What’s a classically trained musician such as myself supposed to make of a band that describes its music-making process as a deconstruction of Irish tunes followed by a reassembling “with the aid of second-and-third-world blueprints?” When the little blurb that accompanied the CD went on to say that contra dancers’ hips were observed swaying in response to the music on this disk, I wasn’t sure whether to push the play button or run for the hills. Therefore, it’s with a mixture of relief, appreciation and amusement that I report that the Clayfoot Strutters do indeed know how to strut their stuff, and in a way that is guaranteed to make you sit up and take notice. Contra dancing, in case you’re like me and haven’t a clue, turns out to be a bit like square dancing except that it’s done in lines. As the dance progresses, each couple dances with every other pair in the group. The music that accompanies these dances is based on Irish, Celtic, old English and early American tunes that tend to feature the fiddle. The movements and steps are determined by a caller, who chooses the difficulty of the steps and combinations based on the skills of the dancers. Though contra dance music (also known as “groove” music) is intended for dancing, it is also a delightful listening experience in the hands of the Clayfoot Strutters. Unlike a lot of dance music, which tends to sacrifice complexity and musical interest for catchy tunes and repetitious, hurried rhythms, the work of the Clayfoot Strutters is precise, intricate and playful. In addition, due to the musicians’ extraordinary skill, every note and every line of phrasing is delectably clear. A piece can be flying along at breakneck speed and you still have the wonderful sense that the musicians are taking their time, making sure that every note and every line is clearly and meaningfully articulated. Impressive. But what really caught and held my attention was the range and diversity of the music, and the way pieces from seemingly incompatible genres were combined. Ballads, jigs, reels, waltzes and folk songs with swing, pop, reggae, jazz and Cajun overtones were all present from countries such as Scotland, Brazil, Canada, North America, Africa and Ireland. The piece “Kotu,” for example, merges a big-band tune with an Afro-pop piece. Likewise, “Pikes Peak/Cherry River Rag” brings together traditional Texas and traditional West Virginia tunes. Sound improbable? That’s what I thought until I found myself playing tracks again and again to discover how certain lines were played and by what instruments. My personal favorites include “Honey Bee,” in which the electric guitar, flute, fiddle and piano take turns playing with the melody against a solid backbeat, and “Neil on the Floor,” a sultry little jazz piece that pits the clarinet against the accordion in a series of variations on a theme. Needless to say, Going Elsewhere is a real a step outside the ordinary, but that’s what makes it both entertaining and valuable. We all need to be reminded that the final word (or rather note) has not been written on what is possible in the hands of talented musicians.
—written by Jena Ball – published 6 April 2003