Category: Archive

Trad Beat Eileen Ivers enters the majors

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

CROSSING THE BRIDGE, by Eileen Ivers, Sony Classical SK 60746.

From a sheer technical viewpoint, fiddler Eileen Ivers, born in the Bronx of parents from Mayo, has very few peers on her instrument. By the time she copped her seventh All-Ireland fiddle title 15 years ago, the "Riverdance" star was already a fully established virtuoso in Irish traditional music, capable of some of the best bowing in the business.

Her two solo albums and one duet album with button accordionist John Whelan for Green Linnet Records enhanced that reputation while she continued to explore multicultural music in addition to the Irish tradition she grew up with. Blending these diverse, often disparate kinds of music is tricky, however. Fusion can easily lead to confusion, boldness to blare.

There’s certainly some grating blare on "Crossing the Bridge," her major-label solo debut. The initial track, "Gravelwalk," is traditional, but it soon slips into a dinning mélange propelled by her electric fiddle wah-wahing like a Telecaster, backed by the full drum kit of ex-Stuff member Steve Gadd and the synthesizer playing of Jeff Bova. It sounds like a souped-up cut from "Lord of the Dance," ironically enough, and is only partly rescued by an intriguing interlude from Ivers on acoustic fiddle and Seamus Egan on flute.

Ivers’s electric fiddle playing on "March Up Fifth," which at times tries to call up the cadence of the St. Patrick’s Day parade march up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, likewise loses focus. "Bygone Days," which previously appeared on a Windham Hill recording, features fine acoustic fiddling from Ivers that is, unfortunately, framed by a too-lush ambient backdrop complete with string swells more appropriate for a film soundtrack.

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The title cut is clever in its segue from a simulated scratchy 78-rpm-like opening on flute and uilleann pipes to a hip-hop street beat laced with the trumpet playing of jazz fusionist Randy Brecker. But even this cut, bridging the Coleman-Morrison era and today’s high-tech studio sophistication, tends to meander.

Faring far better on the fusion front is "Whiskey & Sangria," an intoxicating blend of Irish, Spanish flamenco, and jazz. Ivers’s tour de force fiddling is expertly complemented by fellow "Riverdance" colleague Maria Pagés’s dancing feet, L.A. session percussionist Alex Acuña on shakers, and especially Al Di Meola. Former guitarist with Chick Corea’s influential Return to Forever, Di Meola is completely comfortable with flamenco, having incorporated it into his own playing back in the late 1970s, and he surely shines here.

Another captivating fusion track is "Islanders." Its Caribbean flavor is piqued by some pizzicato on Ivers’ fiddle, the tenor banjo playing of Egan, and a horn section headed by ex-Blood, Sweat and Tears trumpeter Lew Soloff, along with Manhattan session trombonist Jim Pugh and saxophonist Lawrence Feldman.

Engaging African rhythms swirl throughout "Jama," while a touch of Appalachian hoedown invigorates the Irish traditional "Bunch of Keys." On this latter cut, Ivers’s fiddle, Egan’s banjo, John Doyle’s acoustic guitar, Tommy Hayes’s percussion, and former Breakfast Special member Stacy Phillips’s resophonic (mislabeled "resonator") guitar, or dobro, create a truly seamless bridge between Irish and bluegrass.

But it’s the more straightforwardly arranged trad tracks that showcase Ivers at her best. On "polka.com," Ivers’s fiddling and Hayes’s bodhrán playing engage in a playful call-and-response sequence that’s irresistible. "Crowley’s/Jackson’s" displays a lot of flash in her fiddling, and it works extremely well, helped by Doyle’s hard-driving guitar playing and Hayes’s bodhrán playing. And set against Jerry O’Sullivan’s pipe drone on "Dear Irish Boy" is Ivers’s exquisite rendition of a slow-tempo traditional melody, her last breath audible at the end.

Offering something for everyone, "Crossing the Bridge" captures Eileen Ivers at her most adventurous and audacious, forging music of far-reaching taste. It’s a bridge with a few fissures showing in its spans, but what an impressive view it provides of this fiddler’s indisputably dazzling talent.

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