As you might imagine from my surname, I am a proud Irish-American. Indeed, it was barely a century ago that my great-grandfather departed County Wicklow to settle in the coal fields of southeastern Pennsylvania. I can recall as a child living in suburban splendor in northern New Jersey my grandfather’s stories of his early years in the coal fields. An inveterate letter writer, he filled many pages with tales of his own childhood in the years leading up to World War I.
Suffice it to say, I grew up with a sense of Irish history and culture. I was introduced to traditional Irish music as a child through my father’s Clancy Brothers records and continue to enjoy it. I am deeply impressed by the genre’s impact on other forms (bluegrass, chief of all) as well as its own malleability (there’s no shortage of Celtic rock bands, for example).
Given that background, the music of Melanie O’Reilly has caught my attention. The Dublin – as in Ireland, not East Bay – native is nothing less than a pioneer in Celtic jazz. Now living in the Bay Area, she represented Ireland last year at the European Union Jazz Festival at UCLA and her performance at Dublin’s National Concert Hall was hailed as one of that city’s 2013 best.
What comprises Celtic jazz? You have the opportunity to hear for yourself tonight as O'Reilly's Celtic Jazz Collective performs at Berkeley’s Starry Plough Pub. Kurka Boshkin and Corca Baiscin round out the bill.
Born in Dublin, O’Reilly comes from a dynasty of musicians and actors. Treading the boards from an early age as an actress and singer, she quickly became a multiple award-winning singer in Dublin’s Feis Ceol competitions. By age 11, she was immersing herself in the rhythms and scat improvisations of Ella Fitzgerald as well as the music of other jazz giants such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Closer to home, O’Reilly discovered the Foxrock Folk Club, an oasis of local talent where she was introduced to Horslips, the Louis Stewart Trio, and the Chieftains; while discovering the recordings of Seán O Ríada, she also listened to the Sean-Nós singer Seasamh O Heanai.
After having studied dramatic performance at the Brendan Smith Theatre Academy Dublin, O’Reilly finished with a Bachelor of Arts from University College Dublin. She then began her career as a professional musician, quickly building a reputation for herself as one of the rising stars of the international jazz firmament. It was in this early period of her career that O’Reilly began experimenting with the fusion of contemporary jazz with traditional Irish music. This new brand of Celtic jazz has become not only the trademark of Melanie’s style and career, but also has pushed the boundaries of jazz and launched her into a realm of her own.
O’Reilly has released several albums (including “Ceol Ceantair/District Music,” “Dust and Blood,” “House of the Dolphins”) and established a broadcasting career as creator and host of “Jazz on the Bay,” which can be heard on Ireland’s RTE Radio 1. The show is designed to capture “the spirit of jazz in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond” through “music and interviews of Bay Area jazz performers, interspersed with their life stories, inspirations and personal anecdotes.” In the process, O’Reilly has interviewed everyone from Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck and Marian McPartland to Clint Eastwood, Kurt Elling and David Benoit.
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