Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mr. Jabbour's Fiddle Tune Book

I wrote this last year for the Old Time Herald. I think it's worth reposting here.

Fiddle Tunes Illuminated: 45 Tunes Transcribed and Annotated for Stylistic Study, As Played by Alan Jabbour on Two CDs, A Henry Reed Reunion and Southern Summits

Transcribed by Liberty Ruker and Alan Jabbour

Introduction and Commentary by Alan Jabbour

Published by Alan Jabbour © 2009

Lee Triplett, the great fiddler from Clay County, WV, once said—to the late Hedy West of all people—“I wouldn’t sit down if Jesus appeared.” What he might have said to Dr. Jabbour, if “accused” of practicing “scordatura” upon his Pretty Little Dog, could certainly not be imagined in the pages of this august journal. Mr. Triplett was a straight-forward man. He wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel. Yet Dr. Jabbour would have been correct. Lee Triplett was an unrepentant scordaturist, a life-long practitioner of this dark and obscure art.

Obviously, then, it is entirely possible to be a fine fiddler and at the same time have no conscious or unconscious awareness of scordatura, hemiola, the heptatonic mode, or the Scotch Snap Pattern. It might even be, in a few psychological examples, that becoming aware of these and other features of music, when viewed through the lens of the inquiring mind could be a ruinous thing: the famous example of Satie leaps to mind. The poor soul (and genius melodist) is said to have sent himself to the Academe after finding initial success in the world of high musical art, whereupon he was convinced by the scholars that he knew nothing and, gaining this self-knowledge, retreated Paris for his small home-town to ply the banking trade for the rest of his life.

With this small surgeon-general’s warning, let me then say that almost anyone interested in the art of fiddling will find Alan Jabbour’s wonderful book of great and enduring value, to be placed in the bookshelf beside Chief O’Neill’s collections and memoirs, Breathnach’s Ceol Rince na hEireann, R.P. Christeson’s The Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory, and more recently the work of Lisa Ornstein. Jabbour has been so kind as to tie his transcriptions and analysis to actual CDs, a link sorely lacking in much of the previous published fiddling work. The fact is and always has been that music is its own universe—learning to read musical notation, or to discuss its characteristics, is not the same thing as learning to play a good tune or even a good symphony. But this isn’t to say that learning to think analytically about a tune’s character isn’t a joy in its own right. I have always found Alan Jabbour to be a joyful man.

The joy, if you’ve heard Alan playing tunes live or on recordings, is obvious. It was said about the extraordinary Irish fiddler Tommy Potts (his LP, The Liffey Banks, is now in CD format), that he could go into a room to play an air, and would be found at the end of the tune to be sitting in a pool of tears—Seamus Innis being a man to call on for liner notes given that Joyce was in Trieste. Alan’s joy in tunes is no less. As a fiddler lucky enough to have played in sessions with Alan, and to have been influenced by his approach to fiddling ever since I began my own journey down the fiddle path, I have never seen him play without passion and verve. It is thus another, expected, joy, to hear Alan “talk” at length about his work and interest in this collection. And if you should want to learn one of “his” tunes via notation, or by mixing reading the notes with one of the cuts on either of the two CDs which accompany the book, success should follow industry. Alan’s precision makes for fine learning, even when the effort is entirely by ear, and here his precision serves to tie the notes on the page tightly to the notes played.

There isn’t room to quote the annotations in enough length to give you a full appreciation of this work. If you would like to think systematically about fiddle tunes, and learn many features of this body of music when observed by a scholar-player of Mr. Jabbour’s caliber, this is the book for you, without any doubt. And if you simply want to learn some of Alan’s fine repertoire, this book would be like several week long master classes with Mr. Jabbour. But I have to quote at least a little, to give you the flavor:

“The first and second strains [of Magpie] begin with the same pickup. Was this tune perhaps originally a song, from which an additional strain was eked? If so, it seems likely that the song strain was the second, because the first strain consists of arpeggiated phrases. I invented the progression from the IV-chord to the V-chord at the midcadence of the second strain (I-2) and taught it to our band [the original Hollow Rock String Band]. Occasionally an accompanying musician, not hearing it the same way, goes back to the I-chord (G). To suggest my own preferred chord, I began playing the tune with a D-F# double-stop instead of the simple D. To my surprise, some musicians began hearing the melody as progressing to an F#, and to this day I occasionally hear musicians playing an F# who must have learned it, remotely and indirectly, from me. But I have returned, chastened, to the simple D at the midcadence. And in truth the I-chord is a perfectly reasonable choice, despite my early preference for a V-chord.” (p. 67)

There is a great deal to think about in this little paragraph. Alan’s book is full of this kind of depth of analysis, including in many cases his reflective self-analysis of his own playing, and how it has changed and evolved over a life-time of sawing the strings. As with his playing, Alan possesses a mind which sees great detail and resolution. If he were a sportscaster, Alan could tell you what just happened better than you could see it yourself. And he’s willing to share. Tunes Illuminated, then is a triple “threat” at the very least. In the actual tunes, written in notation, a fiddle student can find a leg up on a terrific repertoire of fiddle melodies. With the accompanying CDs (also available separately, and each reviewed in past issues of the Old Time Herald), any listener can enter the musical realm directly. And with Alan’s accompanying text, the tunes are, indeed and most assuredly, illuminated, with the result that the reader should leave the book with a broader understanding of the musical context of the melodies, and of what a fiddler actually does when playing them.

I have one tiny quibble that I’ll just make known. When I went to Scotland long ago I was told in no uncertain terms that “Scotch” only referred to the elixir, and Scots was the preferred locution when an adjective was required. I have followed this maxim faithfully, incorporating it into all my writing, and so I was slightly disturbed to see the phrase “Scotch Snap.” Surely, if a reprint is required (and I hope this review will force the issue in short order!), we can change it to “Scots Snap.” This is how progress is made in the ever upward path towards human perfection.

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