular seems to open the door to yet another fertile artistic avenue for the fiddler.