The history of Irish traditional dance music in the United States has been extensively documented. Tens of thousands of words have been written about the invaluable contributions of musicians from Ireland -- and their American-born children and grandchildren -- who emigrated to New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. These great musicians are rightly recognized for having preserved and carried on their honored traditions, and they continue to do so today with great pride and ever-increasing recognition. Somewhat less thoroughly chronicled, one might even argue overlooked, for their importance to the growth and popularity of Irish music in America, are the great and neighboring cities of Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. The famed trio "The Irish Tradition" began playing in Washington and Baltimore in the mid-1970s, and their massive influence is still being felt to this day. The group's singer, Andy O'Brien, and accordionist, Billy McComiskey, both eventually settled in Baltimore, about thirty-five miles north of the nation's capital. The group's fiddler, Brendan Mulvihill, continues to live in suburban Maryland, just outside Washington D.C., to this day. Andy, Billy, and Brendan are owed an incalculable musical debt by everyone in the Washington/Baltimore area who plays or enjoys Irish music.
Brendan Mulvihill's legendary status as a performer of Irish music on the fiddle needs no elaboration. He virtually redefined the sound of the fiddle, and continues to explore and expand its possibilities every time he puts bow to string. This same single-minded devotion to his music has also made Brendan an in-demand instructor, whose high musical standard has been passed on to many of today's talented fiddlers who have been fortunate enough to benefit from his tutelage. Donna Long, Jesse Smith, and Brendan Callahan are but three of the wonderful fiddle players who have learned from Brendan Mulvihill, and they have all made recordings that clearly demonstrate his singular influence, as well as showcasing their own considerable talents.
The name of Jim Eagan can now be added that exclusive list. This, his début recording, is one of the most exciting musical events I can recall being part of in many years. Jim has audaciously chosen to dedicate his inaugural CD entirely to the compositions of Ed Reavy. Jim was already planning to make a recording when he found himself at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York, in July 2002. Also present that week was Ed Reavy, Jr., a tireless champion of his father's music. An informal meeting was arranged while in the Catskills, which led to a more formal visit to Ed's house, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in October 2002. Jim came away from that second meeting (at which Ed's brother Joe, and Ed's and Joe's wives, both named Mary, were also present) with the blessing of the Reavy family, and firmly committed to the idea of making an album-length recording of Ed Reavy's music. (For a full description of Ed Reavy's life and music, please visit the website at www.reavy.us .)
Jim was born in Baltimore in 1979, and continues to reside there. He fondly recalls being enchanted by the violin even at a very young age. "My father began taking violin lessons when I was five, and soon thereafter, I started taking Suzuki classes from the Baltimore Talent Education Center." (It should be noted that Jim's parents, Earle and Donna Eagan, are well-known and much loved by their fellow Baltimoreans for their unstinting devotion to Irish music in general and their son's music in particular; they can be counted on to appear at virtually any local event at which he is performing.) Until the age of fifteen, Jim exclusively studied classical violin, both through Suzuki classes and at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Jim's roots in Irish tradition truly sprouted from Irish step dancing, which he began studying from that same early age. Initially a student of Annette Cribben, who resided in Baltimore, and later a student of Kevin Broesler, who commuted from the New York area, Jim qualified for the World Championships in Dublin in 1991. This exposure to the jigs, reels, and hornpipes while learning his steps was instrumental in developing his desire and ability to play Irish traditional fiddle. Even now, Jim will occasionally get up and perform a step at a concert or session.
While in high school, Jim's interest in the dance music of his own Irish heritage became more pronounced. Jim was first exposed to the fiddling of Brendan Mulvihill while competing at a Feis at Glen Echo Park. They later met and his first lesson was arranged. From ages 15 to 18, Jim studied with Brendan Mulvihill. "In fact," says Jim, "the fiddle I play now is one I acquired from Brendan. It's an old German fiddle that I've had for three years now. I'm not sure who made it, but Brendan was always fascinated by it and I like it just as much." (Typical of fiddles associated with Brendan, the scroll on Jim's fiddle is adorned with an intricate carving of a lion's head.) Brendan is a primary influence on Jim's playing, which is reflected in his musical style. He distinctively pays homage to Brendan in the second part of "The House of Hamill" (track 12). During his final run you will hear a series of bow triplets and rhythmic bow bounces, signature ornamentations of Brendan's, which Jim reverentially reproduces here.
Jim, like his teacher Brendan Mulvihill, eventually found himself fascinated with the music of Ed Reavy. Brendan has been known to refer to Reavy's compositions as "paradise tunes" for the fiddle, and Jim couldn't agree more. "I might have heard some of the more popular Reavy tunes," Jim says, "on this or that CD or maybe being played in a session or a concert, but mostly I just went through the book ["Where The Shannon Rises"] and eventually took it all in. It got to the point where every tune was a keeper." Jim is not exaggerating - he literally plays every single Reavy tune that has been published to date. "Some of the tunes, naturally, seemed difficult at first, but they just grabbed me, and I also enjoyed playing some of the tunes that I'd never heard anyone else do. After I've been playing them for awhile, it's as if they flow right out of the fiddle. The tunes just seem to play themselves." When Jim visited the Reavy household in October 2002, to the delight of the assembled Reavy clan, he played a sizable chunk of the book, with variations and without rehearsal.
Jim is also rightly proud of having put together all the tune sets on this album. For, unlike the recordings of Coleman, Morrison and Killoran, which have provided untold numbers of musicians with ready-made medleys, there are scarcely any commercial recordings of Reavy himself playing his own tunes, whether in couplings or even singly. So, faced with the prospect of putting together an entire album of Reavy's compositions, Jim was naturally forced to combine tunes based on his own intuition rather than based on precedent. The results show how successful he was: The "John Roarty's" set (track 1) and the "Reilly of the White Hill" set (track 5) are but two of the many selections which sound as if they are old medleys being faithfully re-recorded (in the fashion of Coleman's "Tarbolton" set), rather than the brand-new sets which they actually are. If you're wondering about the inclusion of "The Irish Washerwoman" (track 6) on the present recording, Jim explains: "It's Reavy's setting of the old jig, but I put alot of my own variations in it." And thus, the tradition continues to develop and strengthen.
For the past several years, Jim has immersed himself in Irish traditional music. Jim's first trip to Ireland (1996), was to compete in the Fleadh Cheoil, the all Ireland music competition. Jim was awarded third place in the 15-18 age group category for fiddle. Soon thereafter, he began teaching privately. In 1997, Jim was invited to the Augusta Heritage workshops as an instructor, and has continued each year ever since. In the late 1990s, Jim spent several years as a member of the John Whelan Band and toured Ireland, Europe, Canada, and the U.S. At this writing, he is a member of O'Malley's March, the popular Baltimore-based group led by Mayor Martin O'Malley ( omalleysmarch.com ) and the band "Custom House". He also co-hosts two weekly sessions in Baltimore with flutist Laura Byrne: Sunday afternoons at the James Joyce Pub in downtown Baltimore, and Tuesday evenings at J.Patrick's Pub in south Baltimore's historic Locust Point neighborhood.
Jim relentlessly listens to Traditional music and he particularly admires the playing of fiddlers Sean Maguire, Frankie Gavin, Tommy Peoples, Sean Keane, and Jesse Smith, as well as piper Robbie Hannan, flutist Matt Molloy, accordionist Billy McComiskey, and pianist/fiddler Donna Long. Jim is fond of playing in duets, and is especially enthusiastic about his ongoing musical association with piper, and fellow Baltimorean, Eliot Grasso. They can be heard on track 7, playing what Jim calls, "a real Donegal-sounding set of tunes." Jim would like to acknowledge the contributions of the other musicians who play on this album: guitarist Andy Thurston, bouzouki player Mark Evans (who's new CD "A Rival Heart" [ www.rivalheart.com ], includes an appearance by Jim), banjoist Peter Fitzgerald, and, on percussion...