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The Graham Album Review #1914

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Night Tree: Night Tree
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/4/2017)

There have grown to be two schools of Celtic music. There are the strict traditionalists who go exclusively for the authentic sound, and an increasing number of those for whom Celtic music is the starting point for a musically eclectic journey. Eileen Ivers has incorporated blues, Latin American and some South African influence. Shooglenifty mixed Celtic with some hip-hop rhythms and electronics, Maura O’Connell and Tim O’Brien have melded Celtic with bluegrass, the band Notify have brought together jazz-rock fusion electronic and Celtic. Even those champions of traditional Celtic music, the Chieftains, have collaborated with performers well outside the traditional Celtic realm for some interesting blends.

This week, we have a distinctive acoustic group who have one foot in Celtic music, but incorporate a wide variety of influences using an unconventional combination of instrumentation. The band is called Night Tree, and their debut recording is also called Night Tree.

Night Tree formed only last year, and came together at the New England Conservatory of Music where they were students, presumably studying different genres. They brought together the odd combination of instruments they were studying, so the band features, two violins, cello, accordion, a saxophone -- usually a baritone sax – and a variety of percussion, running from Celtic to Latin American with the cajon. They say they draw upon Irish, classical, jazz, Swedish folk, klezmer, and Afro-Cuban. They are mainly an instrumental group, and they have already developed a great musical rapport. From the band photos on their website, they look to be barely out of their teens, and include Lily Honigberg on violin, Chris Overholser on violin and viola, Sunniva Brynnel on accordion and lead vocals on the infrequent vocal tracks, Zach Mayer on sax, usually baritone sax, not often heard outside of jazz, McKinley James on cello, and Julian Loida on percussion. Their album was produced by Seamus Eagen, of the popular and also eclectic Celtic band Solas.

On their fan-funded, self-released debut album, they perform mainly original material often in the style of traditional, though they do serve up some interesting treatments of traditional music. A fair portion of the music has a kind of ethereal quality, but they can also turn up the energy level. Their arrangements also have some rhythmic twists while keeping it understated and often contemplative in texture.

Opening the generous 53 minute album is their title piece, Night Trees in a medley with a Solas tune Viva Galicia. The short introductory verse is one of the few instances of vocals on the album. It’s sung by Sunniva Brynnel, whose singing ought to be heard more. <<>> The band breaks into one of their eclectic cross-cultural amalgams on the second section, Viva Galicia, including the unlikely combination with the saxophones played by Zach Mayer. <<>>

The original way that Night Tree incorporates the baritone sax into their music is highlighted on the following piece A Wish on the Wind, written by saxophonist Mayer. It’s the band in their contemplative mode with an arrangement that has a lot of subtle layers. <<>>

Ships is a piece of, what in the classical world is called “program music” with a the music providing an impression of a sequence of events. In this case, a voyage about which the band writes in their description of the piece, “The ship forges onward with hubris and cheer only to meet is final end as the sea consumes without mercy.” <<>>

Another of the three vocals is Thanksgiving, also by Ms. Brynnel. The piece has a plaintive sound with the band’s typically eclectic instrumentation with the baritone sax and the Latin American percussion instrument providing a twist while the three string players are featured. <<>>

One particularly eclectic blend is the track FoWrist, which incorporates what sounds like Swedish hardanger fiddle influence with some Latin percussion touches, while getting into an increasingly energetic jig. <<>>

Wheel in the Forest incorporates some piano in a flowing piece that has a bittersweet quality, with the string players featured. <<>>

On the other hand one of the more upbeat and driving tracks is a medley of Saraswati, named for the Indian goddess of love, and Catharsis, which has the rare instance of a baritone sax taking the lead of an Irish-style reel. <<>>

The album ends with an unexpected track, a largely a cappella piece called Survivor’s Nign, an original Yiddish lament for the survivors of 9/11. Zach Mayer was, to quote the band’s description of the piece, “A little Jewish boy from Queens who watched his city burn,” and recalled it in this song fifteen years later. <<>>

Night Tree, the eponymous debut album by the acoustic sextet of current and former students of the New England Conservatory of Music, is an often fascinating and imaginative recording that mixes influences with abandon, with a kind of Celtic center. Their unconventional instrumentation with three string player, accordion, percussion and baritone sax would seem like the result of an attempt to throw a band together when not enough people showed up for a call for players for an orchestra. But instead they are full of interesting ideas and are great at creating distinctive sonic textures that effectively use what they play. The composing is first-rate, the playing is subtle and the production, by Seamus Eagen, is outstanding.

Our grade for sound quality is an “A.” The everything is well captured, the clarity is commendable, and the use of sonic ambiance is effective.

Night Tree’s bio says that the group likes to get together and play in the dark to “allow themselves the opportunity to focus and listen closely to one another.” Whether you listen in the light or dark, Night Tree’s new album is thoroughly enchanting.

(c) Copyright 2017 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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This page last updated October 08, 2017