Martin Hayes on the Common Ground Ensemble: 'A project directed right at the heart of the music'

The renowned fiddler talks to Jim Gilchrist about his plans for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and about the loss of his longtime musical partner, Dennis Cahill

Irish music at its most cosmopolitan yet utterly rooted in tradition comes to this year’s Edinburgh International Festival in the shape of Martin Hayes, who brings his Common Ground Ensemble to Leith Theatre on 16 August.

The internationally renowned east Clare fiddler last appeared at the Festival in 2015, in the company of viola da gamba player Jordi Savall and harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, and is a an enthusiastic collaborator, having performed in the past with such diverse names as jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, Sting and the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Hayes imbues traditional repertoire with spark and soul while delving deep into the character of a tune, dwelling lovingly and unhurriedly on its phrases before gradually allowing it to take flight. The Common Ground Ensemble is drawn from various music worlds – pianist Cormac McCarthy, cellist Kate Ellis, guitarist Kyle Sanna and Brian Donnellan on bouzouki, concertina and harmonium – and the fiddler has described it as “a project directed right at the heart of the music”.

“When I’m collaborating,” he says, “the first place we start is the melody, the actual tune itself, and whatever we build out from it stays connected to it. I’ll do any kind of collaboration with anyone from any place, so long as the essential core of the music, its beauty and its rhythms and pulses – the non-negotiables – are left intact.”

The Common Ground members are all musicians he’s worked with at some point: “I got to know Cormac McCarthy through a little collaboration I did in Cork with a jazz ensemble, Kate Ellis has performed a good bit with Dennis [Cahill] and myself over the years and Kyle Sanna is a player I’ve collaborated with at the Irish Arts Centre in New York.”

Donnellan, meanwhile, connects Hayes directly with his roots – the two of them have played together in the Tulla Céilí Band, co-founded by Martin’s late father, PJ Hayes, and his uncle, Paddy Canny, both respected fiddle players.

Asked whether audiences will find the ensemble very different from what they might expect from him, Hayes laughs: “They won’t. I mean… there is a certain consistency to the way I play.” Listeners, he continues, might find that some of the music resembles resemble the Gloaming, the Irish-American supergroup of which he’s a member, “and other bits might resemble Dennis and myself.”

Martin Hayes PIC: Edinburgh International Festival

Any mention of “Dennis” of course invokes inescapable sadness: Dennis Cahill, the celebrated Chicago guitarist with whom Hayes played for more than 20 years as a duo and more lately within the Gloaming, died in June after a long illness. They made a superb pairing: Cahill was a consummate accompanist, exercising relentless drive or restraint as required, always with balance and poise.

“It’s a big blow, a big loss, there’s no other way I can describe it,” says Hayes. “We were very, very close friends, buddies, like brothers almost. The whole experience [of playing with him] has shaped me – like we shaped each other, I suppose.”

So far as the Gloaming is concerned, he can’t say at this stage whether they’ll continue in whatever form. “But we’ve got to keep going anyhow; we’ve got to keep playing music.”

Although living these days in Madrid, Hayes, just turned 60, is talking on the phone from the kitchen of his old family home in east Clare, where he stays when fulfilling commitments in Ireland. It’s the heart of an environment which shaped him utterly. The Tulla Céilí Band doesn’t play so often these days, he says, “but when they do and I’m around, it’s a really, really enjoyable experience.”

Given the breadth of his musical associations, does the music of the Tulla players and other musical elders still inform his playing? “Everything I do has emerged out of that,” he replies. “That connection to old players and old music is a foundational part of what I do.”

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