Jamie Laval knows his way around a reel or two. The classically trained violinist is equally adept at performing an intricate Bach piece. But after years traveling the globe as an in-demand symphonic musician, Laval chose to explore the traditional music of Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany.
Laval is a U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion whose 2012 album Murmurs and Drones won “Best World Traditional Album” at the Independent Music Awards. In addition to performing, Laval is a composer, arranger of symphonic scores, and ardent music educator. In 2015, Laval delivered a TED Talk about the power of music and how it can transform the world.
In performance, Laval blends music, storytelling, foot percussion, even an impressive impression of Highland bagpipes, into a rollicking concert that he hopes will entertain and educate his listeners about the beauty and history of ancient Celtic music. At his upcoming performance at Hungry Monk Music, Laval brings his decades of experience in playing centuries-old, much-loved music. Ever the educator, Laval also leads a workshop the following morning to share his experience in playing traditional Celtic songs. While Laval is a world-class fiddle player, he welcomes musicians of all types to participate and jam along.
City Paper: What initially compelled you to explore these traditional musics?
Jamie Laval: I initially pursued classical music because there was a clear path to studying formally and playing professionally in symphonies. But I was always attracted to traditional folk music because of its danceable groove and the ability to re-interpret the ancient music in a personalized manner. In my off hours, I explored ethnic folk music voraciously and eventually developed a distinctive sound of my own. I started getting invited to perform traditional Scottish music throughout the U.S. and in Scotland. At that point it made sense to follow my passion and leave classical music behind to pursue traditional Celtic music exclusively.
CP: Did your family and friends think that you’d had a nervous breakdown when you chose to completely forgo your symphonic life and go from classical violin to folk fiddle?
JL: My symphony colleagues were a little puzzled when I bid adieu to a well-paying orchestra job; but when they saw me rise in recognition and heard the music I was performing, they were full of praise.
CP: What does one of your performances typically entail?
JL: In Charleston I will perform as a solo act, starting out with some burning, toe-tapping music from the Scottish Highlands. I’ll vary the tempo with some gentler music from rural Ireland and the Celtic region of France known as Brittany. Along the way, I recount ancient stories, which tie in with the musical selections. Among them is a tale of a mighty battle and a creepy ghost story from Northern England. The show finishes up with some blisteringly fast, peasant dance music.
CP: Was it a bit of a challenge to learn how to stand on stage and tell stories?
JL: My storytelling came about quite randomly … altogether different than my decades long, purposeful study of violin playing. I kept hearing a lot of people remark after my show how much they liked my verbal explanations of the music and the funny anecdotes in between each musical selection. Little by little, I expanded on that and eventually found my own style of storytelling. It has become a nice contrast and complement to the music. It’s loads of fun to find quirky, old stories and re-envision them.
CP: This kind of music is both reverent and, in a way, easily inclusive and even “blue collar.” Do you feel that people somehow feel less intimated by what you play than if you were playing classical music?
JL: Celtic music was born of simple people who scratched out a rustic, rural existence. It is remarkable today how it appeals to such a wide demographic. It has a universal quality that doesn’t require erudition to be able to enjoy. That’s why I have been so happy devoting myself to Celtic music above all other styles.
CP: It seems like with nearly all indigenous, traditional, and folk musics there are obvious melodic and harmonic similarities; such as the drones of Scotch-Irish, traditional Arabic, Indian classical music; even bluegrass. Why do you think these music forms share these inherent traits?
JL: Well, not so much in bluegrass … but certainly in East Indian, Irish, Scottish, Galician, Macedonian, Greek, Breton, etc. The practice of playing a steady drone note underneath a melody comes from the ancient bagpipe tradition. Drones are played to provide harmony. A single bagpipe player can thus simultaneously play a melody and the accompaniment to the melody. Drones only work if the melodies have no fancy key changes, or sharps and flats. If the melody is simple and sticks to just the principle notes of a scale, drones can sound great. But as western music developed into the modern age (i.e.: classical, pop, jazz, etc.), drones no longer sounded good and were discarded. Meanwhile, in Celtic music the practice of playing drones behind a melody continues as an inseparable part of the style.
CP: You’ve performed for Her Majesty the Queen and performed with Dave Matthews; which one was more of a diva?
JL: Ha! Neither was a diva. Dave Matthews is just a normal, friendly, everyday guy who’s easy to talk to and doesn’t think of himself as anything special. As for the queen, I could see no sign of a personality behind the facade of protocol.