‘Blue Room’ is meditative, but stirring

The Martin Hayes Quartet.

Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely

Is there a person more hard wired into the nuanced world of traditional music at this point than Martin Hayes? It seems like he lives on the bleeding edge these days, and the newly-released album “Blue Room” by the Martin Hayes Quartet simply provides more evidence that that notion is true.

Of course, Hayes is no stranger to greatness. He’s recorded several ground breaking solo albums, including “The Lonesome Touch” with Dennis Cahill, which is one of the most influential albums of the last 20 years, and also his group The Gloaming’s two albums (Hayes; Iarla Ó Lionáird, vocals; Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, hardanger d’amore; Dennis Cahill, guitar; and Thomas Bartlett, piano), which are similarly acclaimed. But he’s done other important things as well: he’s played and recorded with the Tulla Céilí Band (of which his father and uncle were founding members) and has been a part of more bespoke projects, like the “Triúr” series with Peadar Ó Riada and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, to take but two examples. He also curates the “Masters of Tradition Festival” at Bantry House in County Cork and has taken the show on the road with Ó Lionáird, Cahill, Maírtín O'Connor (accordion), Cathal Hayden (fiddle), Seamie O'Dowd (guitar) and David Power (uilleann pipes), again to critical acclaim.

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“The Blue Room” is yet another innovation. Recorded in the intimacy of Bantry House in Co. Cork, the quartet, which consists of Hayes, Dennis Cahill (guitar), Doug Weiselman (bass clarinet), and Liz Knowles (hardanger d’amore), is an intriguing crew with amazing chemistry that speaks to Hayes’s continued ability to find the right balance with every group he puts together.

Hayes and Cahill are, of course, one of the iconic duos in Irish music. Their work together is the stuff of legend and if you haven’t seen them live recently this album shows that they haven’t lost a beat. Their ability to lock down to each other, though, is the backbone of the quartet’s sound and a solid foundation on which to build.

To this they’ve added Weiselman’s bass clarinet, a defining piece that adds tremendously to the project. A jazz musician by trade, Weiselman is a versatile musician who not only plays in jazz and traditional settings, but also in pop and rock contexts. (Why, he even co-composes music for the show "The Backyardigans" with Evan Lurie on Nickelodeon!) He and Hayes have performed together since around 2013 and here, his bass clarinet undergirds the harmonies on each track with a deft – but more important, an understanding – melodic touch. It is a significant part of the quartet’s overall sound.

The album’s other cornerstone element is Knowles’s work on the hardanger d’amore (or the “5+5” as it’s sometimes known), a 10-string fiddle invented by Salve Håkedal but inspired by the Norwegian hardingfele. Producing a light drone as the player plays, it’s an instrument now common to many of Hayes’s and Hayes-adjacent projects. For example, listeners will recognize its signature sound from The Gloaming (played by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh), in the hands of with Cleek Schrey (who has collaborated with both Hayes and Ó Lionáird), and with Princeton-based composer Dan Trueman, who has worked with Hayes collaborators Ó Raghallaigh, Ó Lionáird, Schrey, and the poet Paul Muldoon.

But Knowles has her own highly developed approach to the instrument, developed, largely, in the context of her brilliant group Open the Door for Three (with Kieran O’Hare and Pat Broaders). However, it’s really her sensitivity to Hayes’s vision and to that of the other three musicians that allows her to shape the Quartet’s direction perfectly and thrive in the setting.

The music on “Blue Room” is something special. Lying somewhere between the meditative approach on “Lonesome Touch” and The Gloaming’s more experimental vibe, the album manages to find a fresh new take on the nuance in traditional music. Meditative but stirring, there’s great feeling between each of the players which renders the overall sound layered and very loose. There is a lot of contrast here, too, with periods of brooding darkness are countered by moments of ecstasy. Traditional music lovers will find the melodies here familiar and will be charmed by the direction the group takes them. Highly recommended! To purchase “Blue Room,” visit www.martinhayes.com. It is also available to stream on Spotify.

Daniel Neely writes about traditional music in the Irish Echo each week.