Martin Hayes on the Common Ground Ensemble: “A directed project at the heart of music”

Irish music in its most cosmopolitan form yet deeply rooted in tradition comes to this year’s Edinburgh International Festival in the form of Martin Hayes, who brings his Common Ground Ensemble to the Leith Theater on 16 August.

The internationally acclaimed violinist from East Clare last appeared at the Festival in 2015, alongside viola da gamba player Jordi Savall and harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, and is an enthusiastic collaborator, having performed in the past with names as diverse as jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road project, Sting and the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Hayes imbues traditional repertoire with spark and soul while delving deep into the character of a melody, lovingly and unhurriedly lingering over its phrases before gradually allowing it to take flight. The Common Ground Ensemble comes from a variety of musical backgrounds – pianist Cormac McCarthy, cellist Kate Ellis, guitarist Kyle Sanna and Brian Donnellan on bouzouki, concertina and harmonium – and the fiddler described it as “a project directed at the heart of the music “.

“When I collaborate,” he says, “the first place we start is the melody, the melody itself, and everything we build from it stays connected to it. I will do any type of collaboration with anyone from anywhere, as long as the essential core of the music, its beauty and its rhythms and impulses – the non-negotiables – are left intact.

The members of Common Ground are all musicians with whom he worked at one time: “I knew Cormac McCarthy thanks to a small collaboration which I made in Cork with a group of jazz, Kate Ellis played a good time with Dennis [Cahill] and myself over the years and Kyle Sanna is a player I collaborated with at the Irish Arts Center in New York.

Donnellan, meanwhile, links Hayes directly to his roots – the two played together in the Tulla Céilí Band, co-founded by Martin’s late father, PJ Hayes, and his uncle, Paddy Canny, both respected violinists.

When asked if audiences will find the set significantly different from what they might expect, Hayes laughs: “They won’t. I mean…there’s a certain consistency in the way I play. Listeners, he continues, might find some music sounding like Gloaming, the Irish-American supergroup of which he is a member, “and other tracks might sound like Dennis and myself.”

Martin Hayes PIC: Edinburgh International Festival

Any mention of “Dennis” evokes of course an inescapable sadness: Dennis Cahill, the famous guitarist from Chicago with whom Hayes played for more than 20 years in a duo and more recently within the Gloaming, died in June after a long illness. They were a superb couple: Cahill was an accomplished attendant, exercising a relentless drive or restraint as required, always poised and poised.

“It’s a blow, a big loss, I can’t describe it any other way,” said Hayes. “We were very, very close friends, buddies, like brothers almost. The whole experience [of playing with him] shaped me – like we shaped each other, I guess.

As for the Gloaming, he can’t say at this point if they will continue in any form. “But we have to keep going anyway; we have to keep playing music.

Although he lives in Madrid these days, Hayes, who just turned 60, talks on the phone from the kitchen of his old family home in East Clare, where he stays when he fulfills his commitments in Ireland. It is the heart of an environment that has profoundly shaped it. The Tulla Céilí Band doesn’t play that often these days, he says, “but when they do and I’m there, it’s a really, really nice experience.”

Given the extent of his musical associations, does the music of Tulla players and other music alumni still influence his playing? “Everything I do grew out of that,” he replies. “That connection with old players and old music is a fundamental part of what I do.”

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