Born of a long-standing partnership stretching back over a decade, Raven is an album of assured, fully-realized performances that confidently, nonchalantly distort and dissolve boundaries. Lesser musicians adhere righteously to the lines separating tradition from innovation, soloist from accompanist – but the duo of multi-instrumentalist John Williams and guitarist Dean Magraw interact so effortlessly, and draw from such a wide range of traditions and techniques, that existing borders cease to be relevant. With one listen, the insight and instrumental skill that went into creating Raven is immediately apparent. Repeated listenings reveal a host of subtle musical undercurrents that speak of Williams and Magraw’s profound empathy and endless musicianship.
John Williams and Dean Magraw first met in St. Paul, brought together by the city’s thriving Irish music scene. The twin cities area is home to Magraw, though he is often away performing for audiences around the U.S. and the world. While he has an extensive background in contemporary jazz, Magraw’s passions have lead him to perform in an extraordinary range of contexts, from Celtic and bluegrass to jam band and avant-garde. His solo guitar albums draw from those experiences, synthesizing them via his impeccable technique into soundscapes both moody and tranquil. Hailing from a musical Chicago Irish-American family with its roots in County Clare, John Williams is the first and only American to have won the All-Ireland concertina title. He was a founding member of the group Solas, a band whose unrelenting drive and precision reawakened musicians on both sides of the pond to the potential of Irish traditional music. Upon leaving Solas, Williams has released a series of acclaimed solo albums and served as the traditional musical director for the Dreamworks film Road to Perdition.
“Irish music is our common ground, and the fiddler Martin Hayes was a mutual friend of ours,” explains Magraw. “About ten years ago, Martin and I were doing a show at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. We had John come out and do a 45 minute encore – a 45 minute tune set, one after another!” The audience’s reaction was overwhelming, encouraging Williams and Magraw to pursue their partnership, setting aside a few weeks each year to perform as a duo. “We recognized that the possibilities of playing as a duo were intriguing,” says Williams, “and we always get a huge response, year after year. As time went by, there was a lot of pressure from audiences and presenters to make a recording.”
Recorded outside of Chicago, the eleven core tracks of Raven “either took four days or ten years to record,” says Williams, “depending on how you look at it.”
They chose to not bring in outside musicians, keeping the focus on the duo’s well-honed interplay and an intriguing range of original, traditional, and outside material drawn from their concert sets. “You can get more textures the more people you have, of course,” Magraw explains, “but the duo is a special combination that fully exploits each member, yet you really have to listen closely to the other guy. In the future we may bring in guests, but it was really great to explore the sounds we make together…”
Magraw and Williams delight in attacking the material on Raven from a variety of angles. Some tracks find the duo stating the melody straightly in a fine, traditional fashion. Others feature them approaching it more expansively, letting the song arise gradually from the mists of their improvisations. Williams’ work in film-scoring comes to the fore on several cuts, particularly the evocative “Perdition Piano Duet,” which derives from Williams’ contributions to Road to Perdition. A slow-smoldering intensity, such as heard on “Lianna” and the haunting title track, betrays the influence of master Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla.
Far from merely accompanying Williams (who contributes whistles, flute, and piano in addition to accordion and concertina), Magraw is an equal partner in the music – engaging in tight unison passages, shaping the tracks’ unfolding with deft counter-melodies and chord voicings, and taking exhilaratingly fleet solos.
The importance of the live experience to their collaboration is apparent in the album’s coda – three songs recorded live at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. “The Cedar was the first place we played together,” Magraw says, “and a place we play together every year. They have always been very supportive of our whole musical journey.”
“We originally sequenced the album to conclude with ‘The Raven,’ which is a very smoky, atmospheric track,” says Williams, “but then we decided it needed to end on an exclamation point. Luckily our shows had become popular with a Grateful Dead, newgrass audience, and were being recorded and traded among those fans. So we went back through all the live tapes people had given us, and found that set.”
With the release of Raven, Magraw and Williams plan to expand their annual duo tours and continue to cultivate their rewarding partnership – a partnership whose range Williams feels is well-documented on the album. “A lot of Irish CDs,” Williams concludes, “linger on the same vibe through the course of the entire program. This album unfurls – it doesn’t stay on one flavor for very long. That said, we didn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel every time. But we do want to take it for a good spin.”