Rhythm, Phrasing Key to NicGaviskey Sound

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Originally published in the Irish Echo, July 11-17, 2012.

In July, NicGaviskey – one of the very finest pure drop trad groups playing today – is doing a brief and rare tour of the United States.  Comprising four young players, two from Ireland, two from America, the quartet met in the Catskills in 2009 and found they shared an unusual bond that illuminates their music.  NicGaviskey’s upcoming tour, which will take the group through Michigan, New York and New Hampshire, is something traditional music lovers everywhere should catch if they can.
NicGaviskey’s members are Sean McComiskey on button accordion, Caitlín Nic Gabhann on concertina, Bernadette Nic Gabhann on fiddle and Sean Gavin on flute.  “All of us were brought up in incredibly thoughtful musical environments,” McComiskey explained.  “We all had one or more family members with well thought out ideas of what irish traditional music is, and what it’s supposed to sound like.”  And what environments these were to grow up in: Sean’s father is the Baltimore-based accordion legend Billy McComiskey, Caitlín and Bernadette’s (concertina and fiddle, respectively) father is the highly influential player and teacher from Cavan, Antóin Mac Gabhann, and Sean Gavin’s father Mick, is a well-respected fiddle player, now in Detroit but originally from Co. Clare.
I asked Sean Gavin’s brother Pat – who is close with the band – for an insider’s perspective about what he and his brother might have learned growing up in such a musical environment.  He explained that “our father always taught us that technical ability is not as important as either rhythm or phrasing, or how the tune is ‘put’ to the audience.  In fact, technicality for technicality’s sake can even take away from the music as it should be played.”  Rhythm and phrasing are also primary to McComiskey’s playing, who feels “NicGaviskey’s rhythm is the tightest I’ve ever experienced with anybody,” and a major reason why the group’s music comes together so well.
 While this rhythm is captured well on their 2010 album “Home Away From Home,” it’s best experienced live.  Cleveland’s Brian Holleran once famously quipped that a NicGaviskey show is “the coolest session ever, but on stage.”  Caitlín echoed this sentiment, explaining “we have great craic whenever we meet up because we play as friends rather than as a band that’s just been thrown together.”  Ultimately, McComiskey feels the craic is an important part of what attracts people to their gigs, because it helps audiences “feel less like we’re putting on a show so much as we’re laughing and goofing off between tunes.”  It’s something that hints at the closeness and affection the group’s members have for each other, and points to the fun audiences will have experiencing the band in person.
All the group’s members are involved in other projects.  McComiskey is a member of the Old Bay Ceili Band, Gavin is a member of the great Chicago-based group Bua, and Bernadette has not only played with Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance,” but is involved with various solo endeavors.  
Finally, though, there’s Caitlín whose most recent project is a newly-released solo album simply called “Caitlín” (pronounced “Cotchleen”).  It’s a stunning effort full of lively dance music that will delight anyone who loves Irish traditional music and dance.
On “Caitlín,” Nic Gabhann not only leans on her father’s musical influence, but on that of her mother as well.  “In the house we grew up in,” she explained, “we were raised to play for dancing.  My mother was from Clare and was a set dancer.”  Not only is this terpsichorean influence evident on the tracks on which Nic Gabhann dances (a relatively unusual element that is employed here with with restraint and great taste), it’s acknowledged in her playing in general and through Nic Gabhann’s own composition “A Tune for Bernie,” which was written for her mother.
Nic Gabhann has light, swift touch in her playing that makes her melodies seem to dance over the strong rhythmic element in her music.  Tracks like “The Flying Column / …” and “I Was Born For Sport / …” really show this off, while the enchanting waltz “Heartstrings” (another Nic Gabhann composition) provides great contrast.  Here, in particular, Caoimhin Ó Fearghail’s smart, understated guitar accompaniment sits well, but indeed his lightly percussive approach complements Nic Gabhann’s playing throughout the entire CD.
NicGaviskey will perform in Kalamazoo, MI (July 24th), Ann Arbor, MI (July 25th), Buffalo, NY (July 26th);, Albany, NY (July 27th), Dover, NH (July 28th) and Pearl River, NY (July 29th).  For more details and to buy their album, visit www.nicgaviskey.com.  To learn more about and to buy Caítlin Nic Gabhann’s album, visit caitlin.ie.
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Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts