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Putting the sax into sean-nos

Michael Buckley's dark tunes are well suited to those of sean-nós, but there is more to a merger than that, he tells Siobhán …

Michael Buckley's dark tunes are well suited to those of sean-nós, but there is more to a merger than that, he tells Siobhán Long

Have you ever seen a saxophone tiptoeing its way around a sean-nós singer? Alongside a set of pipes, a piano and maybe even a guitar? It's not exactly a sight to behold on every street corner, is it? Real music lovers are often puzzled by the corners in which the music industry tends to box them, but the fact is that many musicians run shy of one another's music, opting for the safety net of their own patch, rather than tinkering with that great white space where music genres merge.

Michael Buckley is a jazz saxophonist whose professional career began when he was six. He so thoroughly enjoyed his first taste of live performance on the Late Late Show that he actively sought it out in all manner of unlikely places. From a seat in the orchestra pit for Brendan Grace shows to Gaels of Laughter to guesting (on flute) at the age of 13 with sax player, George Coleman in the National Concert Hall, Buckley went on to tour with The Mingus Big Band, Kenny Wheeler and Lee Konitz.

More recently he has dipped a toe into the world of film and TV scoring, and he has worked in sessions with everyone from the Cranberries to Donovan and Jerry Lee Louis, not to mention forming his own quartet somewhere along the way. I guess you could say that Michael Buckley has never been a musician content to let the music come to him.

Buckley's latest foray away from a strictly jazz terrain was instigated by the Improvised Music Company's Gerry Godley, who, with his RTÉ Radio 1 Music Spoken Here hat on, commissioned Michael to explore the nether world where, Godley was convinced, jazz ballads might encounter a kindred spirit in traditional music's slow airs. Buckley took up the challenge with vim, and his journey led him ultimately to collaborate with sean-nós singer, Éamon Ó Donnchadha.

"I WANTED TO do something different anyway," Buckley admits, "because I'd been playing music for nearly 27 years. I'd been slowly building up a studio at home, and I wanted to record something myself, so it was the perfect chance that I needed. I started out thinking I'd be working with just slow airs, but then I met Éamon Ó Donnchadha, who teaches in the local primary school, and I asked him if he'd like to try this idea out."

Interestingly, given Buckley's role as composer and ringmaster of the collaboration, he was certain that the sean-nós songs would call the shots, musically. "I can understand that people are very afraid of interfering with these songs. But when I heard Éamon's voice I just knew I wanted to work with him. I've always been interested in the sound of the sax, and people who know me would say that my tone is very dark. I've always liked minor, dark tunes, and that's very like slow airs. Éamon's voice is very dark and haunting too, so that was the attraction."

Buckley was conscious that there was other common ground too. "Sean-nós songs are all 'rubato'," he says, getting increasingly animated as he recounts his early excitement as Translations began to take shape. "They're all slow, and there's no time to them. At least the famous tunes have no time, and a lot of jazz musicians would write music in that way. I came up with a way of recording that wouldn't get in the way of the singing - or the pipes or fiddle. They [ the traditional musicians] are not bending the rules to fit in. It's the other way around."

Buckley is adamant that Éamon Ó Donnchadha's contribution to Translations was "the bravest of them all".

Keenly aware of the singer's reputation as a three-time winner of Corn Uí Riada, and the fact that many purists hate to see anyone tampering with sean-nós songs, Buckley wasn't in the business of thrashing a fully-fledged artform that had got by very well without any incursions from saxophone or anything else for generations. To borrow a screenwriting buzz word, Buckley wanted to explore the "back story" of sean-nós, to delve into its depths. He's quick though, to dispel suspicions that this is simply an excuse for a colour-by-numbers attempt at "sean-nós meets jazz".

"Jazz is an element of it," he acknowledges. "But Translations is all about the original sean-nós songs and slow airs, and including harmony not just from jazz, but from classical and popular music too. It's a very wide spectrum. To me, the idea of 'sean-nós meets jazz' is corny straight away. You have to be so careful that one little turn can result in something that's very cheesy, and I don't want that. One chord here, or a rhythm there, could make it sound like something from a show. We definitely didn't want that to happen."

Buckley takes the example of Donncha Bán to illustrate the subtlety that was a crucial element for him, in composition. "The melody is very simple, but the harmony is changing all the time. There's no trick behind it. There's no point in me writing traditional Irish tunes. I'm not a traditional Irish musician, so that would be pointless. Equally, the traditional musicians aren't going to write a jazz tune. I wanted to make my music fit what Éamon as a singer was doing, but not in a 'cut and paste' way. Putting it on top would never work, and I knew that."

WHICH BRINGS US right back to where we started. Michael Buckley's record collection stretches well past Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Limiting his eardrums to solely jazz would be like closing the front door, and never hankering after a taste of foreign climes.

"There actually wouldn't be a lot of jazz in what I listen to at home these days," Michael says. "I'm drawn to r'n'b, to vocals and to music with more of a back beat to it. I remember meeting a great sax player who I'd looked up to all my life, and all he had in his record collection was the Beatles and the Beach Boys. There was no jazz whatsoever.

"I can understand that, because as a young fella, I only listened to sax players, and piano players and drummers. Music now though, is world music. I listen to everything. If it's good, I'll listen to it.

"And if you listen to a lot of jazz musicians, you'll hear their home place coming out in their music more and more. Their roots are influencing what they are doing. I didn't set out to do that, and I don't see Translations as a 'roots' project, but I loved jumping off other people's ideas. Some people love to work completely in isolation. I don't have the concentration for it, to be honest!"

Ultimately, Buckley believes, this collaboration will be best enjoyed by the punter who relaxes into it. New musical experiences can get bogged down by explaining everything. "I think there's a lot of things in all sorts of music that I don't 'get'," he confesses. "Once you stop trying to 'get it' though, I've learned that you'll enjoy it a lot more."

Translations, featuring Michael Buckley, Éamon Ó Donnchadha, Martin Nolan, Greg Burk, Aidan O'Donnell, Sean Carpio and special guest will premiere at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray on Sat at 8pm