04/13/2012 09:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Irish Fiddler Preserves and Evolves the Tradition

Martin Hayes is a traditional Irish fiddler and the son of a traditional Irish fiddler, so he is well aware that traditional music is a constantly evolving form.

Hayes is a masterful fiddler who is known for his soulful playing as well as his ability to fly through a brisk improvisational melody. For the past several years, he has principally toured and recorded with guitarist Dennis Cahill and the two have continually wowed audiences with their dynamic, expressive joint improvisations.

This year, however, Hayes is introducing U.S. audiences to several other facets of his musical self. In addition to the current Masters of Tradition tour, he and Cahill teamed up with several other musicians to create The Gloaming, which takes Irish sounds into new territory. Then there is The Teetotalers, where he performs with guitarist John Doyle, formerly of Solas, and flute player Kevin Crawford of Lunasa.

For the past ten years, Hayes has been the curator of a five-day Masters of Tradition festival in County Cork, Ireland. The festival gives traditional musicians the chance to perform in a simple, intimate setting for rapt listeners. Hayes said he was approached with the idea of curating the festival and decided to highlight traditional music in its "purest form" with a minimum of trappings.

"If you're going to do a festival," he said, "there's no sense in doing something they're doing that's similar just down the road."

An Australian producer asked him to bring a condensed, one-night version to the Sydney Opera House, and the Masters of Tradition tour was born. Now the six traditional musicians are visiting the U.S. for the first time this month. Hayes still approaches the traveling version with a curatorial eye, he said. "You try to build an arc to an evening... It's not an ad hoc, thrown-together piece of thing."

The Gloaming, which debuted in the States earlier this year at the Globalfest showcase in New York City, featured Hayes and Cahill along with singer Iarla Ó Lionaird of Afro-Celt Soundsystem fame, pianist Thomas Bartlett who goes by the name Doveman (and has played with Laurie Anderson and David Byrne) and hardanger fiddle player Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh. Making good on the promise of all that talent on one stage, the group proved adept at both deeply expressive playing as well as building tunes to mighty heads of steam.

Hayes said that, in a sense, The Gloaming and the Masters of Tradition are polar opposites. While the Masters tour celebrates the unadorned individual performer celebrating the old tunes, Hayes said, "The Gloaming is decidedly about what happens when we all throw in our bit and we try to create something very new and very different."

Later this year, Irish music fans should be particularly excited about The Teetotalers mini-supergroup with Hayes, Doyle and Crawford, since all three are great collaborative players. The three were "tossed together," Hayes said, at a California festival by a producer and "we had a great time." The idea of touring came up and the three looked at each other, he recounted, and asked themselves: "What would be the reason not to do it?"

Befitting a great improvisational musician, Hayes said, "I never had a great master plan to do any of this... I have a kind of philosophy of just tossing things in the air and seeing what happens.

"I'd like to think I planned any of this," he continued. "Now that I think about it, it seems like I have no made no decisions whatsoever. I just respond."

Hayes and Cahill doing their thing