Local Fiddler Mari Black to show her Cape Breton side: At Club Passim concert with Troy MacGillivray on June 20

Mari Black will team with Cape Breton fiddler Troy MacGillivray at Club Passim on June 20.

Well-traveled and accomplished Boston-based fiddler Mari Black and Nova Scotian fiddler/pianist Troy MacGillivray – one of the leading lights in Cape Breton music for most of this century – team up on June 20 at Harvard Square’s Club Passim for a special collaborative concert, “From Highlands to Islands.”  

Drawing on their deep roots in traditional music, Black and MacGillvray will present what they describe as a dynamic musical journey from the majestic highlands of Scotland to the shores of Cape Breton Island, and many other places where these musical styles have spread over the years. Also joining in on the festivities will be local guitarist Matt Heaton.

“There are so many beautiful similarities between Scottish and Cape Breton music,” says Black, a two-time US Scottish fiddle champion, “but both also have unique personalities that we love to highlight and celebrate.  I think of Scottish as more ‘fiery,’ while Cape Breton is more ‘earthy.’  It’s music that speaks to your soul.”

Black first met MacGillivray in 2019, when both were teaching at the Acadia Festival of Traditional Music and Dance in Bar Harbor, Me.  The two hit it off immediately and did a performance at the festival. “It was one of those situations where you play two bars of music together and you instantly feel the artistic connection,” Black says with a laugh. 

During the pandemic, the pair arranged to do a virtual concert from their respective locations, aptly titled “Music & Mischief,” which involved them doing a lot of things one wouldn’t expect: step dancing, playing instruments they aren’t known for playing in public, and even showing some nostalgic baby pictures.  

“We have the perfect chemistry of tomfoolery, humor, fun energy, and being rabble rousers at sessions,” says Black. “I love collaborating with Troy because it’s always a spontaneous adventure — you never know what we’re going to do next.”

Black has spent her musical life exploring a diverse array of musical styles, so it’s not surprising for her to hear the question: How does one musician get so caught up in so many different genres – Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, Quebec, American, jazz, tango, swing, klezmer, classical, contemporary?

The answer, she says, is deceptively simple.

“At the root, it’s all dance music. It’s built to make us move — in different ways, at different rhythms and speeds, on our own or with others.  Dance is an incredible uniting force because everyone moves – it’s a human need.  I love getting to play the music that invites and inspires people to dance along.”

Black, who refers to herself as “an enthusiastic collector of passport stamps,” has played music in many corners of the world and a variety of settings: fiddle competitions (she’s a multiple champion in American, Scottish, and Canadian Maritime styles); Celtic festivals; music camps and programs; and venues of just about every size, including Carnegie Hall.  And she has been honored to study with, and eventually perform with, venerated artists in many styles, ranging from Liz Carroll to jazzman Willie Ruff, as well as four legendary jazz drummers at Yale School of Music’s Duke Ellington Fellowship concert series.

While the Passim concert will offer a glimpse of Black’s spectrum of sounds, her 2014 album “Flight” is even more stylistically wide-ranging. On one track, she combines a pair of traditional Irish jigs, “Cliffs of Mohr” and “Green Hills of Tyrol” with her own “Exhale,” and is joined by her mother Bonnie, an accomplished cellist and the album’s producer, for a sonorous take on a famous modern pipe melody, “The Highland Cathedral.”  Her Scottish-style fiddling is in full bloom on “The MSR (Magnificent Scottish Revelry)” – the title is a spoof of the “MSR” acronym, which in Scottish music denotes “march, strathspey, reel” – with “Lord Huntly's Cave/Craigellachie Bridge/The Bride's Reel /The Gladstone.”

Additionally, “Flight” features a Québécois medley (“Le Tableau/Reel Du Chaloupier/Le Voyage/Reel Des Soucoupes Volantes”); a classic fiddle-piano pairing for a blast of Cape Breton tunes (“The Paps of Glencoe/Glen Grant/Glen Rinne's/Reel for Melodie and Derrick/Tom Rae/Father Francis Cameron”); and the jazz-inflected “Hallucinations” and “Peepholes” with piano and drums backing.

Her 2020 duo recording with three-time world champion accordionist – and New England Conservatory alum – Cory Pesaturo, "Unscripted," is a further demonstration of Black's globe-trotting, cosmopolitan proclivities. The pair exhibit a chemistry that is at times breath-taking, through a veritable kaleidoscope of time signatures, tones, and timbres: a Sicilian tarantella here, an Italian mazurka “Migliavacca”) there, a Balkanesque Pesaturo original (“Crankin’”), George Gershwin’s “But Not for Me,” a klezmer, a hora, and consecutive tracks of a Cape Breton air followed by a medley of dance tunes – both musicians wringing just about every possible mode of expressiveness from their instruments.

Black – born in New York and a resident of Portland, Me., until she was eight – is fond of saying that it was the violin that chose her, rather than the contrary.  “As a little kid, everything looked to me like a violin, whether it was a pair of chopsticks or a couple or garden trowels. I just felt very drawn to playing music, and the violin in particular.” Growing up with a mother who had taught herself to play music, with a superb ability on piano as well as cello and a keen interest in many genres, certainly helped spur Black’s development.

In addition to studying classical music, Black, along with her family, was “musically adopted” by members of the rich fiddling community in southern Maine, most notably by a group called the Maine French Fiddlers and celebrated fiddler Don Roy – a generous teacher and musician lovingly dubbed “the dean of Franco-American fiddling” – who was especially influential for Black.  The family would make regular forays to fiddle events around New England, and Black found kindred souls in the Downeast fiddlers of all ages, who were playing in the Québécois, Irish, and Scottish traditions. 

 “The sounds they made would just grab you,” she recalls. “It was more than music; it was a musical language, one they wanted to pass on to the next generation.”

Black’s musical development continued when the family moved to Cambridge, very near Passim, where she was able to “drink from the well of folk music.” As a teen, she went to a fiddle camp run by fiddler Mark O’Connor, whose brand of new American classical music has earned him critical acclaim and three Grammy awards, not to mention a multitude of admirers and students. Her circle of music-related friends and acquaintances continued to grow, even as she also followed an academic path, earning a master of music degree and artist diploma in violin performance from the Yale School of Music and a doctorate in education from Columbia University Teachers College.

Black’s innate joie de vivre is evident in performance but also more informal settings, such as last fall, when she led a gathering of the Boston Scottish Fiddle Club's monthly session at the Canadian American Club in Watertown. The occasion served as an opportunity for her to trot out her "Session Bingo" game, in which challenges are spelled out in the bingo card spaces like "Play a slip jig," "A tune you learned at fiddle camp," "A tune about the weather" and so on. She continually encouraged the session participants to put their best foot forward, even if their tune selection didn't meet the bingo card criteria. 

Black will be on the road this summer in her "Fiddling Around the World" trio, which includes a rotating cast of guitarists and bassists, and will teach at a few music camps, among them the Acadia Festival of Traditional Music and Dance, of which she now serves as music director. As always, she'll be reaching into – and simultaneously expanding – that voluminous, diverse repertoire of hers. 

Which leads to another question she's used to contemplating: How do you move through and inhabit so many different kinds of music? 

"You know, there's probably a discussion to be had about the mindset in approaching one kind of music as opposed to another," she says. "But I think that, if the music is just plain good, you don't always have to be intellectual about it.  You find what speaks to you in the music, and let it take you wherever it goes."

Tickets and details about the Mari Black-Troy MacGillivray concert available via passim.org; Black’s website is mariblack.com