The trajectory of fiddle player Martin Hayes’s remarkable career is characterised by his constant stretching of the boundaries of Irish traditional music in a series of collaborations with an increasingly wide range of musicians, whilst staying true to the music that he grew up listening to and playing in East Clare. I talked to Martin at Celtic Connections, the day after The Martin Hayes Quartet delivered an outstanding, hugely energetic performance, about how he got from Clare to here.
The early albums
“The first album I made was The Shores of Lough Graney [in 1990] with my dad, with just two of us on fiddle, almost like documentary evidence of where I’d come from. My first solo album  was where I just play the tunes that I’ve always enjoyed playing the way that I like to play them. It was a kind of a statement of what I do. The next album Under the Moon  feels like a kind of a continuation from it but also as if I have a better idea of what is that I want – almost a correction, trying to get the first album right. I was doing gigs with guitarists Randall Bays and Steve Cooney and also accordion player John Williams in Ireland – it felt like a transition with all of them on the album and my dad was on there as well.”
With Dennis Cahill
“The Lonesome Touch  with Dennis Cahill on guitar was this effort to expand and connect with other musical ideas coming from things that I was listening to. I was listening to Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny’s album Beyond the Missouri Sky and I was hearing this kind of spaciousness, openness and unhurried kind of music. I wondered if we could do an unhurried version of our music – it doesn’t always have to be hell for leather. After that people were saying to me that your live gigs are very different from your studio albums, so I decided to make a live album [Live In Seattle 1999] with Dennis. I think then for a number of years after that Dennis and I just stayed inside our safety zone and we maybe spent longer than we should have done before we made Welcome Here Again . I think in those years we were just doing gigs and things weren’t getting pushed that much but then the itch occurred to try and do different things. Some of the things came to me and other things I sought out”.
“I’d been friendly with Peadar Ó Riada [composer and multi-instrumentalist] for many years and with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh [hardanger d’more] as well. I had no idea what that project was going to be; we just let it happen. It was the first time I recorded when I didn’t listen back to any note I was recording. In fact, with the first Triur album, I didn’t realise we were recording the album at all. At the end of a few days, Peadar says ‘well I think we have an album here’ and I’m thinking, ‘if I thought we were recording an album I would have placed my microphones stands, spent time getting the sound right and wondering did I make a mistake?’. It was really liberating to not give a damn and it taught me to let go. We made the three albums [Sa Draighean 2010, Aris 2012, Omós 2013] in that same unpremeditated manner, believing that if what was happening in the room felt real, then the thing is real and comes out of the natural range of our abilities and is who we are”.
“More and more of my projects have become about allowing things to happen, not knowing what the result will be and not forcing a result, but trusting that something could emerge. Some things will be commercial successes and some things, like Triur, are certainly not a commercial success, but artistically I feel very proud of it”.
“The Gloaming happened accidentally. I was in New York and Iarla Ó Lionáird [sean-nós singer], who I’d been friendly with my whole life, talked about doing some gigs with me and Dennis or having us accompany him on a few songs, but I couldn’t see how it would work. I also around then did some studio jamming in New York with Thomas Bartlett, who I had known since he was a kid and a few of his musical friends. Towards the end of the evening, Thomas and I just played a few tunes by ourselves and I thought there’s something here that works with the way he plays piano. So I started thinking that might work with Thomas, myself, Dennis and Iarla but then thought it’ll just be fiddle playing the tune and so I’ll just drop Caoimhín into this and that became the formation of The Gloaming. We just booked a few gigs in Ireland, with a sold-out gig at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, and we had yet to play a note. We booked a studio to rehearse and put something together. I wasn’t sure how it would work but it came together mainly because the people in it had a like-mindedness about that more open and moody way of dealing with the music”.
The Martin Hayes Quartet
We have reported previously on the story of how the Martin Hayes Quartet came into being and recorded The Blue Room. I asked Martin what musical possibilities the Quartet created and how it has been playing live together.
“One thing is that without the piano it puts Denis back in a larger role than in The Gloaming. The rhythmic nature of Doug Wieselman’s bass clarinet playing syncs very well with Dennis and then Liz Knowles on hardanger d’amore is outright playing the tunes, as opposed to an improvised textural area that Caoimhín puts in the band. It opened up the possibility of getting back to focussing on the melodies almost exclusively, which is the thing I essentially do and enjoy more. By comparison to The Gloaming, The Quartet is very precise, made up of intricate parts knotting together in a different way, it’s smaller, tighter, nimbler than The Gloaming which is a big sound coming at you. I’m reluctant to use the ‘chamber’ term because this is not stuffy and not precious but it’s more a combination of an element of chamber with raw traditional melodic energy. This is our first tour and we were looking forward to building on each gig night after night to get to another place. Once on stage my impulses take over – the live combination of players and these melodies already creates a very different experience from the ambient feeling that dominated the album”.
How do these multifarious collaborations come about?
“I have a three-year affiliated position as University of Limerick Artist, am co-curator for the Marble Sessions at the Kilkenny Arts Festival and have a residency at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. These connections, together with my own Masters of Tradition Festival in Bantry and working with the Irish Arts Centre in New York, have put me in a situation of collaborating with musicians from different backgrounds so every year. I did one series at the Irish Arts Centre which was 8 different collaborations on consecutive nights, with a 2-hour window in which to organise every day – somehow we figured it out. I get to create little new ensembles, to experiment and improvise with different musicians, so I’ve got a lot more projects going on than ever surface in the wider world. There’s a lot of serendipity, a lot of ‘can we take things further?’, ‘do have we some sense of a vision that we can share?’ It’s a mixture of stimulation and challenge, with a little bit of trepidation and uncertainty about the outcome. I’m not necessarily in the comfort zone that I have with Dennis and with The Gloaming. I’m with musicians that I don’t initially know how to communicate with entirely but we find ways.”
Last year Martin toured with uilleann piper David Power and I asked him how he keeps traditional music at the heart of what he does.
“I love that pure, raw thing with David – just fiddle and pipes playing core traditional tunes. Even in the Quartet I’m sitting right smack in the centre of the tradition myself and I’m communicating with these three Americans, none of whom have a background in traditional Irish music – although they each now have a broader knowledge. We are looking at how the music can be in dialogue with these different backgrounds and not comprise itself. I’m playing what I would play anyway but I’m keeping my mind and my way of playing in such a way that I can open up the possibilities for other to play. I love for example when Doug on the bass clarinet once in a while floats a little line or two on top of a simple tune in a repetitive pattern, at other times he plays lines that echo the guitar and at other times he’s in dialogue with Liz. Sometimes Liz is playing a counter melody to me and sometimes she’s playing the melody. Sometimes Denis is playing a sequence of delicate chords and sometimes he’s holding down the rhythm. I like what all these musicians from these backgrounds can provide you with – it’s an immense skill set and reservoir of knowledge and information that you don’t have if you stay inside the four walls of your own tradition”.
“If you look at Ireland in the 70s and all the innovations that happened, the biggest personalities – Sean O’Riada, Andy Irvine, Paul Brady – their background came from outside the tradition. We all very easily fall into that pattern of picking our buddies and known good players and it’s very hard for a band to step outside their collective record collection, not to have everyone in the band deeply influenced by the Bothy Band, but then it’s very interesting to play with people who have no sense of the Bothy Band or the Chieftains. I’m asking them to dialogue with this without having any preconceptions of what it might end up being and I tend to not direct them too much because I want to hear what happens if they have maximum freedom. I can make clear to them is what this melody is and I can interpret the melody in the first place. What I bring to the table is a deep understanding of the tradition and then if you have the right musicians around you they’ll make things happen.”
Finally, whilst Martin’s current range of activities is undoubtedly impressive, we are going to have trouble keeping up with the projects he told me that he has got in the pipeline – he’s going to be a very busy man.
“There’s a live Gloaming album out soon (announced here) and I’ve got an album coming out later this year with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider – that was more a case of them coming to me initially and it took a long time to come together but I’ve really enjoyed that project. I want to do something new with Dennis. Peadar and I want to do something but we don’t know what it is yet. I do want to finally get around to recording with Kevin Crawford and John Doyle in The Teetotallers. I want to do an actual solo album and see where I can go with that. Another concept I have is a series of duets with all kinds of people, if I can get them, people in the tradition like Matt Molloy and Mike McGoldrick, people out of the tradition like Bill Frisell and Jordi Savall. There will be another Gloaming studio album and I think we should do a live Quartet album”.
Order The Martin Hayes Quartet The Blue Room from martinhayes.com
Pre-Order Live at NCH here: http://smarturl.it/rw219