David Bixler & Arturo O'Farrill – The Auction Project (2010)

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by Mark Saleski
Over the years, there have been a lot of musical hybrids that have surprised our ears by revealing hidden commonalities in melded musical genres.

For instance, I’m fairly certain that my only exposure to hip-hop back before the mid-1980’s was with Sugar Hill’s “Rapper’s Delight,” and Blondie’s “Rapture.” The idea of Run-D.M.C. teaming up with Aerosmith was probably met with a blank stare and naughty thoughts about Debbie Harry. But then that cover of “Walk This Way” blew up and it was immediately obvious that that mashup was just meant to be.

Other examples include country rock (the two genres are definitely cousins), southern rock, and folk rock (sometimes more of a marketing label than a genre, but there were still many fine experiments there). On the more esoteric end of things there have been extremely entertaining mixes of jazz and hip-hop (my favorite being Branford Marsalis’ Buckshot Le Fonque), and klezmer and hip-hop. No, I’m not kidding — check out Abraham, Inc’s Tweet, Tweet.

To this tradition, we must now add: jazz and Celtic music.

Huh…wuh?

Yeah, that was I thought too. And yet, David Bixler and Arturo O’Farrill’s The Auction Project surprises on many levels. Part of this is just a happy coincidence, in that the group was formed (for a PTA auction, seriously) around the same time that David Bixler’s wife began to study Irish fiddling. Bixler could hear the jazz improvisation possibilities in some of the traditional Celtic songs Heather Martin Bixler was playing. So here you have an Afro-Cuban ensemble, tilted slightly on its side with the addition of the occasional Celtic vibe.

I didn’t think it was going to work…and I’m so glad I’m wrong.

First, let’s dispense with the notion that the entirety of The Auction Project presents this new hybrid. No, the straight ahead jazz tunes sit alongside the mashups. The best of the former is “Heptagoneesque,” which sports a killer groove and a pile of inspired solos.

The key though, to this album’s Celtic heart is the sequencing , which accentuates the “jazziness” that lives inside of the Celtic structures. This works very well on opening pair, the Latin strut of “June 26th, 07” (with excellent quotes from Ornette’s “Turnaround”) followed by the traditional “The Chicken Went To Scotland.” Heather’s fiddle takes center stage, followed by Arturo O’Farrill’s piano chording. The tune’s Celtic feel slowly morphs into jazzland as Bixler’s sax plays unison lines with the fiddle. The transformation is complete when O’Farrill launches into an extended piano solo. When the violin returns near the track’s end, the sound is definitely more hybrid in nature, and it seems perfectly natural.

This sort of transformation is taken a step further on the two-part “Heather’s Waltz.” The first part is a solo violin medley of “O’Farrill’s Welcome To Limeric” followed by “The Arragh Mountains.” The sets up part two beautifully, as “Gan Aithne” begins with Heather’s violin before the rest of the band falls in as “jazztime” takes over. The short restatement of the Celtic theme at the song’s end draws all of the elements together tightly. This Celtic/jazz transformation thing is no musical parlor trick. Face it, if they can do it with “She Moves Through The Fair” (which they do, on track #4), then you know they’re onto something.

It’s been said quite often that it’s a shame that Americans pretty much ignore jazz, a music all their own. David Bixler makes light of this in the liner notes when describing his reaction to his wife’s involvement in Irish fiddling: “At first I didn’t take it very seriously, but soon realized that Irish music was like jazz in a lot of ways, except that people liked it.” Sad (and funny!), but true. Still, if this record makes people hear the shared land between jazz and Irish music, it’ll be a step in the right direction.


Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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