Jenna Moynihan & Màiri Chaimbeul: One Two
Independent – 20 April 2017
Although I have been involved in most every other area of the music industry, it surprises many that I have never learned to play an instrument. So, as a non-musician, I look on in deep admiration at those possessing mastery over theirs. Add to that an ability to push the boundaries of what is expected from an instrument – Colin Stetson and the saxophone being a good example – and I am awestruck. Hailing from the Isle of Skye and based in Boston, Mass., harpist Màiri Chaimbeul is such a musician. When seeing her play in the multinational progressive folk outfit Aerialists last summer, I was spellbound by her steely performance intensity and amazed at the decidedly un-harp-like sounds she occasionally coaxed from her instrument. Yet in her ongoing collaboration with the wonderful, naturally gifted American folk fiddler Jenna Moynihan, Chaimbeul is all about textures and respectful interpretation of traditional forms, rather than the experimentation she can run within Aerialists.
Apart from subtle occasional harmonium (by Chaimbeul), utilizing just their unaccompanied fiddle and Scottish harp, on their debut full-length release, One Two, the young Moynihan and Chaimbeul create hypnotic magic across its nine cuts. This lovely record comes just five years after their first meeting at Berklee College of Music, after which the first recorded fruits of their partnership appeared in 2014 with the digital four-tune EP, Back & Forth. Then Chaimbeul featured on Moynihan’s delightful 2015 debut (and, thus far, sole) solo album, Woven. If the organic chemistry of their meeting of musical minds was not already evident from those two projects, then it is surely borne out by the fact that the impeccable tracks comprising One Two were laid down in a mere four days (in November 2016).
In that there are just two sonically complementary instruments present, listening to Moynihan and Chaimbeul’s music is akin to being party to melodious conversations. Sometimes, as if sharing secrets, they ‘speak’ in whispers; other times they are a tad excitable – ‘giggly,’ even – and occasionally their mood is reflective, but all the time their exchanges are unfailingly engaging. Sparse instrumental music has to be mesmeric, otherwise attention can wander, but these masters of their respective instruments keep one riveted from the first notes of One Two to the last.
Opener Kyle Tune is a sweet collaborative original, its inclusion on the album apparently decided when a ‘sign’ that it needed to be appeared when a bug flew into Moynihan’s eye while on a stroll after they had composed the melody! Next up on One Two is a dreamy pairing of the traditional Gaelic melody Nighean Donn nan Gobhar (The Brown-Haired Maiden who Tends Goats) with Brenda & Bill’s, another original, and a tribute to the owners of the studio at which the album was recorded (in Easton, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire).
Steaph’s Red Shoes is a Chaimbeul original, paired here with O Gur Duine Truagh Mi (O What a Wretched Soul I Am). This is followed by a haunting 18th century lament, Mo Rùn Geal Og (My Fair Young Love), previously recorded by such as Capercaille and, in the capable hands of Moynihan and Chaimbeul, delivered with delicate beauty. After an interpretation of Roddy Campbell’s Malcolm Johnston (most famously recorded by the Tannahill Weavers), a set of She Put Her Knee on the Old Man and Breton Tune gently charms for over four minutes, performed with the effortless brilliance one would expect from a talented duo that has been playing it regularly for the last five years.
The oft-recorded slip jig My Mind Will Never Be Easy (alternately Sad to Meet and Happy to Part) similarly seduces this listener with its rare fragility, then is followed by an old Swedish fiddle tune entitled Norsken (simply Norse). The melody of this gorgeous piece reflects its fascinating origin as a tune written by an eccentric 19th century character named ‘Hultkläppen,’ who travelled from village to village in Central Sweden, wearing birch bark shoes and entertaining the villagers in exchange for food. Moynihan evokes clear images of such a maverick minstrel with her joyous, spirited performance of a tune that both women apparently love to play.
Concluding this sparkling collection is a pairing of Moynihan’s Harry Handbell’s (a tongue-in-cheek comment on crazy pronunciations of Chaimbeul’s name) with the traditional Shetland tune Up Da Stroods (Up the Ropes). Like all that came before it on One Two it is pretty, soulful, and performed with uncanny skill way beyond the years of these extraordinary musicians. What makes this album truly stand out, however, is the aforementioned chemistry between Moynihan and Chaimbeul. It is a tangible, palpable entity at the heart of their collaboration, making for as natural a sound as I have yet heard in contemporary, instrumental acoustic music, and a classic example of how wonders can transpire when you find ‘your people.’
One Two is out now and available via Bandcamp: https://jennaandmairi.bandcamp.com/album/one-two
Photo Credit LOUISE BICHAN