Liz Carroll & John Doyle: In Play

Liz Carroll & John Doyle
In Play

Critics have applauded the playing of Chicago-born fiddler Liz Carroll for decades. She won the prestigious Senior All-Ireland Championship while only a lass of 18, which was an unusual feat considering both her young age and her American nationality. Carroll has won considerable praise for her instrumental abilities over the past three decades, but what often goes unnoted is her creative talents. Simply put, she has written some great modern tunes in traditional Celtic styles.

John Doyle knows this. The former guitarist from Solas has worked with Carroll for years and co-produced her last solo album, Lake Effect. The Irish-born Doyle has publicly stated his admiration for Carroll’s compositions. Although the two have performed together before, this marks their first official recorded collaboration as a duo. Their new disc features 21 original Carroll instrumentals, five traditional songs arranged by Carroll and Doyle, one Carroll/Doyle title, one Doyle tune, and one by tin whistler Johnny Harling. The result is a rich and varied collection of reels, jigs, hornpipes, airs, waltzes, polkas spiritedly played with élan, care and precision.

You don’t have to be Irish to value the artistry here, anymore than one has to be Gaelic to appreciate the smoothness of good Irish whiskeys. And like a good shot of Bushmill or Jameson, the blended musical flavors of Carroll and Doyle goes down easy and still has a kick to it. The two artists deftly play their instruments, even when playing fast paced reels, such as the trilogy “Freemont Center / The ‘Vornado’ / Minutemen”. The three pieces flow into a single, effervescent track. The cut begins with Doyle playing a catchy staccato guitar riff before Carroll’s fiddle starts to weave itself in and out of the stringed percussion. Then the two take the performance to a higher level by creating polyrhythms and melodies that seem to emerge, disappear and then reemerge in a variety of fanciful ways. The three songs combined take up a total of four and a half minutes, which seems much too short. In particular, one wishes Carroll’s fiddle playing would never end.

The fiddle is the musical instrument that most resembles the human voice. Carroll’s fiddle sings nonverbally but still clearly communicates. Carroll lets the bow glide while her fingers do the talking. Her playing evokes heartfelt longing, such as on the air “A Long Night on the Misty Moor” (based on a line in Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf), recalls feelings of delight, as on the humorously entitled hornpipe “The Man With One Kidney”, or recalls the more subtle sentiment of grace, as with the pair of jigs “Dennehey Dancers / The McSweeney Side”. The fact that Carroll composed all of these songs attests to her talents as a writer and a player. Doyle takes a secondary role on these, and indeed most of the tracks on the disc, but he does a fine job of keeping the tempo for Carroll to swing on. His foundation allows her to soar.

Other stand out cuts include the bouncy reels “Smokies in Arbroath / Mystery Writer / The Blessings of Gold”, the soft air “The Islands of Woods”, and the lively polkas “Kieran’s Polka / The Bike to Ballyahill”. While each of these tracks differs in style, they share a common sensibility. Carroll and Doyle carefully articulate each note and let each one breathe. The music resonates with a kind of beauty and elegance.

Think of it metaphorically. Imagine sipping some good Irish whiskey. One can taste the barley, even if one has never seen or bitten into a grain before. The balance of flavors creates a tangy, clean feeling in the mouth. One can savor the sweetness, although there is no sugar or honey present in the mix, and enjoy the pepper and spiciness, again of nonexistent ingredients. The color and aroma give pleasure, but precisely why is not clear either. Alcohol is colorless, and the amber hue is one normally associated with urine more than something one drinks. The smell is complex, but not one people usually think of as aromatic. To put it simply, whiskey is a mystery. The more one dissects it to learn what makes it special, the less inviting it may appear. But to many (including myself), whiskey is the nectar of the gods. The same is true of good Irish music, including this excellent disc. Sure it’s just a bunch of strings being fingered, strummed, and bowed in odd rhythms and configurations. But that’s the magic of the thing. And it’s a glorious mystery at that.

RATING 8 / 10