Being one of the three great pillars of traditional music; song and dance being the other two, it is only fitting that four pillars of traditional musicianship should come together and record an album simply called ‘Tunes’. Sharon Shannon, Frankie Gavin, Mike McGoldrick and Jim Murray are the four individuals of incomparable ability and style behind ‘Tunes’. Just released, it is a wide ranging take on traditional music from the ancient Irish tradition to traditional Asturian melodies, Scottish tunes, American old timey tunes and newly composed music from each of the artists themselves. The melodic nature of the album is what hits the listener first coupled with the ease with which this foursome blend in instrumentation and style - Jim Murray’s deft guitar, Mike McGoldrick’s bubbling flute and whistles, Sharon’s joyful and exuberant accordion and Frankie’s energetic fiddle.
Catching up with this busy quartet was a task in itself with Sharon and Jim touring in Scotland, and Frankie Gavin heading to London to do a show with Ronnie Wood. Mike, unfortunately was a bit too far away on tour in Australia with Capercaillie. It gives you an idea of how amazing it was that they were able to get together in the first place to plan and complete this project.
“It never was an idea to start a new fancy band” says Sharon Shannon, “because we’re all really busy doing our own thing. We just thought it would be a good idea to do a nice album of the music we really enjoyed playing together.”
“It’s a new departure” adds Frankie Gavin, whose appetite for new musical associations and projects is insatiable. “It’s an interesting combination, it works well and it’s pretty tight. We’ve had a very good response so far.” The four living legends of Irish traditional music would have known one another before this but rarely if ever would have played together formally. “I did have a few sessions with Mike but that was few and far between, I did a good few sessions with Sharon” he continues, “but rarely any gigs. We all adapt to one another’s playing very well and to make it work in a band, you really have to give and take and hear each other’s style.”
“Jim plays with me all the time” says Sharon, “and we’ve had loads of sessions with Mike over the years at various festivals around Europe and Brittany, everywhere! In the last year I’ve played a lot with Frankie at sessions in Galway, The Crane, Tigh Cóilí’s and in The Cottage. I was a huge fan of those early DeDannan albums growing up and playing with Frankie now is great, his music is so fiery and he’s good company and fun to be with.”
‘Tunes’ was recorded over sessions in August, December and January last. “The mix of the four of us was great” says Jim Murray. “We did stuff together that maybe none of us would have done on our own. It was like a mixture of the different influences and what different people wanted to do.” Jim arranged all the backing on the recording, putting down the guitars and arranging the bass lines and percussion. Tony Molloy on bass, John Joe Kelly on bodhrán and James Mackintosh on percussion came in to add their parts and also appeared at their Celtic Connections debut gig.
Mike McGoldrick, one of the most energetic and creative instrumentalists today, was certainly an inspiration to all the musicians during this project. “He’s a great musician” says Frankie, “he can play everything very well.” Sharon adds to that, “He has a really great understanding of the music and he has such a brilliant attitude, very fresh. Every time we meet he’s mad to play tunes.” Jim Murray appreciated Mike’s broad musical tastes. “Mike is a great man for the groove and I’d be into that myself. I really enjoyed doing Fred Morrison’s tune ‘The Lochaber Badger’, I’m into funk music and I got a chance with tunes like that to do what I’d like to do with it”
Jim Murray is often compared with Steve Cooney and it is often assumed that he learnt his music from him. While Steve certainly did influence him, they never engaged in formal lessons. Jim, a native of Macroom, actually started playing accordion as a child, moving onto the guitar under the influence of his science teacher in school. He played piano in his Dad’s band before forming his own band ‘The Living Tradition’. “The turning point for me was seeing Steve Cooney playing” he says. “I had never seen anyone accompany Irish music with a guitar like that before and it was a massive inspiration for me. Talking to Steve he did give me great ideas. I was playing steel stringed guitar at the time and he did influence me to try the nylon.” Frankie Gavin describes Jim as having “a beautiful style, his own style, people might compare him but I think he’s a unique creature and lovely guy to work with.”
While on the outside, some of us might think these kind of projects just happen between musicians of this calibre, there’s a lot of work involved as well. Frankie gives credit to Mike, Sharon and Jim for doing most of that. “I have to say Sharon, Mike and Jim did most of the work for the album. I contributed a few tunes here and there, and we all contributed compositions. It’s nice to incorporate fresh material, it’s a nice kind of mixture and there’s a good flow to it. It’s very different to anything else that’s out there.”
The process of selecting the music for the album took some time, “We had a few rehearsals in my house in Galway” explains Sharon, “and every tune that came into our heads, even if it had been recorded a hundred times before, we recorded them on our own little walkmans and wrote them all down. I’d say we had 150 tunes altogether. Then I grouped them into jigs, reels, hornpipes and unusual tunes and then we narrowed them down to our favourite ones. Then it was another big job to group them into sets.”
The resulting selection is a happy melodic mix of old and new incorporating newly composed tunes from each of the musicians as well. The opening set includes one of Frankie’s compositions, ‘The Cappataggle Shuffle’. “When I first heard the name Cappataggle, it was Patsy Broderick who mentioned it, I thought it was such a quirky name. I said that if ever I write a tune I’m going to call it The Cappataggle Shuffle, so it’s in there.”
Sharon’s two tunes have titles that yield up funny stories. ‘Mickey Joe Mike’s’ is named after Mike McGoldrick who got nicknamed Mickey Joe Mike after a visit to the local pub when taking a breather from the recording work (catch the live gig to hear the full story) “The Diddeley-i-Pod” is another tune with a quirky name, about which Sharon says, “well I got an iPod but I haven’t a clue how to work it!”
Jim Murray’s ‘Summer’s Coming’ was written with the four musicians and the recording in mind. “There’s lots of spaces,” explains Jim, “it’s not like a straight tune, a jig, there are pauses and the idea was it could be filled up. I think it gave everyone room to do their stuff.”
Mike’s ‘Road to Corrandulla’ is obviously a tribute to his west of Ireland home and ‘The Bass Rock’ is a beautiful slow tune played on whistle. Several of the tunes on the album were played in Bflat, giving a very mellow tone to those sets. Sharon got a B flat accordion from the accordion maker Michael Searson, Mike plays a big Bb flute which sounds beautiful too and during the recording they tuned down Frankie’s fiddle. The first two tracks on the album and Donald Shaw’s tune ‘Calum’s Road’ are some of the tunes in Bflat which add another dimension to the recording and is part of the reason the album sounds so fresh. In good session style the final tune on the album is – can you guess? - ‘The Bucks of Oranmore’.
The ‘Tunes’ quartet have already received enthusiastic reviews for their live performance at the Celtic Connections festival in Scotland in January this year. They have an Irish tour lined up for May and will be appearing at some prestigious gigs in England, including a double bill with the Gypsy Kings and a visit to Glastonbury. High heels to wellies and shocking good music along the way. They might have no intention of forming or being a ‘band’ as such but a world tour would be the only decent thing for this bunch to do, the music and the overall vibe is just too good to miss – c’mon guys…