[9 January 2014]
Irish music aficionados consider Liz Carroll one of today’s premier traditional Celtic fiddlers. Over the course of more than a dozen albums, both solo and with talented groups, Carroll impeccably plays old time music with heart and soul. The thing is, the not-so-secret reason behind her success has to do with her talent as a composer. She routinely uses something from the past and changes it. Thus, Carroll makes it her own through her whimsy and determination to create something special. She’s not so much a traditionalist as she is a creator of something new.
Consider the 12 tracks on her latest release, On the Offbeat. Carroll self-penned 11 and one half of the cuts, yet most Irish music enthusiasts would embrace this disc as traditional. That’s because Carroll writes in long-established forms, even as she changes them around. A good example of this can be heard on “Liam Childs/Balkin Balkan/ The E-B-E Reel”. She’s accompanied by a complement of strings including Sean Og Graham on guitar, Trevor Hutchinson on bass, Natalie Haas on cello and Winifred Horan on fiddle. Carroll states in her liner notes that the tunes were written to accompany a dance called “The Blooming Conductor”.
The song begins slowly and melodically as if an ancient air. Carroll plays long strokes in a seeming haphazard fashion that builds into something structural and defined. The impression is one of grandeur in the time-honored sense, as if we have always known the tune somewhere back in our subconscious memory. But then Carroll picks up the pace as if she’s a race horse flying around the track. The bow work is precise and elegant. The others complement her pace with flourishes and a foundation, but it’s Carroll’s fiddle that carries the movement. And then, as if the experience has removed one from the corporal world to a higher place, the fiddling becomes more shapely while never losing its intensity, thanks in part to Horan and others joining in stride. In roughly six and one half minutes, Carroll has spirited one away with a sound that seems simultaneously old-fashioned and modern.
Carroll has a sense of humor, which keeps things bright. She named a tune she had for a while “Barbara Streisand’s Trip to Saginaw” after learning the lodge where she stayed was also the place “that Babs herself stayed.” Incidentally, the cut is paired with “Michael Connell’s”, written for an old friend. The tune carries the weight of friendship graciously. Streisand may be a celebrity, but Connell seems more worth celebrating here. Carroll also imagines new tunes for Prokofiev’s “The Wolf/Duck”. The song breaks down into gypsy jazz styled rhythms as she explores the slyer natures of the wolf and then back into a more stolid duck march cadence. Carroll’s creativity smiles underneath.
However, Carroll often mixes moods to give a sense of reality to her flights of fancy. She may write and play beautifully about such eclectic topics as fishing, bar hopping, and yellow pantsuits. She may dream of fiddle heaven, fighting with grapefruits, and putting tinsel on the tree. Carroll’s fiddle transcends our verbal descriptions of ordinary visions and daily delusions into something more magical by asking us to notice the beauty of it all through her music.