Cathal Hayden possesses a commanding technique.
By Daniel Neely
The other week I was handed a copy of Cathal Hayden’s brand new solo banjo album “Hooked on Banjo” and it’s proven a tough one to put down. Filled with brilliant ideas and superior playing, it’s an album that appeals to my own personal love for the instrument, but it’s also one that I think will have broad appeal within and beyond Irish music because of its easy appeal – is an absolute cracker.
From the village of the Rock, outside Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone, Hayden is one of the great musicians in Irish music today. He’s the product of a musical family – Hayden’s mother was a pianist, his father played both banjo and fiddle, and both his grandfathers also played fiddle – and indeed, the house in which he was raised was a destination for musicians from all over Ireland, a circumstance that doubtlessly helped the young Cathal mature and led him both to multiple All-Irelands and later, a string of next-level albums.
With “Hooked on Banjo,” we have further evidence of Hayden’s musical prowess. “Hooked” is an album that not only maintains the incredibly high musical standard the musician is known for, but it’s one that perhaps builds on it. Here, Hayden finally takes a full album to explore the banjo’s expressive possibilities, and in doing so he makes a real statement about the instrument’s creative range.
Hayden possesses a commanding technique and an adventurous, extremely sophisticated style that give his music a natural sense of flow and dynamics. While inventive variation and complex ornamentation are hallmarks of his approach, the thing that is most compelling about his playing is how effortlessly and naturally he brings all of these elements together. It’s brilliant to listen to.
Hayden has a top group of musicians joining him here, most (if not all) of whom he’s recorded and toured with before. They include Seamie O’Dowd (guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, bass, harmonica), Seán Óg Graham (guitar, bouzouki), John Joe Kelly (bodhrán), Brian McGrath (piano), Arty McGlynn (guitar), Mártín O’Connor (button accordion), Kevin Doherty (vocals, guitar), James Delaney (piano), Nicky Scott (bass), and Niall Murphy (fiddle). Each guest musician here makes a very positive contribution and enhances Hayden’s playing wonderfully.
The quality here is apparently from the outset. “Gortavale Rock,” the album’s first track, is an astounding Hayden original. The control he shows over his instrument is awe-inspiring and his ideas bowl me over. Chromatic passing notes, blue notes, syncopated runs? They’re all in there, each leading Hayden temporarily away from the “tune” into some sparkling sonic territory before he jumps effortlessly back into line. O’Dowd’s backing here adds an important harmonic dimension that might not be the purest of drops, but this is an album less about musical orthodoxy than about creative expression, which is something this track exudes completely.
Indeed, my comments here about Hayden’s playing on this one track are characteristic of each of them. And while this is what gives the album its life, it’s Hayden’s overall vision that gives it its soul. Take “Ocean Jigs,” for example, a track that features a pair of Mairtin O’Connor originals. These uncommon tunes are given a somewhat restrained treatment when compared to “Gortavale,” and show a different side to Hayden’s playing. They contrast starkly with “Medina” and “Carolan’s Concerto,” both of which express a baroque sensibility. And while the latter is a superbly realized composition of Turlough Carolan, the former is a newly-composed piece by Brendan O’Regan that is unlike anything else on the album. So, while each track is great individually, it’s the sum of the album’s parts that makes it indeed quite impressive.
The album gets a bit of variety from “The Flood,” a vocal track featuring the singer Kevin Doherty. The arrangement possess a kind of summer-y, tropical feel complemented perfectly by a lyrical approach reminiscent of Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. Very interesting stuff indeed!
This album is a benchmark effort in banjo playing, but Hayden’s virtuosity is not the first thing (or even necessarily “a” thing) one thinks of while listening to it. Hayden’s playing is most certainly sophisticated and inventive, but the deep musicality he brings to the project is what takes center stage and ultimately the thing I think will attract a hopefully wide listenership. “Hooked on Banjo” is a superior album and definitely one for the collection! For more info about Hayden, his music and the album, visit cathalhaydenmusic.com.