Even as the boundaries that separate the age-old and emerging cultures of our world seem to meld and coalesce, there are musicians who rely on what has gone before them to craft entirely new styles of music that are much more than hybrids, that are, in essence, newly created genres which raise the bar for generations of artists to come.
Maeve Gilchrist is such an artist. A harpist, vocalist, and classically trained pianist, Maeve - who is daughter to an Irish mother and Scottish father - grew up equally immersed in the traditional music of her Celtic ancestors. From her early teens, Maeve was an in-demand member on the traditional music scene in Scotland where she performed at events such as the opening of the Scottish Parliament, the Celtic Connections Festival and the International Edinburgh Harp Festival. But it was her move to Boston, where she studied world music and jazz at Berklee, that set her on a musical path that has now reached its culmination in Song of Delight, her debut for Adventure Music America, which will be released on May 17. On Song of Delight, which is the second release of Maeve's career, she has managed to both reflect the deep roots of her traditional background and yet branch out in a distinctive direction that is singularly of her own design.
“I grew up in an extremely musical family,” says Maeve. “My sister plays the fiddle, my brother plays the guitar, my dad plays the pipes and two of my aunts play the harp. There was always music going on in the house, and it instilled a real sense of the joy of music. We also had a fantastic record collection, ranging from Joni Mitchell to Ravi Shankar.”
It was with all of those influences and inspirations that Maeve arrived at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where she was enrolled as a jazz vocal major. Attending a school that placed equal emphasis on the business of music as well as its craft, Maeve soon realized that the key to a successful career lay in identifying and nurturing the qualities that set her apart. The answer, to Maeve, lay equally in what she’d brought to Boston as well as what she was able to take away from her time there.
“The underlying foundation of my music is and always will be the traditional Scottish music that I grew up with,” explains Gilchrist. “But the wonderful thing about studying at Berklee was the number of international students and the different cultures they brought along with them. It was then that I really began to explore improvisational music.”
Among the musicians that she encountered in Boston were two young players from Argentina – bassist Andres Rotmistrovsky and percussionist Marcelo Woloski, with whom she recorded her first self-released CD, in 2006, while she was still attending Berklee. Reaching Me was lauded by Dirty Linen for its “… seamless blend of ancient Celtic music with contemporary jazz.”
Fast forward a bit, and Maeve found herself living in Portland, Maine. In the year since the release of Reaching Me, she’d been teaching and performing throughout the Northeast, and was among the winners at the prestigious Lyon and Healy International Jazz and Pop Harpfest competition. At a party, a friend introduced her to string legend Darol Anger, a chance meeting that proved rather fortuitous a few months later, when Maeve decided it was time to record her second CD, and asked Darol if he’d be interested in participating. The result of that musical association, recorded in Maine, produced by Anger, and made more magical with the contributions of string bassist (and Maeve’s frequent collaborator) Aidan O’Donnell, is Maeve’s Adventure Music America debut, Song of Delight. Also on the CD are cellist Mike Block, and Anger, with guest performances from violinist Hannah Reed and mandolin player Joe Walsh.
Song of Delight is, says Maeve, “ a very organic and raw CD.” Vocals and harp were recorded live and simultaneously, which, she admits, was “an engineer’s nightmare,” but which ultimately adds to the honest vibe of the project. “Aidan and I had been playing so much together and I wanted to reproduce what we did live, with a developed string sound. The idea of the alternative string quartet was vey much born in the studio that week,” she continues. “It’s such a beautiful sound that supports but doesn’t mask the harp and voice. It’s acoustic and yet we’re able to improvise and groove without drums.”
Improvisation is fundamental to Maeve’s unique blend of sounds and styles. Even when she cites such important influences as Joni Mitchell, Maeve emphasizes the iconic singer/songwriter’s talent for musical invention. “On albums like Shadows and Light, Joni features musicians like Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius in her bands. The song were woven in amongst these instrumental interludes. That is more and more the direction I find myself taking.”
Certainly, the harp is not an instrument that comes immediately to mind when discussing improvisational music, or jazz, for that matter. Maeve explains, “It's hard to find improvising role models for the harp. Saxophone players and pianists have this legacy of players that have gone before them, who they can transcribe and emulate. Harpists don't really have that. And of course the limitations of the instrument prevent chromatic music from being easily played.”
Those limitations hardly seem relevant in light of Maeve’s work on Song of Delight. Gilchrist penned eight of the CD’s eleven tracks, deriving her inspiration from people and places she’s encountered in her life and work. Song of Delight also includes an inimitable interpretation of Stephane Grappelli’s “Automne” (featuring Maeve’s original lyrics) as well as Maeve’s own arrangements of two traditional songs, “Fleur de Mandegore” and “The Dowie Dens o’Yarrow.”
In addition to her own recordings and performances, Maeve’s talents have led her to collaborations with a wide variety of acclaimed contemporary artists, including Kathy Mattea and Grammy Award-winning bassist, Esperanza Spalding.
Still only in her twenties, Maeve is poised on the cusp of a musical career with an unlimited potential. Perhaps Darol Anger summed it up best in the liner notes to Song of Delight: “She’s giving the world a whole new concept, and the word for it is: A-Maeve-zing.”