Màiri Chaimbeul - adding jazz harmony to the harp
If America is the land of opportunity, its music schools must be the country in microcosm. Màiri Chaimbeul graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston last May, having also been awarded the college’s coveted American Roots Award. She is still noticeably buzzing about the opportunities that came her way as a student at what is the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world.
The harp player from Skye, who returns to Scotland to play and teach at Edinburgh International Harp Festival this weekend, was fortunate in joining a stream of young Scottish musicians who have availed themselves of Berklee’s riches and in having friends, including the award-winning jazz pianist Alan Benzie, who were able to suggest people to study with and classes to take.
“It’s pretty amazing really,” she says down the line from Boston where she’s currently working with the great American fiddler Darol Anger’s group as well as with outfits including progressive folk band Aerialists and her duo with New York-born fiddler Jenna Moynihan, with whom she’ll be appearing at the harp festival. “It’s a huge school and there’s so much to choose from and so much you can get from going there.”
As a player of the Scottish harp, or clarsach, studying in the string faculty, which caters to banjo, mandolin and all the other folk instruments alongside their classical counterparts, Chaimbeul was excited to find herself playing Appalachian folk music in one lesson and Latin American rhythms with the Venezuelan pianist Leo Blanco, in another.
Mind you, she’s never been one to let a musical opportunity pass her by. Growing up in a cultural family – her mother, Liondsaidh is a sculptor, her father, Aonghas Padraig a leading Gaelic poet and author and her siblings all play music – Chaimbeul was already playing piano and fiddle when a harp presented itself.
“The Clan Donald Society was sponsoring harp lessons and making harps available on Skye and I can’t really remember what it was that made me want to play one,” she says. “I think I probably liked the sound but whatever the attraction was, it soon took over and became the instrument I wanted to play more than any other.”
She studied at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh where her horizons were expanded by the monthly classes taken by saxophonist Richard Ingham. Soon, in addition to traditional and classical music, she was exploring the possibilities of playing jazz on the clarsach and learning tunes by Chick Corea and Jan Garbarek among other jazz players. She went on to become the only contender so far to appear in the finals of both the Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year and its jazz equivalent, although the current Young Trad title holder, fiddler Charlie Stewart, she’s noted, could follow her as he studies double bass on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course.
“Playing jazz gave me a wider understanding of harmony and how that can influence music as a whole,” she says. “It also gave me an approach to playing traditional music that’s more improvised. I think it freed me up, basically, and made me really look at what the harp has to offer and what it can do. Even in a traditional setting – and that can be traditional Appalachian music or Scottish and Irish music – having some jazz knowledge encourages you to look beyond what you might have played otherwise and let your imagination take over.”
In hiring her for his band, Darol Anger, a fiddler who spares no effort in exploring his own instrument’s capabilities, will have noted Chaimbeul’s open approach. She’s also come to the attention of Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain and the former teenage prodigy, jazz guitarist Julian Lage while the old-time fiddle authority Bruce Molsky has enthused about her way with a traditional tune.
Her duo with Jenna Moynihan, whom Scottish audiences might know through her appearances here with singer-fiddler Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, formed shortly after they met during Chaimbeul’s first term at Berklee in 2012. They’ve since released an EP and have recorded an album that has arrived from the manufacturers just in time to make the trip over the Atlantic with them.
“I love playing with Jenna,” Chaimbeul says. “She comes from New York State, over near Buffalo, and grew up playing Scottish and Irish music as well as Appalachian and old-time music. So we had quite a lot in common when we met and we also write a lot of tunes together. We’ve played a lot but never taken the duo over to Scotland, so it’s really exciting to be playing at the harp festival and then doing some gigs around the country.”
Màiri Chaimbeul & Jenna Moynihan play at Edinburgh International Harp Festival on Sunday, April 2; Invershin Hotel, Sutherland, April 7; Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Isle of Skye, April 9; Hug and Pint, Glasgow April 13.
From The Herald, March 29, 2017