By Earle Hitchner
CELTIC JAZZ COLLECTIVE. At The Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th St., NYC. May 27, 8 p.m. show.
Moving Hearts tried to bridge rock and trad, the Pogues, punk and trad, and Davy Spillane and Tim O’Brien, Irish and American traditional music. But few performers –including Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin with his Hiberno-Jazz forays and, more recently, Matt Darriau with his Celtic Eclectic band — have tried mixing jazz and Irish music.
Perhaps it’s such an incongruous idea, wedding a music (jazz) heavily reliant for its excitement on sustained improvisation to a music (Irish traditional) that often places a premium on melodies performed with little or no improvisation in group settings.
Of all the serious attempts to marry these two distinct genres of music, seemingly at odds in purpose, Dublin-born guitarist David O’Rourke and American drummer Lewis Nash have come closest to succeeding or, at least, creating an intriguing, fresh sound with their Celtic Jazz Collective.
There’s more Jim Hall and Barney Kessel than Charlie Christian and John Scofield in O’Rourke’s guitar playing, warm and silky in tone and subtle in effects. In Lewis Nash, who played in pianist Tommy Flanagan’s trio, O’Rourke has found an ideal complement of lean-muscled, empathetic drumming, and fellow Tommy Flanagan trio veteran Peter Washington on bass deepens the swing without resorting to thumpish licks. (To hear how well these two interacted with Flanagan, check out their superb 1997 album "Sea Changes" on Evidence Records.) Expertly rounding out this jazz nucleus were Fintan O’Neill on piano and Steve Kroon on various percussion instruments.
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The Irish traditional musicians showcased this night (earlier in the week, concertinist Niall Vallely performed, and Cherish the Ladies’ flutist Joanie Madden made a surprise appearance) were Paddy Keenan on uilleann pipes and low whistle, Marie Reilly on fiddle, and her brother, Martin, on button accordion. Though it took them a while to become fully comfortable with delivering extensive solos against a jazz rhythm backdrop, they eventually embraced the format, which must have been alternately intimidating and liberating to them.
Martin Reilly invested a new vigor in the "Munster Hornpipe" to the accompaniment of Nash on brushes, Kroon, and Washington, whose own solo was exceptional. Keenan’s piping on the "Belfast Hornpipe" was a marvel of detailed fingering, succeeded by O’Rourke on guitar, then O’Neill on piano, then Kroon on an exotic array of percussion, and they all joined together at the end.
Marie Reilly displayed tasty ornamentation on two tunes — one by Ed Reavy, the other by Liz Carroll — that led into her brother’s playing of a Tom Doherty tune that, in turn, segued into "The Donegal Traveler" featuring both siblings in impressive sync. "Johnny’s Tune," a haunting slow air performed by Keenan on low whistle and dedicated to his late brother, was beautifully framed by Kroon’s light percussion and Nash’s soft malleting.
Most transfixing of all, though, was the tender treatment of "How Great Thou Art" by O’Rourke on guitar, followed by an equally moving rendition of "Sweet Hour of Prayer" by Keenan on low whistle. In a night filled with frequently provocative arrangements of Irish traditional melodies laced with jazz rhythms and battened by jazz harmonies, a spiritual summit was reached through this inspired pairing of melodies drawn from church and gospel music.
David O’Rourke and Lewis Nash have fashioned something special in their Celtic Jazz Collective, a good working title for a good working concept still short of complete cohesion. In time, that should come.