Classical Clarinet Player Eases a New Instrument Into the Irish Musical Tradition

06/04/2015 11:33 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

Revolutions usually don't sound so sweet. On the lovely and lively album The New Blackthorn Stick, Andy Lamy gives the clarinet a new place in Irish traditional music.

Over the past 15 years, Lamy, a longtime clarinetist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, has complemented his tuxedoed life in classical music with visits to the less formal milieu of Irish traditional sessions at pubs and festivals.

Lamy said he has long appreciated Irish traditional music as a listener, but eventually got the bug to become a player after going to local sessions of Irish musicians. He started with the recorder and then the penny whistle, performing with seasoned players that regularly got together to uphold the tradition in the New York and New Jersey region. Though the playing was done amid pints of Guinness, Lamy was still struck by the musicianship and evocative tunes at the sessions.

He also said he was struck by the integral role of conversation that weaved around the music, when musicians would exchange tunes and tell the stories of where they originated.

One day, Lamy was talking with the renowned fiddler Tommy Peoples, who asked to hear a few tunes on the clarinet. After the positive reception he got, Lamy began to adapt the clarinet to Irish music more seriously.

"How do I learn to play clarinet when there is no clarinet master out there?" he said he asked himself. He started to play at sessions with talented players of other instruments and "try to lockstep with them," adding, "the goal was to let their phrasing come though."

He began taking lessons from the fiddler Brian Conway, learning to apply Irish fiddle techniques and ornamentation to the clarinet. He became good enough to win gold at the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh competition in the miscellaneous category and started thinking about putting together an album that featured the clarinet.

Over the next few years, Lamy gathered tunes and players, sometimes at the same time. He also read through the famous 1903 collection of almost 2,000 tunes compiled by the then-chief of police in Chicago, Francis O'Neill. He also wrote a few original tunes such as the reel he said he "woke up singing one day" and named for the Irish mythical warrior, Finn McCool.

The 17-track album reads a bit like a who's who of Irish trad: players like Conway, Jerry O'Sullivan on uilleann pipes, Mary Bergin on tin whistle, 12-year-old prodigy Haley Richardson on fiddle, Riverdance fiddler Patrick Mangan as well as Lunasa's flute player Kevin Crawford.

The album's sets are mostly sprightly Irish dance tunes such as jigs and reels, with a few Celtic diaspora songs from Cape Breton and Scotland. The album includes two slow airs, including a beautiful tune first recorded by Altan, and one song, with vocals by Donie Carroll.

The title cut is a showcase workout for the fluid playing of Lamy, featuring the clarinet as the only solo instrument accompanied by a bodhran frame drum and rhythm guitar.

Asked if the twist on tradition had upset purists, Lamy noted that "I've never had someone be discourteous to me" though he had read a bit of carping online about whether Irish music needed a new instrument. He said that even when he plays at a session, he has been respectful, introducing himself to the session organizer and then starting off with a tin whistle and then, if the situation seems right, switching to clarinet. "People want to try this, but in the right time and place," he said, adding "I really have had a huge welcome."

Lamy said classical and Irish traditional genres have some crossover, but both demand their own dedication and pursuing both has helped him develop as a player. "It helps make me more of a complete musician," he said.

He said the clarinet's greater range than a tin whistle makes it perfect for some tunes, particularly its ability to play intimately behind a singer. The clarinet, he said, is simple "a new color and a new voice," noting that the genre has assimilated new instruments such as the bouzouki over time. "If it is approached with care and conscientiousness," he said, "it doesn't necessarily detract from it."

About the making of New Blackthorn Stick

Clips from New Blackthorn Stick