Martin Hayes & the Common Ground Ensemble – Peggy’s Dream: Album Review

Scrap any sense of spot the genre, Hayes is back with more of his fiddle sans frontières. Indisputably Irish, and probably trad, little else is.

Release Date: 24th March 2023

Label: 251 Records

Format: CD / vinyl / digital

If the passing of Dennis Cahill, last June, came as a shock to most, imagine the effect it must have had on this guy, so joined at the hip had they seemed to have become, over very many years of duet recordings and in the wonder of super-fusion-folk-group, The Gloaming, over their three discs. But focus on that and you would miss what myriad other pies this consummate musician, seven times all Ireland fiddle champion before he was twenty, had his fingers in. (Shall I say that again, seven times fiddle champion before he was twenty!) Leaving for Chicago in his twenties, aside from hooking up with Cahill, he was engaged in a host of other projects, bringing his gilded bow to bear in textures that would include, quite apart from folk, and there would be a lot of that, but also jazz, rock, new age, touching every base between. As he would later say: “It’s an important idea to me to be open-minded and not shut the door on things that I’m not familiar with or do not fully understand.

That is definitely the frame of reference applied here, which has him sharing the Common Ground (geddit!) of four musicians, each drawn from different silos, eager to mix and match. So we get Cormac McCarthy on piano, a composer of merit, occupying a, broadly, classical background and the cellist Kate Ellis, who occupies the edgier fringes of the same genre, unafraid of impro or electronica. We get the guitarist, Kyle Sanna, who is as happy playing with bluegrass bluestocking Chris Thile as he is with Yo Yo Ma and, completing the quintet, Hayes’ old mucker, another alumnus of the Tulla Ceilidh Band, Brian Donnellan on bouzouki, harmonium and concertina. The aim is, Hayes again, “to create space and opportunity for all the different musical personalities, styles and genres to be freely expressed”. And do they succeed?

Slow stepping piano opens the disc, for The Boyne Water, careful chosen sparse notes that make a delectable bed for Hayes to weave some unctuous fiddle magic. The build comes majestically up from the bottom, the lower notes of cello providing a rumble of portent, tinkles of, I guess, bouzouki at the periphery, before all dipping back, as it started, to piano alone. Cello and pizzicato fiddle rush in together to open The Longford Tinker, Hayes then picking up the melody and running, whilst the other musicians creating a landscape of inventive tone poetry around him. The piano is especially effective, with first some almost atonal high notes adding contrast, before some lower notes provide some logical ballast to the main tune. The concertina gets its first appearance here, echoing and then in tandem with Hayes. The overall effect isn’t dissimilar to Simon Jeffe’s Penguin Cafe Orchestra, at least until Hayes kicks off the backing and hurtles off into a faster solo revision of the tune. Jazzier hues are beckoned in for Cà Bhfuil an Solas, courtesy McCarthy’s delicate piano, Hayes weaving langourously in, the tune then displaying its origin, the two instruments jigging gently. Sonorous lower notes creep in from cello and that’s it. Three minutes of perfect ambient folk.

The title track, Peggy’s Dream, fits well that title, having all the ambience of a gentle sleep disturbance as if half heard from elsewhere. The switch, midway, of lead instrument from Hayes to Donnellan’s concertina is mesmeric, plucked cello providing a. rhythmic clip, which eventually is all that is left. Peggy was Hayes’ mother, and it is to her and to Dennis Cahill, that this album is dedicated to. A pair of tunes follow: Johnny Cope/Hughie Travers’ Reel, starting in as close to orthodoxy as this album allows, give or take the broad bowstrokes of cello that foghorn in delightfully. Piano enters the fray, with some delicate taps about the fringes, as concertina and fiddle lead the dance. And lead it they do, the speed suddenly upping for the reel. The guitar emerges as a key element, Sanna and McCormack playing a counter arrangement together, that provides the structure over which Hayes flies. If you were then expecting Garrett Barry’s Jig to pick up where that left off, you’d be wrong, the moment instead taken to showcase the substance of this diverse collaboration. Atonal swipes of cello and odd thumps and clicks are the starting point, fiddle gradually making a path through the pickings and scrapings, a picture gradually becoming clear, courtesy the guitar and bouzouki waymarkers. Entirely spooky, it ends with a flourish of piano that, weirdly, invokes a feel of something wicked this way comes, in an old b&w movie.

It takes The Glen Of Aherlow to settle that foreboding, a lilting fiddle air, with pizzicato cello sounding like a harp, before broader sweeps of texture. Another dreamy/dreamlike construction, the midway insertion of piano adds some density that fills out the ensemble symbiosis, gradually taking pole position, cello simmering to the side. Aisling Gheal finds again that mournful place that only a solo fiddle can, but with tinkles of piano acting like a ripple effect. Hayes wreaks every bit of angst out of his instrument, the notes hanging long in the air. It is glorious, more so as the cello joins his longing. Whilst that might have been a grand point to close proceedings, Hayes and crew know a lift never does any harm. And that lift comes effortlessly with Toss The Feathers, paired with The Magerabaun Reel. The familiarity of the former is not dulled by that status one bit, care of the engine room of Sanna and Donnellan, with a bass line of picked cello. You might swear the presence of a bodhran, but there isn’t, so solid is the strumming. When McCarthy chimes in with an entirely cross-textural piano solo, more Keith Jarrett than, say Triona Ni Dhomnaill, it is perfect, and were it not for the still weaving fiddle, you could swear this a jazz gig. But he picks up the melody and suddenly they are playing away together mightily. The bridge to the reel sees the tradition further upended, with what sounds trad suddenly not, a circular melody that chases its tail to a fitting conclusion.

A beguiling collection of tunes that grasp equally expectation and surprise, collapsing more classification than even The Gloaming managed across their repertoire, the story of Martin Hayes is still demonstrably far from finished. I guess the question is whether this will become more than another turn in his varied road. So, asking again, did they succeed? O yes!

Here they are, playing live in New York, last year:

Martin Hayes online: website / Facebook / Twitter

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