CD Reviews: At It Again – John Carty
At it again, the whimsically titled new CD from multi-instrumentalist John Carty sees him this time eschewing banjo, flute and tenor guitar to instead confine his talents exclusively to the fiddle. On this recording he draws much of his repertoire from the region of North Connaught where he now lives, an area that produced fiddle legends like Coleman, Morrison and Killoran who were among the first traditional musicians to record (in the 1920s and 30s in New York).
Their influence on fiddle playing and traditional music as a whole has been enormous and similarly the influence of their music and in particular that of Michael Coleman on Carty is tangible. To this extent it may seem appropriate to describe Carty not only as a fine exponent of the Sligo style but also as a wonderful interpreter of Coleman’s music and the music of that generation. But while such music offers an essential point of reference, it might be unfair to listen to him in this context alone. For although this record offers much evidence of the cross-influence of technique and repertoire through which the style might be characterised, it is not the case that musical personality becomes wholly subjugated into its conventions or to the mimicry of another player.
Carty is constantly innovative in his playing, and although this expression is often heard in relation to traditional music, on this record (as with his previous recordings) the degree of such innovation sees that scarcely a bar goes by where he is not seeking a fresh perspective. It is an unrelenting approach in which invention is tirelessly exercised and where a great deal of expression is often turned out of a simple tune.
In relation to this, an interesting and succinct point was made in an article by composer and guitarist Benjamin Dwyer in the last issue of JMI. It postulated that it is the simplicity of structure characteristic of traditional music which serves as a necessarily limited framework for the player in which to explore the unlimited possibilities of re-interpretation. And it is this very characteristic that affords its practitioners the challenge of introducing and sustaining interest within formally limited material. For example, the often heard (attributed to whom, I can’t say), and admittedly tongue in cheek comment among traditional musicians that ‘there’s no such thing as a bad tune’, attests to this idea, the gist of which being that the quality of music produced by the player results mainly due to their own inventive abilities as opposed to some quality residing intrinsically within the material itself (conversely, a bad performance can destroy a tune!).
Of course, this is not to say that the choice of material is an arbitrary one and that there is no unique value to individual tunes (and hence versions of tunes) but it does serve as an exaggeration to emphasise the importance of individual performance in describing good traditional music. Tunes, even on a first hearing, can become familiar, but it is skill and imagination, within parameters of style, which make for compelling and interesting listening.
Carty shows no shortage of either while he also seems very aware of what exactly his music is about; he knows where each tune has come from, where he first heard it played, be it on a recording or live and whom he learned it from. Michael Coleman, Tom Morrison, Josie McDermott and Lad O’Beirne are among the older generation of musicians cited as direct sources of the tunes. He has also sourced several tunes from later generations represented by Seamus Tansey, Matt Molloy and John Wynne (interestingly all flute players) and from the same region of North Connaught as himself.
There is a true sense of focus surrounding the entire recording. He chooses guitar, bouzouki and keyboard as accompaniment while his brother James plays flute on two tracks. The familiarity of the material and the musicians he has gathered around him surely contribute a great deal to the confidence we hear in the music. Throughout, great performances of fiddle and tightly coordinated accompaniment are captured with a sense of unfaltering energy and excitement. There is an uninhibited atmosphere which often proves difficult to achieve for traditional musicians when they enter into a recording studio. Here the musicians sound like they’re enjoying the moment.
Published on 1 November 2003