Make no mistake, fiddler Liz Carroll is proud to have grown up in Chicago, and has always enjoyed playing in and around her hometown. But she’s more than happy for the opportunity to spend time in Boston.
“When people ask me, ‘Where are the best sessions?’ I answer, ‘Well, Chicago – but oh, those sessions in Boston…,’ ” laughs Carroll, whose past performances in the Boston area include the ICONS Festival, The Burren ,and “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.”
She adds, “It’s such a vibrant scene. There are so many wonderful young musicians who come to the area – I think Berklee College of Music has a lot to do with that – and bring a lot of exciting, fresh perspectives with them. But the ‘old guard’ – like the local Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann chapter – has always done such a great job in keeping the music alive and well.”
Carroll will return to the area this month for the 12th annual “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” production, which takes place March 15-18 with shows at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Cabot Theatre in Beverly, and the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford, before closing out with matinee and evening performances in Sanders Theatre on the Harvard University campus.
The 2017 “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” cast also includes Irish singer Karan Casey and her band, local fiddle-harp duo Jenna Moynihan and Mairi Chaimbeul, and guitarist-singer Keith Murphy, the show’s music director. Siblings Ruby and Sam Miller from Rhode Island will be the featured dancers.
Carroll has been one of America’s most prominent Irish fiddlers for a good three decades or so, not only for the precision and verve of her playing but also for her based-in-tradition compositions. Among other honors, she has received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, was nominated for a Grammy for “Double Play,” her album with longtime collaborator guitarist John Doyle, and was the first American-born composer to win Ireland’s Cumadoir TG4 award for traditional Irish music.
As the daughter of Irish immigrants, Carroll came by the music honestly – her father played accordion, her grandfather the fiddle, and her parents often took her to a live radio show that featured Irish music. She took up fiddle, and by her late teens was regularly atop the All-Ireland competitions, with two first-place finishes plus a second place in solo fiddle, and another in the duet category.
Yet as much as she loved tunes from tradition, Carroll found she liked composing her own – her first solo album, “A Friend Indeed” (1978), featured five of her pieces – although at first finding a venue in which to play them wasn’t always easy.
“For me to play an unknown tune in those Chicago sessions wouldn’t have gone over very well,” she says. “I’m not a ‘session-buster,’ but I do like to hear individuals try things out – I remember being fascinated years ago being around bluegrass fiddlers, who were all about taking solos.
“So the only time I would usually trot out my own tunes was when I played with my friends, and we’d learn each another’s stuff. Part of the reason was, back then we didn’t learn tunes all that fast, and when an album we all liked came out we’d focus on learning everything on it. But then it might be another six months or so before the next album, and you’d be dying to play a new tune to challenge yourself. So my tunes were pretty complicated then, very notey, and all over the fiddle; over time, they’ve gone the other way, and they’re quieter, with less notes.”
Carroll went on to tour with the Green Fields of America ensemble headed up by Mick Moloney, released a second solo recording – incorporating more of her compositions – and later recorded two albums as part of the trio Trian, with guitarist Daithi Sproule and accordionist Billy McComiskey.
And then along came John Doyle: He and Carroll made for a powerful partnership that often turned the melody-rhythm dynamic upside down and sideways.
“He’s simply a genius, with just a flawless sense of rhythm,” says Carroll. “And what a memory. We’d have someone come up before a concert and say, ‘Would you do such-and-such tune?’ And I’d say to him, ‘John, this one is pretty complicated,’ and he’d reply, ‘Play it.’ He would get it just like that. And then, when we’d play it for real, he’d remember it perfectly. It makes no sense to me!
“We just had a great level of understanding with one another. Sometimes I’d have a strong idea of what the chord should be in a particular part of a tune, so he’d give me what I wanted to hear – but then he’d throw in something different, and it worked. I didn’t feel like what John did was ‘accompaniment’ – he was right on top of it, wasn’t sitting back. We were a duo in every sense of the word.”
But the Carroll-Doyle partnership was in some ways a victim of its own success.
“John’s a multi-tasker, and he just needs to be doing a bunch of different things at once,” explains Carroll. “I tend to be more settled, and focus more on one or two things. He kept on getting all these fantastic offers because everyone wanted to have him on their tour, or play on or produce their album, and it just didn’t seem right to hold him back. But we had a great run, and we’re still close friends, and every now and then see each other at some festival or other event.”
Carroll, for her part, spends some of her time playing in the String Sisters, an all-star female band whose members – including Annbjorg Lien, Liz Knowles, and Catriona MacDonald – represent fiddle traditions from Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia and America. (They’re rumored to be recording a new album sometime soon.) In 2013, she released her first solo album, “On the Offbeat,” in more than a decade, with an impressive guest list that included Sean Og Graham, Trevor Hutchinson and Seamus Egan.
Which leads to the inevitable question of when Carroll’s next recording might be. And here, Carroll – like more than a few musicians – is contemplating a dramatically altered landscape than when she started out.
“It’s just a very different time,” she says. “I’ve been working with a terrific guitarist-pianist, Jake Charron, and told him recently that we should put some tracks down. But then I started thinking about the pros and cons of doing a CD – the time, the expense, and so on. But my husband Charles said, ‘Look, whatever this thing is going to be, you should just do it. Who knows if it’s going to be an album or a download; don’t let it stop you from putting something on tape.’ And I’ve taken that to heart.”
Carroll is grateful for the chance to work with musicians from more recent generations, even if in unlikely circumstances. “I was on Skype not long ago with this 11-year-old kid from Vermont who wanted to make up tunes, and ended up having the best time – I’m whistling one of his tunes while walking through the house. I just feel all energized by working with these younger musicians. They bring so much creativity and spark to the tradition.”
Here’s a look at the rest of the performers who’ll be appearing in “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn”:
• Waterford native Karan Casey, who was through town back in November as the lead singer with the Childsplay fiddle ensemble, was an original member of the groundbreaking Irish-American super-group Solas, with whom she recorded three albums before embarking on a solo career. Casey’s most recent album, 2014’s “Two More Hours,” featured her own compositions and showed her diverse musical background, blending jazz, blues and R&B. She’s also toured with Maura O’Connell and Lúnasa, and performed in A Stór Mo Chroí, a collaboration with John Spillane, Lumiere and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh.
• Jenna Moynihan (fiddle), from upstate New York, and Mairi Chaimbeul (harp), a native of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, met as students at Berklee College of Music and forged a sound that fuses Scottish and Appalachian/old-timey music, with elements of classical and jazz. They are set to release an album later this month, and will hold a concert to mark the occasion on March 26 at Harvard Square’s Club Passim.
• Keith Murphy, born in Newfoundland and now living in Brattleboro, is an accomplished guitarist, pianist and arranger, as well as a masterful singer in both English and French. In addition to performing for years as part of the innovative contra dance trio Nightingale, he’s collaborated with numerous musicians and singers, and has been part of the fiddle ensemble Childsplay.
• Ruby and Sam Miller, who have often appeared as a trio with sister Evelyn, are top-flight Irish step dancers who competed in the World Irish Dancing Championships in Belfast in 2012 and Boston in 2013.
For ticket information and other details about “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” see wgbh.org/celtic.