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Review: Liz Knowles, Making Time

Liz Knowles
Making Time
[Major B Records (2010)]

Irish fiddler Liz Knowles rides many fine lines with her music. She balances between the worlds of classical violin and traditional Irish fiddle, freely drawing inspiration from both. She plays Irish traditional music, but she’s originally from Kentucky. She performs as a soloist with the New York Pops orchestra, but hangs out in bars at Irish sessions with pure-drop trad players. She tours the world with mega-spectacles like Riverdance or Celtic Legends, but her new album, Making Time, is a totally intimate experience. Most musicians would be torn by these opposites, but Knowles seems to revel in exposing her talent to as many possibilities and interests as she can.

And what talent! She’s a powerful fiddler, but also a musical arranger with excellent taste. I’m normally very very skeptical critic of anyone combining classical music influences with traditional fiddling. These are two worlds that don’t get along, to say the least, and many fiddlers see classical violinists as the equivalent of a bunch of tea-sipping British colonialists, with their noses permanently turned up in the air. So it’s a big compliment when I say that Knowles does a wonderful job of combining her taste in classical arrangement with the Irish traditional fiddling she knows so well. She has the kind of tone and power that comes best from classical training, but she’s also got the kind of dirty punch in her fiddling that every good Irish fiddler needs. And she knows the music inside and out. Each tune is annotated in the liner notes, complete with great stories and insider information.

The album’s great fun, especially with the title track, “Tuhy’s Frolics/Rakes of Cashel,” which tears through a couple old Irish reels. But the stand-out tracks are her deep and thoughtful arrangements of the more classical tunes from the Irish tradition. This is where her ability to walk between worlds becomes evident. She arranges a truly beautiful string quartet of the tune “Factory Smoke,” better known as “The Brown Coffin” from Martin Hayes’s debut album. And this arrangement is more than just a couple fiddles chording along behind the tune. She actually arranges counter-melodies and beautiful harmonies in the other instruments. She even overdubs herself on each arrangement, which is also pretty impressive.

Throughout, she displays a sensitivity to the music that’s admirable. This shines through on “Sir Ulick Burke,” acomposition of the blind Irish bard Turlough O’Carolan. She relates the following story in the liner notes:

O’Carolan was on his way to Glinsk in County Mayo after hearing that his friend, Sir Ulick Burke had fallen ill. Caught by a snowstorm in Glengavlen, County Cavan, he was forced to stay in a cabin for several days. During this time, Burke passed away. His wife gave strict orders that O’Carolan not be told until she could deliver the news herself. While in the cabin, O’Carolan, not forgetting his friend’s illness, took up the harp and played his newly composed verses, the air you hear on this track. Apparently, his companions could not hold back their tears and it was then revealed to O’Carolan that his friend had already died.

It’s a sad story, and Knowles brings out the depth and tragedy of this ancient Irish melody. She plays it unaccompanied, but brings in the double-stops and chording typical of the Baroque music that was O’Carolan’s contemporary. Knowles has a stunning gift for putting life into these lost tunes, and each track on her new album is a path to a new vista of Irish music.

—Devon Leger (Shoreline, WA)

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