FolkWorld #81 11/2023
© Crossover Media

The Common Ground

Martin Hayes and The Common Ground Ensemble have released their debut album 'Peggy's Dream'. A master of the Irish fiddle, Martin Hayes is regarded as one of Ireland's leading musicians. He's also known for his wide-ranging collaborations, and here he brings together artists from the jazz, classical, and folk worlds, all with ties to Irish music, to explore their common tradition.

Martin Hayes

Artist Audio Martin Hayes & The Common Ground Ensemble "Peggy's Dream", 251 Records, 2023

The Common Ground Ensemble is English cellist Kate Ellis (Artistic Director of Crash Ensemble), Irish jazz pianist Cormac McCarthy (Peter Washington, Phil Woods), Irish traditional musician Brian Donnellan (bouzouki, concertina, harmonium, and like Hayes an alumnus of Hayes's father's Tulla Céilí Band), and New York guitarist Kyle Sanna (Bela Fleck, Chris Thile). Collectively they span the worlds of traditional, contemporary classical, jazz improvisation, and experimental music. These genres are forged with the Irish tradition and give each musician’s talents the space to shine.

A native of County Clare, Hayes has gained renown for his lyrical Clare-style fiddling, first learned from his father. His long standing duo with the late guitarist Dennis Cahill was groundbreaking in Irish music, and their experimental Irish-American group The Gloaming won Ireland's Mercury Choice Prize. Hayes went on to record with Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble (on the Grammy-winning album Sing Me Home) and string quartet Brooklyn Rider, and collaborated or performed with artists from Bill Frisell and Cassandra Wilson to Paul Simon, Sting, and Phoebe Bridgers.

The concept of the Common Ground Ensemble grew out of Hayes's many collaborations, including the unique groups he's formed while curating festivals at home. For this project, he wanted to bring together musicians from different backgrounds who also had connections to Irish music --- the 'common ground' of their name.

“As I began to get more comfortable with cross-genre collaborations, I started imagining what my most ideal and versatile musical combination might be,” says Hayes.

Martin Hayes

Artist Video Martin Hayes @ FROG

“I tend to gather a group of people together and just see what begins to emerge," he reflects. "I'll make a rough sketch of the mood, harmonies and arrangement which we then all fill out. The larger picture is to create space for all the different musical personalities to be expressed."

"And I wanted this group to be the most fun I can have while I’m on stage!" he adds.

As always, the music remains rooted in Hayes's East County Clare, and the nine tunes on the new album are all traditional or in the Irish canon. 'The Boyne Water' Hayes first heard from West Clare tin-whistle master Micho Russell. He played around with the tempo and keys, and the stately, somber tone seems to fit the tune's origins, which he discovered later -- that of a Protestant 'marching' tune dating back to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Hayes had previously recorded with his late father PJ Hayes, a renowned fiddler in his own right. And the airy jig 'Cá Bhfuil an Solas' (Where is the light?) was written by Martin's friend Peadar Ó Riada, son of the influential Irish composer Seán Ó Riada. Hayes and Peadar first recorded the tune a decade ago as Triúr, their trio with fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh of The Gloaming.

'Peggy's Dream' was sent to Hayes after his mother Peggy had passed, by Australian/Irish guitarist Steve Cooney who'd found it in Ireland's Goodman collection of 19th-century traditional tunes. As an album title, Hayes notes, it seemed to reflect the feel of the album.

The album is dedicated to Peggy, a lifelong supporter of Hayes's music, and to guitarist Dennis Cahill. "Dennis had a very significant impact on me musically," Hayes concludes. "Even though he's not on this recording, he's had a deep influence on how it's arranged and interpreted."

More on Martin Hayes

Martin Hayes was born and raised in a locality filled with music in East County Clare, Ireland. His father, P.J. Hayes, and uncle, Paddy Canny were both renowned fiddle players and founder members of The Tulla Ceìlì Band -- the same group that both Martin and Brian Donnellan have played in.

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill

Hayes was always passionate about music but it was not a career path he intended to take. “I always loved it but I didn’t want the precarious life that often comes with being a professional musician. I was good at it and identified with it more than anything else in my life. In retrospect I was very lucky that a career emerged even if I hadn’t planned it.”

By his late teens, Hayes had been named the All-Ireland Fiddle Champion seven times and by his early twenties had relocated to Chicago. The Windy City’s Irish music scene was strong, yet Hayes discovered something new about himself. “I liked reaching outside of the world of traditional music and it was there that my first adventurous collaboration and lifetime friendship with Dennis Cahill began in a band called Midnight Court.”

He met countless new musicians, discovered new bands and engaged in some unlikely recording sessions. “Some of them were very loud and rock ‘n’ roll, but I’d get through it somehow and I always learned from the experience. Even if the lesson was, don’t do that again,” he chuckles. “It’s an important idea to me to be open-minded and not shut the door on things that I’m not familiar with or do not fully understand.”

He has recorded solo albums and with Dennis Cahill, The Gloaming, The Martin Hayes Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, Triúr, and Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble; collaborations including with Bill Frisell, Cassandra Wilson, Ricky Skaggs, and Spanish viola da gamba master Jordi Savall; and performances with Paul Simon, Sting, Phoebe Bridgers, as well as many of Irish traditional music's greats including Máirtin O Connor and Steve Cooney.

Martin has been recognised as Musician of the Year (Gradam Ceoil) from Irish TV TG4 and from the inaugural BBC Folk Awards and also Instrumentalist of the Year at the inaugural RTE Folk Awards. He was namec Person of the Year by the American Irish Historical Society in New York City and is recipient of the annual Spirit of Ireland award from the Irish Arts Center NY. He and Cahill performed for President Obama and dignitaries both at the White House and the US Capitol Building in March, 2011. He received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from National University of Ireland Galway.

Photo Credits: Martin Hayes: (1)-(2) unknown/website; (3) by Walkin' Tom.

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