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Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Irish Music Magazine
Article by Helene Dunbar
“Fusion” has been a buzzword in Irish music for a while now. Technically defined as “The merging of different elements into a union”, in trad, it usually manifests by a jazz or rock groove being added to whatever traditional piece is being played by a traditional group.
Even in the realm of fusion though, fiddler Jeremy Kittel is unique. A rewarded and accomplished musician in the genres of Celtic, jazz, and classical, Kittel’s new CD “Chasing Sparks” is not meant to be a fusion album but a trad album made by an artist who is constantly trying to stretch his own boundaries.
“I wrote most of these tunes with no intention of combining styles – rather, they were just embellishments of melodies and sounds that were floating around in my head,” says Kittel. “The first CD I did (2000’s ‘Celtic Fiddle’) was more traditional - and I love playing trad tunes - but I had a period of a few years where I was writing a lot of fiddle tunes that were a little quirky in some way or a little bit different like in B major or with a different melodic structure than usual. I wanted the record to be focused around these new melodies and I wanted to use them for branching out into new arrangements and to have some improvisations in there. “
“The record I did just before was a total straight-ahead jazz record – my first foray into that – so I didn’t want to do a really obvious fusion where it was just a funk groove or a swing groove over a trad tune. I wanted to these tracks to be really exciting and interesting but I wanted the fiddle tunes and the trad sound of it to be at the melodic core of the whole record. I think I ended up keeping it pretty much in that vein. “
It probably helps to know that Kittel plays viola with acclaimed crossover jazz outfit Turtle Island Quartet. He graduated from the University of Michigan at 20, earning their highest musical honor, the Stanley Medal, and has a Master of Music from Manhattan School of Music. On the Celtic side, he was the 2000 US National Scottish Fiddle Champion and Junior National Champion of 1998 and 1999. He has won numerous awards for jazz performance, improvisation, competition and teaching including the 2005 and 2006 Detroit Music Awards for Outstanding Folk Artist, 2006 Detroit Music Awards for Outstanding Jazz Album and Outstanding Jazz Composer.
But a large part of his heart is in trad which he discovered as a pre-teen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I started playing violin when I was about 5 years old,” he says. Although he initially studied classical music, Kittel says “I wasn’t really in love with it. I liked it and I was good and it and I sort of kept on going with it. I thought music was fun and all but when I was about 11 or 12 – that’s an age when a lot of kids get into music really heavy – I really got into it. Instead of gravitating towards Jimmy Hendrix and learning to play guitar though, I was going to The Ark in Ann Arbor and to see Solas, Martin Hayes, and all of these great touring artists who were playing Celtic music. I remember seeing Celtic Fiddle Festival and Kevin Burke. That first year of seeing concerts was when I felt like I was really connecting with music and trad was really the first music that I latched onto. It was so inspiring, and exciting, and mysterious. I kept wondering ‘how do they do it?’ There was so much going on in this music and that was really my window for getting hooked onto music as a whole. And since then I’ve discovered that the world of music and art is so much bigger than you can explore in one lifetime but you can try. “
Soon he was attending Wednesday night sessions. “I’d be the only kid in a bar filled with smoky vibes and raucous adults. I was just picking out these tunes to train my ear and having a great time.” He was taken under the wings of local fiddlers Marty Somberg and Evan Chambers (also a classical composer). He also learned from County Clare born Mick Gavin, a staple of Detroit’s Irish scene as a teacher and event organizer. “There’s a good bunch of people up there,” says Kittel. “I had a lot of support in those early years – people who helped me get started. And I’m grateful for that.”
Kittel soaked up as many lessons as he could from his musical mentors. “I was always pretty willing to pick up whatever older people had to offer and willing to listen. I think that was definitely beneficial and I learned a lot. At some point you realize that not everyone knows what they’re talking about and you have to stand up and say no to things. Some people are really, right off the bat doing what they want to do and won’t take anything else and they’re fearless and follow their instincts and that’s all come a bit later for me. “
So far Kittel has managed to follow his own path, playing what he wants to regardless of the genre or the naysayers that he’s encountered. “I’m a firm believer that you don’t want to stretch yourself too thin but I’m also a firm believer that you can be bilingual or trilingual. People do it with spoken languages so why not music? It takes a lot of time and a big investment in music but obviously there are tons of people who can do it. And I did encounter some resistance to that idea when I was growing up – people who thought I should stick with one or the other or this and that, but I’ve found that it’s working for me to follow what I really love and try to learn as much as I can, and keep my ears open and my mind open to new ideas.”
“Chasing Sparks” was recorded over a two year period, in four cities (New York; Oakland, California; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Nashville, Tennessee) mostly to accommodate Kittel’s guest artists who, not surprisingly, are a diverse and gifted group. Kittel’s core band which includes guitarist Kyle Sanna (an arranger for Yo-Yo Ma), cellist Tristan Clarridge (a member of Crooked Still) and world drummer Bodek Janke were joined on the album by mandolinist Chris Thile (of Americana group Nickel Creek), Bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, multi-instrumentalist Mike Marshall (formerly of the David Grisman Quintet), cellist Natalie Haas (Alasdair Fraser’s musical partner) and Brittany Haas (Crooked Still).
Although the album features some wonderful reinterpretations of familiar trad favorites such as “The May Morning Dew” and “The Rolling Waves”) it is the original material on the album that Kittel is most proud of. “I particularly like ‘The Chase,’” he says “with its time signature being mostly in 7 and with triplets moving from one to the next. It turned out like a little story and has an epic feel to it. Actually a lot of the tracks on this album feel epic to me. I like a bit of drama,” he laughs.
Another track that he is particularly fond of is ‘Remember Blake’ which was “written for a friend of mine; a trad guitarist who passed away at age 23. I was about 19 when he passed away and when I turned 23 or 24 I realized that he was gone when he was my age so it was even a bit more meaningful then; that I was still around and getting to live life. The tune captured some of the same feeling for me. I wanted it to be a little more impactful so I asked Mike (Marshall) to record on top of what we’ve already done. He laid down a mandolin track that is just beautiful and really heartfelt.”
Overall though, Kittel credits Janke’s percussion for his success in making an album that stays true to its traditional roots. “It was strange playing with Bodek for the first time,” recalls Kittel. “Because most drummers play kit drum or full sets, they don’t know what to do with trad or folk music. They always try to stick a rock groove on it – they don’t have any idea. But what he did from the beginning was play something complimentary and yet it added a whole lot to the sound and didn’t require any of us to change the way we were playing. We could still play in a very trad way and keep our articulation and phrasing.”
It’s no real surprise that Kittel has a lot of diverse activities on his plate. He is aiming to tour this album in between Turtle Island gigs and is in growing demand as an arranger. When we spoke, he was at the home of another genre-bender banjoist Bela Fleck and his wife, clawhammer banjoist Abigail Washburn recording Washburn’s next album. “I’ve been working for the last week almost non-stop on the arrangement for Abby’s record and there is going to be, at some points, 12 parts of strings. It sounds almost like an orchestra. That’s a totally new challenge for me that I wasn’t sure I could meet but it’s going really well. And I’ve been loving it.”
“You just challenge yourself and go for it,” he surmises. And if there was ever a motto that summed up Kittel’s approach to music, that would be it.
Nuala Kennedy’s "Tune In" reviewed by The List: http://www.list.co.uk/article/25572-nuala-kennedy-tune-in/
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Richard Julian with WFUV DJ Claudia Marshall. May 5, 2010 at Gotham Hall, NYC.
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