Andy Lamy wields ‘The New Blackthorn Stick’

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How it’s (New York) New Jersey: Andy Lamy lives in Maplewood, NJ, and plays for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra   blackthorncover
How it’s Irish: Andy plays Irish trad on the clarinet

A version of this article was first published in Irish Music Magazine’s August 2015 edition.

Andy Lamy (pronounced Lay-my) has clarinet playing in his genes: his father played the clarinet. Hi grandfather played the clarinet. His great-grandfather played the clarinet. The Maplewood resident plays clarinet with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO).

Sometimes in a session I will be playing and the fiddles are all looking at me and their hair is singed.

But Andy, who is also a composer and a self-described “birdhead” who writes music inspired by birdsong and even leads birding tours, has broken some new ground by playing Irish trad. Or perhaps it’s old ground: Andy points out that

lamyPaddy Killoran’s Ceili band of the 1930s had clarinet and saxophone players.

 His new CD “The New Blackthorn Stick” (available at andylamyclarinet.com; Andy’s classical site is halcyontrio.com) is a collection of traditional and newly-composed tunes that incorporate w “who’s who” of American and some Irish players: Greg Anderson, Mary Bergin, Floriane Blancke, Dermot Byrne, Donie Carroll, Brian Conway, Kevin Crawford, Gabriel Donohue, Dylan Foley, Steve Holloway, Patrick Mangan, John Nolan, Merry O’Sullivan, Haley Richardson, John Walsh, John Whelan, Jimmy Musto, Mike Stewart and Jonathan Storck. Stewart and Storck play with Lamy in NJSO.

The album is not a showcase of “this is what the clarinet can do,” Andy stresses, but a trad album [”with a great collection of players.

“It’s a music festival.There are five fiddlers, four of them are All-Ireland champions. The fifth is a NJSO violist who studies trad.”

The breadth of Lamy’s connections—it truly feels like every player on the east coast knows him—is remarkable considering that his connection to trad is one that began for him as an adult.

“I moved from California to New Jersey in 1994, to play with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. I rediscovered my Irish musical roots in the area. This really is a crossroads, a hotbed of Irish musical activity. I picked ‘Best of Altan’ CD out of a bin.It changed my life and stood everything on its head. I wanted to play that kind of music and be a part of it.” Andy’s background is a mixture of Irish, Scottish, English, German and French descent.

He went to St. James Gate in Maplewood one day when there was a session (editor’s note: this is the author’s local session too) and met the leaders Tom Dunne of Wexford and Tony Horswill of Birmingham. “Tom handed me a CD,” Andy said. “Before I knew it Tony and the others in that session were connecting me to great additional playing styles.”

But he thought he’d play whistle or recorder. Playing clarinet in trad wasn’t even his idea, Andy said with a laugh. Iris Nevins, who runs the Irish American Association of Northwest Jersey, was instrumental in encouraging him to play. She’s the one who found recordings of Paddy Killoran’s band with the saxophone and the clarinet mixed in. Once at a session Tommy Peoples was there, and when Irish suggested Andy play a clarinet set,

“Tommy said it had the sound of the concertina, with the range of the fiddle, almost the range of the viola. When you’re playing flute and whistle you have to change octaves whenever the fiddle goes down to the G-string. In the clarinet if something is in a flat key, I can play along.”

No surprise that Tommy has a blurb on the CD:

“The unique sound, the depth of tone and the ability in Andy’s hands give his clarinet indisputable cliam to a warm embrace and welcome in that ancient, expressive, graceful and melodic genre that is traditional Irish music,”

he writes.

BECOMING A TRAD PLAYER

Andy began taking lessons from All-Ireland fiddler Brian Conway. How can a clarinetist take lessons from a fiddle player?

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Andy plays with Brian Conway (back) at Dunne’s

“I don’t have a bow, but a phrase is created by a bow,”Andy explains. “He focuses on phrasing.” Where fiddlers will talk about slurs and bow direction, Andy will think in terms of legato tonguinegand other techinques. It’s about lift and staccato, Andy says.

Brian was the one who suggested Andy try competing in the fleadh. “I know at times he feels he’s created a monster,” Andy says, laughing again.

“The clarinet is not a quiet instrument, unless I make a decision to play it that way. Sometimes in a session I will be playing and the fiddles are all looking at me and their hair is singed.

Andy also received instruction from Joanie Madden and Mary Bergin. “There isn’t a big body of Irish clarinetists,” Andy says.

“I had to decide, ‘Will I be a piper, concertina, flutist-style player? The answer was to draw from all of those styles and decide what will work best. A lot of it was recording myself at a slow tempo to see what works, to keep the integrity of the internal rhythm. It’s not classical music or jazz. Irish music has its own character and footfall. It has to be studied and practiced a lot.

Brian has been helpful and patient, making sure I have the right Sligo swing in different tunes and tempi.”

THE NEW BLACKTHORN STICK

The reception for the album, which came out in May, has gone “beyond my wildest dreams,” Andy says. He’s been cheered in the American and Irish press alike: reviews in Huffington Post, TradConnect, The Irish Echo, and interviews on RTE, Clare FM and WGBH Boston have been overwhelmingly positive. B He’s had two launches: one at Brian Conway’s session at Dunne’s in White Plains, and an oversold event in Maplewood, underwritten by St. James Gate and followed by a session at the pub that lasted until 2 a.m. A launch is planned for July 18 at the Catskills Irish Arts Week Tradfest, and he will also have a launch at the fleadh in Sligo in August.

One of the reasons people have responded so positively is that the album fits into the tradition rather than trying to redefine it, Andy says.

“It’s kind of like a parallel reality album. Instead of all clarinet top to bottom, on most of the album it’s mixed in as though it had always been there, as though the Paddy Killoran band had always been there. You can hear the clarinet, but it’s not defined by it.”

 Don Meade wrote the liner notes for the 8 panels in the CD (yes, the print is teensy; there’s a lot of info to get in). Andy wrote four of the tunes in the 15 sets. “There are so many great tunes that need to be played, I didn’t set out to be a tune writer,” he explains. But some tunes just came to him. The jig “Felix Gone Fishing” is for the late Felix Dolan. “When Felix was ill, I thought of this tune and wrote it down. I remember having a lesson with Mary Bergin under a tree in the Catskills, and Felix was there. Both said they would play on the album, and now they both are, in their own ways.”

That jig is followed by the traditional “Tell Her I Am” and “Tom Billy’s.”

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Rehearsing with Matt Mancuso, back, Mike Stewart, front right, and Haley Richardson, for a Chief O’Neill’s Mixed Flock concert

The hornpipe “The Fiddling Barrister” is for Brian Conway, who is an assistant district attorney.

On the album, Andy writes, “I wrote this tune to fit in a set with those exuberant, triplet-filled flat-key clog hornpipes that Brian Conway plays and champions so beautifully.” It’s followed in a set by “Galway Bay” and “The Banks.”

Andy’s slipjig “The Echo of Carrowkeel” was inspired by “the foggy ancient space around the cemetery there,” Andy says. “The tune came right out of the fog.” Brian Conway calls it a renaissance tune, Andy says. It’s followed by “The Cock and the Hen” and “Hardiman the Fiddler.”

And the reel “Rogha Fhinn mhic Cumahil (Finn MacCoul’s Favorite) came to him in a dream, Andy says. “I woke up singing it.”

TAKING WING

One of the standouts on the album is the slow air “Tiarna Mhaig Eo (Lord Mayo)” which Andy got from Kathleen Boyle, indirectly: she had lent him a CD her grandfather had made, knowing that Andy shared her grandfather’s love of birdsong. Some of the tunes incorporate the blackbird and other songs of the Irish forest. “On that album are little scratch recordings,” Andy says. Lord Mayo was one, and Andy fell in love with it.

Birds come into Andy’s pick-up ensemble, Mixed Flock, which is his name for any combination of players he’d like to bring together. “Chief O’Neill’s Mixed Flock” is the name for the Irish-American version o Mixed Flock, he says. He makes birdsong whistles—he began using them to lure birds out of the brush on research trips to Africa. Now he makes them with flute-maker Michael Copeland and silversmith Ubaldo Vitali.

 Lift could lead to lift-off.

 

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