Karen Ashbrook,
Knock on the Door
(Maggie's Music, 1995)

Karen Ashbrook is a multi-instrumentalist who plays both Irish flute and hammered dulcimer. Although the dulcimer isn't usually associated with Irish music, Ashbrook has been identified as "the" Irish hammered dulcimer player in America, a reputation earned by having spent several years in Ireland studying the music and performing. There are many talented musicians who can hear a tune and learn it on fiddle or flute, but it takes a special ear to hear Irish music and translate it to dulcimer. Ashbrook has managed to do not only that, but stay true to the pure drop, without becoming a new-age Celtic player like so many other musicians.

That's not to say the selections here are the boring traditional tunes that all sound the same. The opening tune is exactly what you'd hope for on an Irish CD -- a pair of energetic reels on dulcimer and flute with guitar and bouzouki rounding out the sound. The remaining selection of tunes is a great mix of reels, jigs, marches, airs and hornpipes, alternating slow and fast, old and new tunes as if the presentation were a concert designed to keep the listener engaged from beginning to end.

One of the fascinating things about Irish tunes is their titles. Some are an easy guess -- tunes like "Johnny Doherty's Marches" and "Willie Coleman's" were either written or played by the person named, and tunes like "Lady Lorraine" were written in honor of the person. There are also picturesque titles, like Ashbrook's choices "Bank of Turf" and "Dusty Windowsills." But then there are the truly creative, the sorts of tune titles that make you want to listen to the tune regardless of what it sounds like, and Ashbrook chose two great ones. The very first cut, "Curlew," is alternately titled "My Granny Drowned in the Pool at Lourdes," and the title cut, "Knock on the Door" is often known as "The Convenience Reel" because the band Shegui learned the tune while tucked inside a bathroom. It's the wry Irish sense of humor that, even without words, comes through in the music, and is beautifully executed thanks to Ashbrook's inspired interpretations and arrangements.

The cover of this CD is somewhat misleading. It says, "Karen Ashbrook, Traditional Music from Ireland and Brittany, Hammered Dulcimer and Irish Flute." However, only one cut, "Princess Royal/Galway Bay," is dulcimer only. Almost all the selections feature quite talented accompanying musicians on many other instruments, most of who take the lead at some point in the tunes in which they play. The list includes David Kornblum on bouzouki, fiddle and guitar, Dan Blum on guitar, Wendy Morrison on pennywhistle, concertina and accordion, All-Ireland fiddle champion Brendon Mulvihill on fiddle and viola, Chris Norman on Irish flute and Myron Bretholz on bodhran and bones. Although Sue Richards doesn't appear to be credited in the liner notes, she is the anonymous Celtic harp player on "An tSean Bhean Bochi." Otherwise, the liner notes are good, listing brief anecdotes about each tune. In the case where two musicians play the same instrument, the one playing on the particular cut is specified. I love it when an artist does that.

"Knock on the Door" -- who's there? This group of musicians weaves in and out of Ashbrook's arrangements to raise the level of dynamics. The "Crested Hens/Laride" set is a pair of Breton tunes starting off with a mournful sigh on concertina, accented with dulcimer, which proves to be a delightful combination. It's followed by dances from southeast Brittany to not only pick up the tempo but the mood as well. The same pattern of slow air followed by a wake'em-up tune is repeated in "Princess Royal/Galway Bay," only this time as the only dulcimer solo on the CD. "Willie Coleman's/Bank of Turf" is a slow jig, with Karen on flute accompanied by bodhran and bouzouki providing counterpoint. And while the dulcimer takes the lead at the beginning of "Johnny Doherty's Marches," the fiddle then takes over through the rest of the tune and into the second, more rousing tune of the medley, "Providence Reel." Flute takes the lead as well in several cuts, as Ashbrook proves her talent on that instrument as well.

The final cut on the CD is the medley, "Knock on the Door/Argyle Socks." It starts out with a rollicking beat in a pennywhistle and dulcimer duet, goes into the whimsical rhythm of the second tune, and an unresolved ending, a technique common in Irish tunes. The only problem with unresolved endings is the listener always wants more. And so it is with Ashbrook's Irish playing in general -- I want an encore.

- Rambles
written by Alanna Berger
published 28 June 2003

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