Monday 19 March 2018

Irish emigrants and all that jazz

An academic assignment became a labour of love for the world's foremost exponent of Celtic jazz, writes Liam Collins

WHAT started as an academic assignment for Celtic jazz singer Melanie O'Reilly has turned into a passionate investigation of her cultural roots.

While working as Musician in Residence in University of California, Berkeley, the singer began turning the history of Irish women in America into a musical journey, which resulted in her album Women Who Left.

"The first person officially processed through Ellis Island in 1892 was an Irishwoman called Annie Moore. A German man was going to walk down the gangplank first, but an Irish-born customs official said 'ladies first' and overnight she became a national figure," says Dublin-born Melanie.

Other subjects included Nellie Cashman, a gold miner, boarding-house owner and successful businesswoman.

"I was working on that and gradually I began to make contact with jazz and Irish musicians in California and it developed into the album," she said, while back in Dublin last week.

But the project is about to become a full-blown musical, inspired by these stories.

"It is the story of the people who leave Ireland and it is also the story of my own journey," says Melanie.

Her long-time collaborator, Sean O Nuallain, is the "history and story consultant" on the project and is co-writer of the songs on the album, along with Fintan O'Neill. Also involved is script-writer and director Peter Glazer from the Department of Theatre at UC Berkeley.

"It has been very exciting, and it has led to the introduction of Celtic jazz in clubs and arts centres in California and further afield," says Melanie.

Since going to the United States, she also worked on an album, Dust & Blood, which is a bossa nova-style celebration of the connections in history between the 'native' Americans and the Irish.

As well as her work in America, she completed a series of documentaries for RTE Radio. These include the Foxrock Folk Club, which will be repeated on RTE radio on January 5, 6 and 7. It tells the story of the folk singers and jazz enthusiasts who gathered in a parish hall in Cornelscourt in south Dublin during the so-called folk revival.

Among those involved were teenagers like Melanie and her sister Clodagh and the late Lar Cassidy. They brought together such legends as Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew, Donal Lunny, Louis Stewart, and Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains, under various guises.

What makes this unique is that the sessions were recorded and, with the help of producer Aidan Butler, have been made into a unique series of broadcasts. A 40th anniversary of the Foxrock Folk Club is planned for later this year.

Her other big project is the award-winning Jazz on the Bay in which she met and recorded many jazz legends. A meeting with Dave Brubeck led to an invitation to an event at Clint Eastwood's 'Mission Ranch' in Carmel, California, with Melanie sitting at the edge of the Pacific talking music with Eastwood, who was "so courteous and kind".

Melanie is heading back to the US after Christmas to begin another project inspired by the work of James Joyce. In the meantime, the RTE series next week will give a unique insight into what has inspired the foremost exponent of Celtic jazz in the world.

Sunday Independent

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