Busy Swingy Backers

Busy Swingy Backers

It’s been discussed a million times here but it might be time for a fresh appraisal of the present state of backing. If we can put aside, for a moment, the notion of a "living tradition" and the creators of avant garde, I would like to discuss the trajectory of backers in ITM.
I accept the "living tradition" and the creators in the avant garde as needed and acceptable. I get that. I do not come at this topic lightly as I have carefully considered my position. First a question: Is it possible for a traditional genre to have a new branch develop and then abandon it due to it barking up the wrong tree? I feel the backers today are off on an experiment (that has become mainstream) to way overplay and over harmonize. Yes, technically, you can harmonize a complex chord to every single note of a tune. And if you could switch chords that fast, some would. Most backers now are competing with the melody both volume-wise and in busy-ness. To me the drone is the essential foundation of backing. Then branch out from there, play the right chord yes, but don’t cloud up the airspace. I’m always surprised when I hear a top notch backer hold a solid drone chord for more than a measure or 2. It’s not the norm anymore. Is it music theory from the various Trad schools creaping in? I find ~90% to be swingy backers who overdo the sus4 chord/notes in the lower bassy ranges whilst stomping all over a brilliant melody, while swinging behind the beat. Can we just "leave the jazz to the beatles?". I guess I’m also pointing to the dissonance between backers and melody players. I so often hear a trio of great melody players playing an exciting tune while the swingy, busy backer is out of it having a different conversation like they are staring out the window half asleep, behind the beat. Thoughts?

TerryW

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Can you provide YouTube links to a few examples of what you consider "busy backing" before we comment?

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Good point Micheal. That would serve the discussion well.
I’m not sure I want to look like I’m trashing these great backers though. I don’t want to criticize great players, many of whom are people’s favorites. They have great virtues, but are the exponents of this. They are considered geniuses, while I’m a local session backer.
Terry

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Oh I’ll throw out one. Not to pick on Blakey, he’s great, but I prefer his flute or piano style to this. Volume is not too bad. But the way this ~colors~ the tune is to make is sleepy and way too busy.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfNIBW5IS4Y


And where this has become the norm or mainstream now, it’s probably just me stuck in the past. I can accept that too.

Terry

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I think it depends what you are used to.
I listened to your first clip and didn’t hear anything offensive in the backing - for me it enhanced the tunes in that I could make sense of the tunes straight away.

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Terry, are you talking about ‘busy’ backers in/on performances/recordings or such backers in sessions in your particular part of the USA?

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Both as they are hard to get away from nowadays either on recordings or sessions. Nobody can hold a chord longer than 2 beats.

Terry

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Adding to GW’s question above, isn’t there a difference between what one might like in a performance by others, vs. what you’d want to hear from a guitarist as a melody player in a session? I know I have two different feelings about that.

I like hearing a "tight" or busy backing in a live performance or recording, like John Doyle’s previous work with Liz Carroll, or Ronan Pellen’s bouzouki backing behind Sylvain Barou. But I wouldn’t want to hear it in a guitar player sitting next to me in a session. Partly because they’re not all John Doyle, but also because that style of closely-followed chord-melody backing depends on locking in to a particular melody artist’s interpretation of a tune.

Sessions are very different. As a backer you have to improvise, and follow the group’s approach to a melody without being too distracting, or forcing harmonies that aren’t implied in the melody line. You don’t have the luxury of "melding" with a particular artist and tracking what they’re doing very closely with chord-melody movement. You have to be more laid-back and supportive of the group as a whole.

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I personally found the backup on the videos posted absolutely lovely and appropriate.

So, you’ve given us a couple of examples of what you think is "busy backing", how about an example or two what you find more to your liking in comparison?

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And which would be these recent recordings that feature ‘busy backers’, Terry?

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The 2nd video of Shane McGowen was very acceptable. Lots of droning on 1 chord for multiple measures.

Before you dismiss this as just a matter of personal taste let me provide some historical perspective, a little tongue in cheeky.

First there was the Micheal Coleman piano backing. Awful.
Then there was the dark ages 1930s through the 1950s.
Then the guitar shows up and the experimentation begins.
Then in the 70s? the bouzouki shows up and more experimentation.
Then DADGAD more experimentation.
Then about 15 years ago the swingy/busy backing shows up and has since taken over.
(side note: The bouzouki has a similar problem being too busy with the Alec Finn hammerons).

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I don’t have a problem with busy backing. I just don’t want a steady diet of all the time. It’s refreshing to hear an unaccompanied melody that isn’t a slow air once in a while.

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FWIW— I agree with Terry W. I don’t know many guitar or (God help us) bodhran players who work as hard at learning the melodies as the melody instrument players. Dennis Cahill is my idea of a great accompanist. He knows that it isn’t about him - that he’s the frame., not the picture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkxtRbQ_0ZE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96bKIE37gwQ


Or Caoimhn O’Fearghal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4AMUOX27aY

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Agree on Dennis, disagree on Caoimhn. He could cut the number of chords in half, it distracts from the melody. Some of the "in between" chords simply do not need to be inserted. Other than that, he is tasteful.

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I think it’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, this was dance music. (I sometimes wonder how many of the hundred thousand odd members of this site have ever played for dancing.)
I can’t speak for Irish music because I don’t know the dances but for Scottish music, in the dance context, the dancers would want the accompaniment to be "swingy/busy". Most Scottish dance bands will use what traddies might call jazz chords as well. So someone coming from a dance tradition is probably going to be a "swingy/busy" backer by default.

I’ll do some backing things in sessions that I would never do for dancers. Likewise in performance/listening pieces I’ll do things that I wouldn’t do in sessions (and certainly not for dancing).

If you think the playing in those clips is too swingy and busy, it’s nothing compared to the swingy accompaniment in Shetland from the likes of Ryan Couper (and he knows the tunes very well as he’s an excellent fiddle player as well as guitar player).

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I should add that Dennis Cahill and John Doyle are both great in my book because for me they both produce great music that is a pleasure to listen to. That’s what it’s all about, surely, when you are talking about these professional musicians. Would they play any differently in sessions?

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OP, 2nd sentence - " I would like to discuss the trajectory of backers in ITM."
Nothing at all to do with Shetland or Scottish dance bands.

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Yes, Kenny, but what’s the backing like in Irish dance bands that play for dancing - it is dance music, after all, is it not.
And I know in Ireland originally there probably wasn’t any backing, just like was the case where I live.

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I am a backer. I generally hate backers! Some more than others.
Seems most ‘busy swingy backers’ are guitar holders who utilise the DADGAD or similar system. To me DADGAD style pretty nearly always sounds like a random miss-mash of pan-modal noodlings with little attention paid to the cadences of the tune. And it’s all the same ‘Joni Mitchell-ing’ nonsense/’changes’ in all keys thanks to extreme capo use. Perhaps it’s technically correct but aesthetically it sucks. No-one ever seems to know what the chords are called, they just hedge their harmony bets and randomly throw shapes! And unless it’s particularly skilful, putting in eight chords a bar hides your lack of knowledge of that particular tune and sort of implies cleverness that doesn’t exist.
The backing I like is demonstrated by the good ceili band style piano players: e.g. Kevin Taylor, Reg Hall.
A huge majority of trad tunes only need two or three chords per part. Play just them with a bit of appropriate chord substitution and you are rocking! But you have to know your stuff and have a good ear.

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I think DonaldK’s point is valid, especially if you’re looking at recorded Irish music in a historical context. Yes, there were recordings of bad accompaniment in the 78rpm era, but by the time the Dance Halls in New York and Boston were busy and popular, you have examples of competent to excellent accompaniment within the context of the era. And the context those piano and guitar (and to some extent tenor banjo on some recordings) players were working in was the American popular dance band style of the time (which would typically emphasize some sort of chord change or inversion on the half beat of a measure). There are no drones in the following example from 1932, but I don’t think I would characterize the piano accompaniment as bad or busy:

https://soundcloud.com/ward-irish-music-archives/irish-barn-dance-boys-paddy-killorans-pride-of-erin-orchestra-morning-dewcolleen-bawn-reels?in=ward-irish-music-archives/sets/wima-work-from-home-playlist-of-78rpm-discs


Now compare that with this 1929 recording from Leo Molloy’s Siamsa Gaedheal Band - Molloy’s playing puts heavy emphasis on the back beat of the tune rather than the solid 1 and 2 of the Killoran ensemble. I would say this one feels busier as Molloy adds a bunch of right hand work around the 1:10 mark:

https://soundcloud.com/ward-irish-music-archives/leo-molloys-siamsa-gaedheal-band-the-copper-platethe-broom-reelthe-traveller-reels?in=ward-irish-music-archives/sets/wima-work-from-home-playlist-of-78rpm-discs


I could see dancers having a blast with both bands — there’s a lot of lift from the melody players. Very different backing between the two, I personally just happen to like both.

Jumping ahead a century or so, Blakey’s definitely had an influence on guitar backing, but I’m not sure I’d look at his style being dominant in the last 15 years or at least any more so than John Doyle, Steve Cooney, Daithi Sproule or any number of backers who have influenced other musicians at this point.

Taking Yhaal House’s comment in consideration, it sounds like TerryW would prefer what Yhaal refers to as "random miss-mash of pan-modal noodlings with little attention paid to the cadences of the tune." I would characterize John Blake’s backing as opposite of this — he knows a tune inside out and pretty much follows a cadence to a fault.

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@Yhaal House: I agree with you wholeheartedly on the quality of Kevin Taylor’s piano playing in that clip. But he is actually quite ‘busy’ with his chord changes – it’s just that every chord he plays makes perfect sense in terms of where the tune is going. I’m fine with busy if it’s busy with a purpose.

Reg Hall has a far more ‘lazy’* approach, stripping down the harmony to the minimum number of chords that can be played without ‘dragging the tune down’.

*I use the term only because it is the antithesis to ‘busy’, not as a crticism.

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Totally agree with CreadurMawnOrganig and Yhaal in regard to Kevin Taylor’s playing, and with CWM with the assessment of his chord choices as being busy with a purpose. I’d put John Blake’s approach in the same category, busy chord choices with a purpose.

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jksiazek: (Hi!) Love both recordings.
The way Mr Molloy plays on the back beat is almost predating rocksteady or ska at times! This is a very good thing. I dip into the Jamaican rhythms at times when accompanying trad Irish music myself but don’t tell anyone!
CreadurMawnOrganig: (Long time no see!) Reg Hall’s fabulous minimalization is an art form in itself! All guitar holders that want to back should be made to listen to him.

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The Thatch clip and soundcloud examples pretty much confirm what I thought would be the case, that, for dancing, a steady rhythm with changes on the beat (and making sense of the melody) is what dancers want. It gets the toes tapping rather than the wishy-washy clever ambiguous chords with changes in strange places that can make great listening in the hands of a good player but not really great dance music.

I think both styles can be acceptable in sessions.

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‘rather than the wishy-washy clever ambiguous chords with changes in strange places’. Yep! That defines the hit and miss DADGAD nonsense! What I call ‘Joni-Mitchelling’, faking it, duff tuneless rhythmless noodle-ly modal BS! Thinking you sound modern (1970’s!) and hip. And it’s become so tolerated, it’s an Emperor’s new clothes situation.

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I have almost no session experience (and many of the comments on various threads on here about session politics/ etiquette mean that’s very unlikely to change!), but I love the music and play it in my duo every weekend. This means dredging the internet for tune ideas and being confronted by all the variations in ability and feeling that entails. When it comes to backing, I agree entirely with Yhaal House! Some of the distracting, unresolved DADGAD noodling which attempts to accompany but ends up taking over is horrible! The tune provides the melody, rhythm and lift. Anything else needs to pay absolute homage to the tune. Give me a three or four chord, standard tuning, bass-strum backing over that nonsense any day!

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It’s a thankless task backing - I gave up very quickly. I think the Joni Mitchell style guitar playing works well as a stylistic offshoot typically with a single soloist and backer, where the rhythm is suggesting more subdued/solemn/wistful/nostalgic feelings etc there are many examples of this above. I think the problem is that this style really doesn’t go well in sessions, where the energy is high, and perhaps too many people are attempting this? Also in the case of the Caoimhn O’Fearghal clip above, the mix is probably to blame: the concertina needs to be louder and the guitar needs to be softened, I think this is a common mistake. There are plenty of recordings of beautiful but complex harp or guitar playing going on that is just quiet so it adds just a hint of spice going along without at all distracting from the melody.

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"What I call ‘Joni-Mitchelling’, faking it, duff tuneless rhythmless noodle-ly modal BS!"

We all get what you are saying, but poor analogy to pull Joni into the discussion. She purposefully used countless different tunings, some of them ingenious in context. The subtle shadings could be exquisite, much like Sondheim. She was highly respected by legendary jazz musicians. She had total command over the fretboard, and "faked" nothing.

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Just occurred to me that perhaps you weren’t suggesting that Joni herself was faking anything.

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Joni Mitchell? Yeah, she wrote one or two good tunes but generally I found her hippy dippy West Coast bag rather strummy and screechy!

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"I think the Joni Mitchell style guitar playing works well as a stylistic offshoot typically with a single soloist and backer…"

Not referring specifically to the ‘Joni Mitchell’ style but I think this raises an important point: backing a solo melody player *can* be a very different thing from backing a session. Basic 3-chord progressions with solid, unvarying rhythm, no suspensions or substitutions, work fine in either situation – and would be the preference of some melody players. But I would wager that some players enjoy a more active interplay with their accompanist (‘backer’ may not be the most appropriate word in this case), with a bit more of a ‘jazz’ mentality (I am not talking about playing in a ‘jazzy’ style necessarily) – that could involve throwing in a few ‘off-the-wall’ passing chords or syncopations, withholding expected chord changes, interspersing chords with snatches of melody or countermelody… all of which the melody player picks up on and responds to. You could perhaps argue that this is stretching the definition of ‘traditional music’, but if that is what gets a particular musician playing at their best, so be it. Good examples of this are Karen Tweed with Ian Carr and Frankie Gavin with Tim Edey (I don’t know if they ever recorded together, but I saw them live and it was spectacular).

And yes, let’s not knock Joni Mitchell – there was never anything tuneless, rhythmless or noodley about her playing. (I am sure that was not Yhaal House’s intention, but perhaps he could think of a better term for substandard backing.)

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Which 2 tunes were Joni Mitchell’s best ones, Yhaal House?

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"Good examples of this are Karen Tweed with Ian Carr and Frankie Gavin with Tim Edey"

Not forgetting also Liz Carroll and John Doyle – and Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, in a different sort of way.

@Yhaal House: Each to their own, but I think Joni Mitchell’s playing of her own songs (whether you like them or not) is pretty on-point. She may be a terrible trad backer – but I don’t think (m)any of us have heard her attempt it.

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Yhall House has nailed it. His description of overly ambitious DADGAD players says it all. I don’t prefer that at all. I’m avoiding discussing the -piano players in Ceili bands- discussion as it opens up the scope too far, same with Scottish music. I get a sense that Scotland has gone around the bend with syncopated jazzy stuff.
Here’s another good backing model. My only gripe is the guitar too loud in the mix but that’s just a random live recording. I think in general backers need to just calm down a bit. Be a foundation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkZRztjdB6w

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Another note on swing: a couple of knowledgeable people have pointed out that in the 20s thru 40s? many piano backers (and melody players for that matter) were swinging. Ok so technically yes if you listen to those old 38 recordings. But I differentiate between that and the post jazz swing era. "Old" swing (if I may call it that) was clunky and I feel it didn’t color the music to the extreme that the modern swing does. I always think of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys as a great model for modern swing. That same Bob Wills feel has slowly crept into trad music of all kinds. So one of my main reference points was during the early 90s. I played in hard core bluegrass bands. There was a swing contingent then of approx. 5% of players. Then it was a refreshing twist, a few bands did the Bob Wills swing thing. It was enjoyed greatly. Gradually this grew to a larger percent of bands doing the swing. Simultaneously I saw it growing in other trad music forms. By the early 2000s I couldn’t believe how many people were swinging. For some reason I find in ITM the backers are swinging way out beyond the melody players. We all swing some ammount, granted. But what’s with the backers? It is what it is. I’ve always had a theory here in Boston which is has preeminent jazz school that opened a new trad program back then. I’ve seen many many Berkeley musicians come out into the trad world and apply their schooling to this effect. So thoughts? Just voicing my theory of the origins of this trajectory of ITM backing. What do you think? Does it come from the schools?

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" For some reason I find in ITM the backers are swinging way out beyond the melody players."

Not in Ireland they don’t (and the influence of Bob Wills is utterly zilch).

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Yes, people played wrong in the past too, but at least they played wrong right!

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I don’t know what to make of this thread. I’ve seen Seamie O’Dowd play in the busiest style you could imagine. I’ve seen rigid chords make a lot of sense. I’ve seen the same solution mess things up.

I don’t think there has to be a big difference between backing a solo player or a session. Nobody plays the same tune the same way twice, and no decent backer does either. There’s plenty of room for "solid" two or three chord backing, solutions with substitution chords, that thing called "DADGAD noodling" (in whatever tuning, on whatever instrument) and more, and the best sessions I’ve ever attended have had a backer or two (or three) that have all skill sets and also take turns.

This is a clip I like a lot:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfcqGJBxxSg


A bit more than three chords, but not out of this world.

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I’ve just finished a house session with a flute player and mandolin/piano player (I was playing guitar and mandolin) and we were discussing accompaniment styles. The flute player was of the opinion that the accompaniment should develop to suit the particular melody players of the session. We also felt that the idea of improvised accompaniment has often been misunderstood to mean that anything goes.

Whilst tunes have basic settings (which perhaps don’t get played that much due to variations and ornaments) so do, in my opinion, accompaniments to those tunes have basic settings. I often suspect that a lot of players, even ones technically far better than me, don’t know those basic accompaniment settings. In other words, they don’t hear the changes, or they hear the changes but don’t know what they are.

We were all of the opinion that if you can’t recognise the I, IV and V then you shouldn’t be accompanying.

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"I’ve seen many many Berkeley musicians come out into the trad world and apply their schooling to this effect. So thoughts? Just voicing my theory of the origins of this trajectory of ITM backing. What do you think? Does it come from the schools?"

I’m struggling to come up with a name of any player (guitar or otherwise) that’s come out of the Berkley program and radically altered the Irish traditional music scene. Are they coming out to sessions in Boston playing Django Reinhardt/Hot Club style over Irish tunes or something?

"Does it come from the schools?" No, if you’re referencing John Blake’s style as "the origins of this trajectory of ITM backing."

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jksiazek yes I liked both the soundcloud tracks, they sounded amazingly good for the time - I guess the difference between them and the Coleman/ Morrison/Tuohy type backings is because the band pianists were full time Irish musicians who actually knew the music and the others were studio pianists with no knowledge or interest in trad music. As regards the swing/jazz element the late Peerie Willie Johnson was doing that years ago and no-one seemed to mind - well not in Shetland anyway………………….

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Where did Irish session styles of accompaniment originate? Was it from listening to dance music or was it from listening to performance music as in The Bothy Band? Is that where the improvisational aspect comes from?

"Scotland has gone round the bend with the syncopated jazzy stuff."

If it’s "jazzy" it’ll be straight (or swung) eighths with no syncopation. If it’s syncopated it’ll probably be diatonic with a preponderance of five chords.
I get the impression that here in Scotland there is an acceptance of a much wider variety of accompaniment styles than there is in ITM (if I believe what I read on this site). But hearing and following the changes would seem to me to be a prerequisite.

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Not long ago right here on the session.org there was a very long discussion about how the music scene in Glasgow and Edinburgh is very progressive and if you want Scottish trad one should venture out to the countryside. Interestingly here in Boston, those who are most progressive have a close relationship with Scottish music.

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"…the music scene in Glasgow and Edinburgh is very progressive and if you want Scottish trad one should venture out to the countryside."

In general, that’s probably the case in most countries, that the rural population will be several years behind in picking up the latest trends as well as sessions probably having a more stable clientele. But I could be wrong - I have comparatively little experience of the city scene.

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Harumph. Berklee. Berklee. Berklee. Nowhere near Sproul Plaza. 🙂

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"Swingy backers" to me brings to mind Shetland-style Peerie Willie-influenced players and one great thing about them is that they leave a lot of space between the "dum" and the "chick" of the bass-chord "dum-chick" style

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Terry can you clarify what you mean by ‘swingy’? Do you refer to a dotted rhythm, playing behind the beat, emphasizing the backbeat, jazz/swing chord voicings, or something else? I’m pretty clear on what you object to as ‘busy’, but where is the swing?
-Jon

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What about the principle I was taught years ago (before I was remotely capable of putting it into practice) that a good fluter (for example) should play the melody in such a way that IT drives the rhythm and makes the feet tap? Accompaniment perhaps, but not actually needed. Do many players aspire to that these days, or is the continuous flow like a mountain stream preferred today?

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For my taste the subtle Denis Cahil approach is dull as. Gimme a Donal Lunny type engine room player to bring the music to life.