It occurred to me recently that many of my favorite Irish and Scottish tunes manage to work their mesmerizing magic using very few notes. I’m not referring to the number of notes crammed into eight bars of a given tune, of course, but to the surprisingly constrained number of scale steps the tune might be comprised of.
The Scottish tradition has delivered up hundreds of tunes originally written for Highland pipes, which are happily played on mandolins and every other session instrument nowadays. And every one of those tunes had to be played within the nine-note range the pipes are limited to. But whether a tune comes from the piping tradition or was originally set on a fiddle or a flute or a concertina, you’ll find that many are pleasantly compact. And this compactness helps both in learning a tune and in the fingers’ ability to pull it comfortably from memory.
Going back over some of the tunes I’ve presented in these columns, I was intrigued to find that none of them used a wider range than an octave plus four scale steps. Two tunes, “The Gravel Walks” and “Where’s the Cat?”, are only nine steps wide, or an octave plus one. And “The Pinch of Snuff”, while it does migrate among three different keys, is a mere six steps wide in each key.
One virtue of range compactness, I suppose, is that you can string these tunes together in medleys that change more dramatically in tonal character as they move from low to high as well as from key to key. But as for whether a tune is good or not on its own, the range doesn’t seem to matter.
While musing on tonal range, I naturally found myself thinking about Jim Sutherland, a Scots cittern player from Edinburgh who is one of the most colorful and inspirational characters I have ever copped a lick from. For decades, Jim has poured countless of his original tunes into the common session treasury. You can always tell a Jim Sutherland tune, whether you’ve heard it before or not. First, it’ll be all over the place on the instrument. Second, it’ll swing. Finally, it’ll practically compel you to learn it and play it yourself if you dare.
Years ago, I spent a month in Edinburgh hanging out nightly at sessions and hanging out daily with Jim and his musical cohorts, who were just breaking up a band called The Bogey Brothers and starting a new one to be called The Easy Club. Jim played a 5-course cittern made by Stefan Sobell that was almost always the loudest instrument in any session, no matter who was flailing away. Jim attacked his instrument with huge hands and a fervor that almost always resulted in several snapped strings during the evening.
It was from Jim and his bandmates, including guitarist Jack Evans, that I first learned the joys of swinging reels. After a month’s tenure in the sessions of Edinburgh, I came back to California unable to play them any other way for a while. And among the new repertoire I brought back were a good number of original Sutherland tunes, some of which are still pretty widely played in American Irish pubs.
In the late ‘80s when The Easy Club recorded their three albums and enjoyed a fair amount of success on the tour circuit, their big “hit” was their theme-song “The Easy Club Reel.” It’s a perfect set-ender, quirky, happy, and unexpected (and John Martin’s fiddle lead made it de rigeur among the fiddling set). But the Jim Sutherland tune I’ve always liked best is a slightly darker tune that he wrote about the same time as “The Easy Club Reel” called “Janine’s Reel.” If ever a tune careened all over the place, it was this tune!
For some reason, Jim always swung “Janine’s Reel” harder in the Edinburgh sessions than he did with The Easy Club. And that’s the way I hear it to this day. There’s no way to go at this tune in a wimpy fashion. You’ve got to mean it or it just won’t work.
I enjoy playing this tune equally on fiddle and octave mandolin. On the fiddle I can emulate all of Jim’s triplets, which I’ve indicated here in the notation, but I’ve never mastered the precision needed to pull most of them off on the mando. For the triplet in the fifth bar of the A part, I pick the first note of the triplet, and then slide my little finger from the fifth to the fourth and back to the fifth fret without picking the other two notes. I’m not sure how that move will translate to a regular mandolin, but good luck. The triplet in the second bar of the B part I can manage with a regular pick-hammer-on-pull-off triplet move.
On the rest, I just play the first and third notes of the triplets, keep swinging, and the tune is every bit as satisfying. If you can tuck those triplets in without making the swing stumble, go for it. But the swing is more important than the triplets, so perhaps start with fewer notes and add the ornamentation as your comfort increases.
A little reminder about what we mean by swing. Most reels can be driven nicely by emphasizing the 1 and 3 beats of each bar. Some reels acquire a different feel and drive by inverting the emphasis to the 2 and 4 beats. Not all reels can swing comfortably, but the Scots reels seem to take to it naturally and Jim’s original tunes were written with swing firmly in mind.
“Janine’s Reel” requires a firm 2 and 4 pulse in every bar except the last bar in each 8-bar part. For that big finish, you have to nail the ONE-AND-two-AND-THREE, with each of these four accents stronger than the previous one. Be sure to let the last note in the last bar ring for its full time value before continuing, no matter how jacked up you are on swing endorphins and desperate to get on with it. And enjoy playing a hot contemporary Celtic tune that’s two octaves plus two steps wide!
I double-checked on the Internet and am delighted to report that all three Easy Club CDs are still available: “The Easy Club,” “Chance or Design,” and “Skirlie Beat.” These are wonderful sources of tunes, songs, and inspiration as well as a window on a time when a new generation of Scottish musicians was practically exploding with joyful new ideas for their beloved Celtic tradition. Check them out when you’ve wrestled “Janine’s Reel” into shape.