I fulfilled a lifelong ambition today and attended an Irish session. I've always wondered how different from an American-style jam they were and how well I would stay afloat in one. The answer to the first is: very; the answer to the second is: not well. It was a smashin' time, though, in a very comfortable pub downtown, and a great opportunity to take in some fantastic fiddling. The turn-out this evening was scarce on variety, consisting entirely of fiddlers and bodhran players (three of each, not counting me). The effect was pretty neat, especially since the bodran players did a good deal more than just keep the rhythm (which they did beautifully); they were much given to an almost melodic style of playing which chuckled through tight, treble phrases, plunging deliberately into dramatic low tones which one of the players admitted rather gleefully had something of a cannon shot about them.
In one of these sessions, unlike in American fiddle jams, nobody takes turns. Or, to be more precise, they take turns picking tunes, but not playing them. The leader (that is, whoever picked the tune) might start in by himself, but as the tune gathers momentum and the rest of the musicians recognize where it is going, they start coming in, and the music blossoms out, thick and rich. Each fiddler, of course, has a slightly different take on a piece, all of which generally complement each other when played together, but when you add in the drive of the bodhrans, whew! it is moving along! It was. . .big, almost a force of nature, like a wind blowing uninhibited across an ocean--or the ocean itself. The rolling wave of music might curl and crash, suddenly, hissing into a whispered sheen of foam as the leader changed tunes and the other players quieted to listen, but still it moved forward, and once more another tentative bow would feel out the tune, a bodhran player would carefully tap out the rhythm on his thigh, and bit by bit all the force would creep back in and the music would flow in full spate.
For myself, my bowing is going to take a lot of work to keep up in a setting like this, and the repitoire definitely needs a transfusion! I heard a lot of great new tunes, and wrote down the names to several I particularly liked. These were, as luck would have it, a collection which I am having small luck in tracking down so far, but here's a small taste, albeit not on fiddle. I liked this "Return to Milltown," for the drastic differences between the first part and the second, and have been able to find a very creditable accordion version here ("Return to Milltown" is the first tune, which lasts to about 1:05 of this set; the other two pieces are "Mulhaire's Reel" and "Golden Keyboard.")
Probably my favorite of the evening was "Myra's Jig," which you can hear on the MySpace page of an English trio called XYZ. I found out in trying to track it down that it is actually a Scottish tune, rather than Irish one, which is, perhaps an anticlimatic addendum after my intentions for adding variety to the repitoire. . .but it is awfully catchy!