March 2020 was an exceptional time for fiddle-player Danny Diamond, having just moved to Minneapolis, a city that would soon be reeling from the murder of George Floyd, and facing the onset of a global lockdown in a new country. Fortunately, Danny found solace in music and Let Fly, his fourth album, a duet with Brian Miller, is the result.
Whereas his debut album Fiddle Music (2014) embodied the music of Tommie Potts and Seán Keane, his follow-up Elbow Room (2017) took a more compositional approach, presenting newly penned material and original arrangements on cross-tuned fiddle, and North (2016), a duet with Conor Caldwell, explored the pair’s shared northern heritage. The three albums share a similar approach to accompaniment, showing a desire to explore beyond conventional backing, instead utilising the resonances of open tunings and minimalistic drones provided by a range of instruments.
The albums also pay homage to a conflation of influences, Potts and Keane as mentioned, as well as Danny’s parents, Dermy and Tara Diamond. The fiddle music of Donegal is also represented, peppered with strains of Old Timey and Nordic fiddle music. The fact that Danny pulls off this melting pot of ideas over three albums is testament to his ability and style.
These influences are still present on Let Fly. The most obvious departure is the introduction of Brian Miller on guitar and bouzouki. Miller, also a Minnesota resident, is a well-established accompanist on the American circuit. He is an avid song collector and singer and a fine flute-player as well. He has recorded three albums with Irish-American trad outfit Bua and also performs as part of The Lost Forty, a project that presents songs learned from Minnesota-based traditional singers from the 1920s.
The pair have released a lengthy album in Let Fly with 12 tracks spanning 52 minutes. The first set is attributed to Danny’s father; ‘The Boys of Twenty-Five’, a tune associated with Fermanagh fiddle-player Mick Hoy, blends seamlessly with ‘The Old Bush’ thanks, in part, to a deft transposition of the classic piper’s favourite to a major mode, finishing off with a tune associated with Donegal fiddle-player Mickey Doherty. The fiddle-playing is energetic, free-flowing and inventive; barely a phrase goes by that is not embellished with a triplet, roll or melodic invention. The overall effect is never cluttered, perhaps due to the pair establishing a measured tempo from the off that gently accelerates throughout the piece.
The ‘Twenty-One’ highland makes an appearance in a set heavily influenced by John Doherty. Diamond makes ‘The Twenty-One’ his own with some beautifully timed melodic interventions, substituting the occasional triplet run with a ‘nyah’ in both the first and second parts, marking it out as more than a passing variation. On the transition to the Scott Skinner reel ‘Miss Shepherd’, Miller tactfully pulls back, creating space to facilitate the tempo change. The set concludes with ‘The Flood on the Holm’, a tune Doherty created by combining elements of various Scott Skinner reels.
The Cape Breton tradition of long medleys has influenced Diamond and Miller’s approach to set construction, with most here made up of three or four tunes, occasionally involving a change to a new meter. The pair also seem to express a preference for pairing tunes that are in complementary, as opposed to contrasting, keys, transposing modes when necessary to create changes in harmonic colour, such as on the second tune in the second set, ‘Johnny Henry’s Jig/Down the Back Lane/Will You Come Home With Me?’
The album also includes versions of tunes that most traditional musicians will recognise. On ‘Shoe the Donkey’, the structured introduction of variations gives the impression of each repetition sounding like an independent setting of the tune, contrasting with the densely packed, free-flowing variations of ‘Love Will You Marry Me?’ Both sets conclude with reels, further reflecting the influence of the music of Fermanagh and Donegal in particular.
The album was recorded over the period of a few days, both musicians (socially distanced) in a comfortable, acoustically treated room, playing together at the same time, which contributes a great deal to the sense of spontaneity that the album exhibits. The fiddle sound is rich and upfront, balanced by the guitar and bouzouki, which is occasionally multi-tracked.
At the online concert broadcast to promote its launch, Diamond talked about how this album is a departure from his ‘weirder’ and ‘droney’ earlier work, towards an album of straight-up tunes that allows him to reflect on what it means to have a personal style. Where the earlier works could be thought of as compositional in nature, this album has a sense of the spontaneous and the sculptural, the dimensions of the sculpture defined by Miller, who opens up a musical space in which there is a sense of the fiddle being simultaneously barely contained and yet committed to the moment. Whether it is in spite of or because of this more conventional approach, Let Fly beautifully captures the latest evolution of Danny Diamond’s personal fiddle style.
To purchase Let Fly, visit https://dannydiamond.bandcamp.com/album/let-fly
Published on 20 July 2021
Kevin McCullagh is a fiddle-player, DJ and sound artist from Belfast His compositions, released under the pseudonym Jan Jeffer, have featured on RTÉ Lyric FM, NTS Radio and at many Irish festivals including the Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Hilltown Contemporary Music Festival and Electric Picnic amongst others.