Henry Tarbatt and Jenny Smith, Merlin Music, Session Book One:
One Hundred Great Session Tunes
(Merlin Music, 2002)

The subtitle of this book is "One Hundred Great Session Tunes," and thatís exactly what it is. The tunes in the book comprise 32 jigs, 13 reels, 17 hornpipes, 13 polkas, 10 other dances, seven airs and eight OíCarolan compositions. The fact that the bulk are jigs, hornpipes and polkas, and the familiarity of almost all this material, suggests that the book is aimed squarely at newcomers to traditional Celtic music. As such, itís an excellent resource.

While there are dozens of similar publications in terms of content, the format of this particular collection really sets it apart from the competition. The book is A5 (five and a half by eight inches) in size, spiral bound between substantially thick card covers, is printed landscape rather than portrait, and has one tune per page, printed on one side only. The notation sticks to basic melody lines, printed big and bold. The purpose of this format is to enable musicians to simply stand the book on a table (like a desk calendar), have the music presented clearly in front of them, and flip over the page for the next tune.

Itís the kind of idea thatís so brilliantly obvious that it beggars belief that this is a unique publication of its type. I had a great opportunity to road test the book recently, when a couple of timber flute playing buddies came round for a few tunes in my kitchen. Theyíre both sight-readers who brought a couple of books with them as aids to nailing the turns in some half-remembered tunes. Leaning across a table to peer at a flat book of tiny music notation and clashing heads is hardly conducive to good fluting (or fiddling, whistling or squeezing, come to that), and carting around music stands is a sure-fire way of draining the fun and spontaneity out of the thing. The Merlin Music book solves these embuggerances at a stroke. Incidentally, my own view is that tune books belong in kitchens, not in pubs. If youíre in the middle of a mighty pub session and the players tear into a tune that you really donít know, the best policy is to roll a cigarette. (Even if youíre not a smoker, itíll allow you to adopt a look of studious concentration and keep your fingers busy. One of the other musicians will appreciate it when they've finished the tune, anyway.) That being said, if you do frequent a session where tune books arenít actually viewed as "Satan's toilet paper," the Merlin book will happily stay in place on even the shiniest of pub tables.

Underneath the notation of each tune, there are accompaniment chords (supplied by Mike Hale). As someone who is predominately an accompanist rather than tune player, I can only describe these as very basic. If I took to strumming away on the chord of D for almost the entirety of "The Wise Maid," Iíd expect to be kicked in the shins for falling asleep and not paying attention. Thatís not, however, an uncommon feature of this type of book and is actually fair enough, as accompaniment of traditional Irish melodies is never a cut-and-dried affair at the best of times. For one thing, a lot of these old melodies are played in modal keys that open up a whole range of possible chord substitutions (like playing D and C over a melodic passage written in Am). Then there are the various quirks of the melody instruments themselves. You can cook up whatever clever, complex chord runs you like on your guitar or 'zouk, but if youíre backing a piper whoís switched on his or her drones and is jabbing away on the regulators, the choices are already partially made! As far as the book goes, the chords are a worthwhile inclusion in that they provide an indication of the basic keys and turns, and encourage collaborative music making round the kitchen table (or wherever).

The tunes themselves are, of course, priceless. Iíve already called them familiar and thereís a very good reason for that familiarity. These melodies constitute the essential vocabulary of the language that is traditional Celtic music. Sure, tunes like "The Kesh Jig," "Miss McLeodís Reel" and "Off to California" frequently appear in beginnerís books, but they appear just as frequently in the repertoires of the most influential and accomplished musicians in the world. These are tunes for life -- for playing, listening, dancing, enjoying and learning. If you want to learn them from a book, then this is, undoubtedly, the user-friendliest example available. Highly recommended!

[Stephen Hunt]

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