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Kevin Burke’s new album is entitled, Suite. The first thing you are going to have to do is drop the idea that you know what a Kevin Burke album will sound like. Any reader of this site knows, or should know, who Kevin Burke is. The credentials speak for themselves. Of course, he was the fiddler for the iconic Bothy Band of the early 70’s. The Bothy Band was one of the progenitors of a resurgent traditional music era that has only grown since the band was joined by the likes of Planxty and DeDannan in re-energizing the form. The reader is also aware of Patrick Street, another touchstone of modern traditional music. In the mid-80’s, the group was the hottest thing on the scene, and their first two albums, especially, are still being studied and emulated by a wide host of younger musicians. At the epicenter of both groups was Kevin Burke. His light, yet perfectly rhythmic bow technique and musical phraseology is the starting point for literally thousands of fiddlers who have been influenced by his musical taste. But, to a large extent, forget all that. This is no historical review of those groups or Kevin’s career. This is about today, and it is about Suite.
There are nine instrumentals on the album. Five of them are typical in the respect that they feature Kevin’s deft traditional hand at work. In three of those tunes he is joined by the group, Beoga. “I met them a few years ago during a tour of Germany,” reminisces Kevin. “ I remember thinking ‘Wow! What a group!’ I really enjoyed their style and approach. I knew I wanted them to be a part of this album.” Joined by Suite co-creator and musician Cal Scott on guitar, almost all the tunes in these five cuts are by Cal or Kevin. Very traditional in flavor. They range from the lilting, Stella’s Waltz to an opening set of three jigs, featuring a tune penned by Kevin, one by Cal and one by the late Seamus Creagh. In fact, nothing comes more naturally to Cal Scott than penning new music. He has written scores for movies, and over 50 PBS programs and documentaries! A co-resident with Kevin of Portland, Oregon, it was, in fact, one of those documentaries where Cal first met Kevin in 1995. Entitled, The Road to Bloody Sunday, the film concerned that infamous Sunday during The Troubles. “I was well aware of Kevin, and wanted him in a featured musical role for the program, and we have been friends ever since,” reflects Cal.
For years then, the two had been discussing an idea formed in Kevin’s mind for a long time. That idea was the mixing of Irish traditional and classical music. Trained classically as a young man in his native London by his fondly remembered teacher, Jesse Christopherson, Kevin used his classical training as a parentally encouraged entry point to traditional music. “I was studying classical music, sort of like doing my homework. Then on the weekend, it was off to constant sessions like those held at The White Hart,” remembers Kevin. Surely, that early classical training was a crucial element to the famous Burke approach of the gentle bow combining with his well known swing and lift in the music. Like the center of a large circle, the Cal and Kevin’s conversations would return and return to the essential idea—the combination of classical and Irish traditional music. Ideas began to take on a more concrete form. Specifics emerged, not just the concept anymore, but a gathering plan and approach. Of course, this is easy to write down in a sentence but there were hundreds of conversations involved over several years. This was to be no hastily thrown together collection of tunes with some offbeat gimmick. This was, actually, a scholarly approach to the whole project. It is also easy to say, “let’s combine classical and trad.”
But, how? What trad, and what classical? “We ended up fusing the ideas around what now seems like a natural decision, to combine traditional music with a chamber quartet,” says Kevin. This is unique. Altan’s recently released 25th anniversary album features a mix of their tunes and songs with the RTE orchestra backing them up. The West Ocean String Quartet in Ireland is a famous working chamber group, but it does not utilize traditional music, as such. “I had the idea,” continues Kevin, “that I wanted to merge the chamber orchestra approach with real Irish session tunes. Famous tunes. That way, if all this worked out, no one could say we had taken the easy way out by recording some O’Carolan or O’Riada tunes.” Cal adds, “Haydn developed the string quartet in the 1750’s which was also a time when there was a great deal of music coming forth in the Irish forms of the day, so this is not as far a stretch as it might seem. We decided each tune would be interesting in and of itself, all with different keys and ambiences in a harmonic approach.” Kevin laughs, “We wanted to make it so natural that you could actually envision going to a session and having a chamber orchestral tune break out!”
As stated earlier, this is a lot easier to write about and remember than the actual doing of it. Cal Scott is an immaculate arranger, and so each note, each key, each shift was well considered before being added. Two violins---one of them Kevin, a viola and a cello do not exactly scream, “Irish Trad!!!” Probably the biggest compliment to this whole creation would be that when heard, there is an ease of one form complementing the other. This is due to a lot of work and arranging by Cal and the perfectly suitable playing of Kevin. It would seem on the surface, that Kevin’s style of playing would be perfectly suited to the chamber orchestra format. Well, it would seem that way, “Actually, I had to really power up my playing, “says Kevin. “Classical music is now played very forcefully, and a chamber orchestra can really blow you out of the studio if you are not ready!”
So. Three tunes with Beoga, including Cal Scott on guitar. Then, the four movements of the suite, as in the album title. The album, and its full context, must be taken as a whole. This is, actually, two albums in one. To hear reels such as The Boys of Ballisadore and The Galway Rambler mixing with the hornpipe, Kitty O’Neill and the air, Cailin Deas Cruithena mBo is a treat. To hear how naturally the two forms mix is a miracle. And, like almost all miracles, it was brought on by a lot of sweat. This is a groundbreaking and original album, centering around a couple of very old forms of music. As with all innovative creations that work, the listener will wonder why this all took so long. Well, the important thing is that it is here now. Available through Loftus Music at loftusmusic.com or kevinburke.com.
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