AIRDANCE recalls the musical explosion of Rodney Miller’s original Airplang albums which inspired the New England contra music revolution. Celtic, traditional and even jazz tunes flower on strong contra dance roots, and reflect the continuing vitality and vibrancy of the New England contra scene. Rodney’s famous fiddle is featured, but each member of the band has time in the spotlight. Each musician is a leading New England exponent of his or her instrument. The
fusion of these talents creates musical magic. ----------- RODNEY MILLER and AIRDANCE
Rodney Miller-Fiddle, David Surette - Guitar and Mandolin,
Mary Cay Brass – Piano, Stuart Kenney – Upright Bass,
Sam Zucchini - Percussion
At the heart of all the instrumental traditions that form the American folk sound is the dance. Irish jigs, Highland flings, Cajun two-steps, French-Canadian reels, African-American blues, Latin salsa and meringue, the breakdowns of bluegrass and the prim waltzes of English tradition - all were born to the sound of dancing feet.
Over the last 40 years, all of these traditions have enjoyed commercial revivals in Europe and America, their ancient dance tunes arranged in contemporary ensemble settings and taken to concert halls. Almost alone among them, New England’s robustly melodic contra dance music is still viewed almost entirely as a dance form. While contra dancing now enjoys more nationwide popularity than at any time in its history, its music is rarely featured in concert alongside the sophisticated ensembles of the Celtic revival, the hot Cajun bands or Cape Breton fiddlers who fill concert halls all over North America.
No one is doing more to change that than Rodney Miller. His masterful recordings of standard Yankee dance tunes, New England Chestnuts, Volume I and II, remain the core repertoire for the contra dance revival. His seminal 1985 recording, Airplang, did for contra dance music what the early Bothy Band and Silly Wizard records did for Celtic music, proving what a vibrant concert music this can be when arranged for modern ensemble. No Yankee fiddler today is more recognized for his virtuosity and musical intelligence. With Airdance, Miller takes his daring Airplang experiment to another level. “It is a continuation of Airplang,” Miller said, “in that we’re taking a lot of traditional and contemporary material and coming up with an ensemble treatment that makes musical sense, but still holds its danceability.”
As in all dance traditions, many of the defining traits of the contra style are products of function more than form. Contra dance is a descendent of British and Irish country dancing, done in sets of partners, like square or set dancing. Rather than lining up side by side, partners begin the dance facing each other, or contra to one another, from which the dance gets its name. Every eight bars, a dance move, or figure, is completed and another begun, necessitating that the lead melodic musician, usually a fiddler, punctuates the change of figures.
“The style is wrapped up in the contra figures themselves, and the way the dances are phrased.” Miller said. “The music reflects the change of figures to offer a guideline for the different moves of the dance. This makes it a very rhythmical, punctuated style, partly because you strive to clearly mark out the dance figures but also because it’s been greatly influenced by the French-Canadian style.”
That crisp fiddle diction can be heard everywhere in Miller’s playing: the quick-trill bowing on the opening Gypsy Stomp, the alluringly thick triplets on Pigeon on the Gate, the way the bow often dances atop the strings, his trademark pops and pull-offs, notes actually played by the left hand on the strings. When doing slow airs, these functional techniques create a wonderfully vocal fiddle sound. Amid the stately sweep of All That You Ask Me, Miller’s warm playing eloquently evokes the unsung lyrics.
Miller has worked often with the players on this recording. New Hampshire guitarist extraordinare, David Surette, is best known for his long collaboration with his wife, singer Susie Burke. Here, he plays with a rare combination of exuberance and articulation. Guitar and fiddle seem to be in secret conversation, sometimes sharing bittersweet memories, sometimes giggling like two kids in a backyard tent on a summer sleepover. Listen to the breathtakingly close unison playing Salvation and the joyous Alex Menzie’s; but also to the lush drone Surette places below Miller’s arching fiddle in Da Bonxie, and the wistful gentleness he brings to The Volunteer.
Miller has played New England dances and concerts for over 10 years with pianist Mary Cay Brass and was eager to give her some space to strut her stuff. Pianists in traditional fiddle music are often the entire rhythm section, and her plucky chords are clearly accustomed to the dance floor. But her solo on Elaine’s Hambo is dark and gorgeously chill, vividly sketching a hushed winter landscape.
Bassist Stuart Kenney, of the busy dance band Wild Asparagus, and drummer Sam Zucchini, of the popular New York children’s band The Zucchini Brothers, offer solid groove and brief splashes of mood and color that are felt more than heard - the essence of the great traditional rhythm section.
Miller focuses on tunes friendly to the merry clop of the New England dance floor, and by letting his companions’ musical imaginations run loose,he has produced music as vibrant, swashbuckling and sweetly melodic as any Celtic, Cajun, Bluegrass or Cape Breton music today.
Miller cooked up the name Airplang as a droll play on words, the way a straight-necked northern New Englander might pronounce the phrase “ear playing,” used to describe both the oral transmission of folk tradition, and the dance musician’s special gift for playing to the sound of dancing feet. Taken that way,the new name makes perfect sense. Airdance: A dance for the ears.