Ensemble Ériu: it’s trad music, but not as we know it

Traditional music is in fine, contemporary hands with Jack Talty and Neil O’Loghlen

The adventure began with the self-titled album that Ensemble Ériu released last year.

An initial alliance between Co Clare school friends Jack Talty and Neil O'Loghlen took off as more players walked into the room to join the ensemble.

The duo may be steeped in traditional music, but they also have open ears for other sounds, and the album elegantly sways and sashays between jazz, trad, classical, rock and ambient. It is rich, evocative and powerful, music to stir and stimulate.

Talty is a talented concertina player who has had a hand in fine, sturdy releases such as Na Fir Bolg with west Kerry wizard Cormac Begley.


O’Loghlen, meanwhile, was schooled in the whistle and flute before double bass and jazz came calling via the Banff Centre in Canada and the SIM workshop in Brooklyn.

The pair had no idea what would come out of it when they started to work together, says Talty. “We had been friends and playing music together since we were 15 and met in St Flannan’s in Ennis. Around 2011, we got together and said we’d try to write some music and some new arrangements around traditional music with a group . . . We spent some time in [the Tyrone Guthrie Centre] in Annaghmakerrig, [Co Monaghan], writing music but not with any musicians in mind. It evolved from there.”

The sound came into its own when other musicians such as Jeremy Spencer, Paddy Groenland, Matthew Jacobson, Matt Berrill and Saileog Ní Cheannabháin came along.

“One of the nice things about this project is that it has organically developed over time because of the calibre of musicians playing with us. They have very much shaped what it is now. While myself and Neil wrote the parts before we went into studio and did allow for improvisation, it has really changed so much.”

The pair’s initial ideas were broad. “We were trying to work out how to combine our insights and personal tastes in Irish traditional with our other interests beyond traditional,” says Talty. “That was the thought process – how to be ourselves, how to use our knowledge of traditional music, how to bring the other influences to bear on that and how to do all that in a way which was artistically engaging. It’s a very difficult task to turn those thoughts into reality.”

They’re not the only ones bringing traditional music into new scenarios right now. Be it The Gloaming or This Is How We Fly, there has been an interesting slew of releases and projects in the past year with traditional music as an important part of the foundation.

Talty points out that such innovation has happened before. “If you go back to the 1980s, trad music was very experimental then, but the 1990s marked a change, and bands went back to their own localities for inspiration.

“The 1980s were a free-for- all and a very exciting time. Now, I think, it’s a very exciting time too with The Gloaming and This Is How We Fly. But it’s also a very exciting time for the more straight-ahead traditional performers.

“Innovation has always been there. When people talk about experimentation and musical renaissances, I always like to think of the Flanagan Brothers. When you listen to them, it’s scary how innovative they were, even though they don’t feature that much in the discourse, even among musicians.”

Trad these days
He finds much to enthuse about at the moment in the traditional world. "Some of the most exciting stuff to my ear is happening in the straight- ahead tradition. It's in a very sophisticated and refined state, and I don't mean refined as in stilted."

Talty believes it’s a good time in general for traditional music and its stalwarts. “Look at the concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London during Michael D Higgins’s visit. There were a lot of traditional players represented in that line-up. Despite a lot of the apocalyptic perceptions about the music, I certainly see traditional music more and more as part of mainstream culture in Ireland.

“Everybody likes to fight for their corner but as a traditional musician, I think there are good opportunities for us. I didn’t always think that but I’ve a lot of friends and colleagues who work in other genres and who are not as fortunate. Things are better than they were for traditional musicians.”

Ensemble Ériu are preparing to strike out on an Irish tour. Talty believes the success of the endeavour comes down to what the musicians onstage are bringing to the game.

“Everybody is working together,” he says. “It’s not jazz and not traditional as we normally play it. We’re not doing what we usually do, and what works well is that the players understand our take on traditional music.

“It’s very different from what happens in spontaneous recording studio sessions when people collaborate and experiment. Here, we’ve listened to each other and have developed it into what it is now.

“Everyone gives and takes and performs in a way they wouldn’t do every day, because we know what we want to achieve with this group.”

Ensemble Ériu play 12 Rutland Place on Friday; at An Taibhdhearc, Galway, on Saturday; then tour to Limerick, Cork, Clonmel and Dingle