Part of a series of semi-regular posts in the coming weeks to acquaint you with the people, events and happenings at BCMFest 2017 (January 13 and 14). For more information, and to purchase tickets, see the BCMFest website.
Contra dancing has been a New England tradition for generations, and is as popular ever nowadays, as those who venture out to the Concord Scout House or attend the regular Boston Intergenerational Dance Advocates gatherings can testify. In the past couple of decades, contra dance music — which draws on Irish, Scottish, Canadian and American sources — has undergone a transformation, with fresh, innovative styles and approaches via bands such as Nightingale and Wild Asparagus, among others. This trend has brought contra dance music an audience that is as inclined to listen (perhaps more so) as it is to dance.
Contra dance was a big influence on New Hampshire native Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki, who will bring his trio to the stage at BCMFest’s opening-night Roots & Branches Concert (the event also features Heather Cole-Mullen and Yann Falquet). Jordan began playing fiddle for dances at a very early age, then began to take a particular interest in Celtic music, as well as rock and contemporary music. And even though he performs in a variety of musical formats and settings, you can still find him at the dance hall every now and then, laying down a contra dance groove.
Here are some thoughts from Jordan about the contra-Celtic connection, and other matters.
Q: We all know there are many ways to experience Celtic music, depending on which type you play. But it seems like “New England” could also be a subset of Celtic, combining the different offshoots, especially through contra dance music. Is that how you see/hear it?
Jordan: Interesting thought, and to a certain extent I think you’re right. I don’t think the New England purists would consider themselves to be a subset of Celtic, but I think you’re right about many of the “Celtic” fiddlers here. I wouldn’t presume to speak for all of them, of course. But for my part, coming from the contra dance world which draws from lots of traditions including the Celtic ones, my move toward Celtic music was simply a matter of choosing the tunes that most appealed to me. These happened to be primarily Irish, Scottish and Cape Breton. I didn’t decide to dive wholly into one tradition but instead built my repertoire around what I most enjoyed playing, which was a combination of traditions. My CD collection included The Battlefield Band (from the John McCusker era), Martin Hayes, Matt Cranitch, Natalie MacMaster, Alasdair Fraser, music from all over the Celtic map. I tried to take what I liked most about each of these great fiddlers and use it to improve upon my New England roots, so I suppose you could accurately describe what I do as “New England Celtic.”
Q: You started playing music at a pretty young age — why traditional music, and why fiddle?
Jordan: When I was 7, legendary dance callers Dudley and Jacqueline Laufman came to my school and called a contra dance, and something about the spirit of the fiddle music caught hold of me and didn’t let go. I started lessons with Jacqueline soon after. I was (and still am) a bit of a history nerd, so I particularly enjoyed the fact that the traditions were so old that George Washington had danced some of the same dances to some of the same tunes. I played for dances for several years, all the while finding myself drawn more and more toward the Celtic side of the repertoire. Eventually I found that I was doing more Celtic concerts than contra dances, but over 20 years later as a full-time musician I still try to keep both on my schedule.
Q: What have been some of your most important formative experiences as a musician?
Jordan: Playing for dances as a kid was huge. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging, giving positive feedback long before I deserved it! Getting to actually participate in a tradition like contra dancing so soon after picking up the instrument made a big difference in my motivation. I wasn’t practicing just for the sake of it, I was learning tunes to perform with my mentors at next week’s dance.
The months I spent wandering and fiddling in Ireland also had a huge impact on my approach to music. I was blown away by the welcome I received at sessions and gigs across the country. I learned some great tunes and specific trad techniques, but more importantly I saw how open-minded the Irish people are to variations and new approaches to their music. The folks I played with were proud of their tradition and happy to share it, but they were also excited to play around with it a little bit. The idea that the tunes have to be played exactly the same way all the time seems far more prevalent among Americans playing Irish music than among the Irish themselves. The tradition is alive, breathing and evolving, not stuck or locked to what it was at some point in the past.
Seeing this, I felt somewhat vindicated in my belief that there is room for reinterpretation and creativity even in ancient music, as long as it is done with the utmost respect and love for the tradition itself.
Q: Talk about your bandmates and what they contribute to the JTW Band sound.
Jordan: I am very lucky to have two such talented and guys to make music with: Matthew Jensen on guitar and Chris Noyes on bass. They’ve been playing together since high school and both went to school for music, so their understanding of theory far exceeds my own. This manifests itself in fun and interesting ways as we develop arrangements, particularly when it comes to working out vocal harmonies, or finding that elusive chord to really bring out some new subtleties in a melody. Neither of them had played much trad music before I got my hands on them and turned them to the dark side about five years ago, but they dove in head first and have worked hard to master the concept of trad accompaniment while bringing their own creativity and musical backgrounds into the mix. This is a big part of what makes our sound unique.