“I usually come up with some kind of framework for what I’m going to do,” says Neil Pearlman of his solo piano renditions of Gaelic songs and tunes, “but I feel it’s really important to live in the moment.” Photo credit: Jesse Pearlman
When he set out to make his recently released recording “Refractions,” New England Celtic musician Neil Pearlman discovered the full significance of the phrase “solo album.”
“There’s really nowhere to hide,” says Pearlman, a Portland resident who’s been active in the Greater Boston area Celtic music scene for years. “It’s a very intense experience, and can present quite a challenge in choosing what to play, because there are no other musicians, no other styles or sounds, to bounce off of. It’s just you. Everything you play is what’s going on.”
What’s going on in “Refractions” is Pearlman employing his distinctive improvisational piano approach — which incorporates elements of jazz, classical and other genres — to play melodies from the Scottish Gaelic song tradition as well as fiddle and piping repertoires. There’s no sheet music for reference, and Pearlman doesn’t rely on some preconceived, memorized setting. The music is what happens.
“While playing solo was a little discombobulating at first, I was able to explore things I’ve never done, and which wouldn’t work in the context of accompanying another musician,” explains Pearlman, who was in town at Club Passim last month with Shetland fiddler Kevin Henderson; his other collaborations have included the Katie McNally Trio, Fársan, Pine Tree Flyers, Alba’s Edge and Soulsha.
“I didn’t have to present a particular style. There were no limits on what I could do. I was free.”
That sense of openness is abundant throughout “Refractions,” with Pearlman coaxing a wide range of tone, expression and emotionality from the piano. His improvisations can be daring and adventurous, but are not chaotic, nor do they smack of “noodling,” and whatever course his inventions take – through complex chording, melodic variations, counterpoint or other techniques – he never entirely severs the connection to the original theme and its components.
When Pearlman discusses what he plays, and how he plays it, he’s as apt to draw on metaphors or similes as music theory. He talks about not simply performing tunes, but “having a conversation” with them, suggesting that even as he invests a tune with ideas and inspirations, the tune reciprocates with its own. And he describes his improvisations as like “looking at a tune through a prism, so that each time the tune is repeated it appears in a different light, highlighting facets previously overlooked, expanding one motif, glossing over another” – in short, a refraction.
On “Reel for Carl,” a tune written by Cape Breton fiddling legend Jerry Holland, Pearlman plays the melody on right hand only once all the way through, then takes it up with his left hand in a lower octave; when he plays the B part he brings back the right hand to double the melody. The next time through the A part, he alternates between hands in the different octaves, and then switches to a harmony in the lower notes. By the time he’s through the B part, he’s transitioned into a fuller-bodied sound and away from the strict 4/4 time signature. But even as he builds on his improvisation, the piece retains the force and drive of the reel, and in the final minute or so, Pearlman brings back some – but not all – of the original melody.
For “John MacDonald of Coll View,” a gregarious 6/8 march written by Gaelic singer Mary Ann Kennedy, Pearlman’s improvisations embellish the tune’s character yet adhere somewhat more to the melody than “Reel for Carl.” Another set combines a pair of tunes associated with the Scottish piping tradition, “George Hardy” and “The Rock and The Wee Pickle Tow,” and the latter features a passage near the end that has the exhilaration of someone walking a tightrope and making it to the other side.
“I usually come up with some kind of framework for what I’m going to do,” he says, “but I feel it’s really important to live in the moment.”
Pearlman’s explorations of Gaelic songs are a revelation, notably the medley “O, Is Àlainn an t-Àite”/“Biodh an Deoch Seo 'n Làimh Mo Rùin” – pairing a serene ode to the beauty of Cape Breton with a somewhat unusual version of a charming Scottish love song – and “Saoil an Till Mi Chaoidh,” for which he incorporated three different versions of the song taken from archival recordings, then added his own interpretation. The piano alternately offers a lushness to the melody or, at times, provides a stark landscape; you can almost imagine a voice, somewhere in the mix, intoning the Gaelic lyrics.
As Pearlman explains, simply learning the melody of a song wasn’t enough. He paid attention to how the singer articulated the lyrics and where he or she emphasized or softened words. He also took into consideration how one song might be found in different parts of the Scottish tradition, such as songs used in the context of weaving and those in waulking (cleansing cloth): Different versions would likely have different rhythms, and the words tended to be more important to the singers than the melodies.
“Some pieces, I just really needed open headspace; others I had to be more focused. But I still wanted to go in with that idea of finding possibilities in the moment.”
Pearlman grew up in a household suffused with music and dance. His father Ed is a highly respected Scottish/Cape Breton-style fiddler who co-founded the Boston Scottish Fiddle Club in 1981 and led it for 18 years (Neil is now the music director for the club’s performance orchestra), while his mother Laura Scott is an accomplished Scottish and Cape Breton dance performer and teacher. His younger siblings Lilly – with whom he formed Alba’s Edge – and Jesse also are musicians, and the three also became active in Scottish and Cape Breton dance.
Barely in school when he started on piano, Pearlman had classical lessons on and off, but he more often played the music he heard at home, and at age 10 he accompanied the Boston Scottish Fiddle Club at a performance. As much as he enjoyed listening to and playing Scottish and especially Cape Breton-style piano, he found himself becoming very interested in jazz piano, and performers like Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett, as well as the work of jazz bassist, singer and composer Avishai Cohen.
“I feel very lucky, because my dad loves jazz and always encouraged me to explore it,” says Pearlman. “The more I listened to and experimented with jazz, the more harmonic and rhythmic possibilities opened up to me. And I also have been fortunate to be around musicians who play folk and traditional music but have liked the kind of piano accompaniment I do. There’s been a lot of give and take, and it’s been very enjoyable.”
Recording a solo piano album hadn’t been a lifelong dream, Pearlman says, but the idea began taking shape several years ago, as he went through a spate of recording sessions with his assorted collaborations: “I didn’t have anything out under my own name, so I started to think about it more and more. And when the COVID lockdown came, I had even more time to think about it, until I finally decided to see what would happen.”
While Pearlman was on his own musically, he did have the insight and guidance of Ian Stephenson, who engineered the recording sessions.
“Ian was just great to work with,” he says. “With improvisation, you may well end up playing what you didn’t expect to play, and it can be difficult to step back and process. But Ian could tell me if it sounded good, or that maybe I should have another go. He was a very important second set of ears.
“The recordings could get to be nerve wracking sometimes. But then, sometimes it all worked out great, even if it wasn’t what I intended. And that’s really what it all comes down to: You have to go in trusting yourself, and the music, to have a really good conversation.”
For more about “Refraction” and other information about Neil Pearlman, see neilpearlman.com