Eileen Ivers excels at collaboration. Dubbed the “Jimi Hendrix of the violin” by her admirers, Ivers has worked with a diverse range of artists, from the Afro Celt Sound System to Turkish hand drummer Burhan Ocal. She marks each project with a unique stamp. On Patti Smith’s “Gone Again” (1996), her edgy, insistent playing, fed through a wah-wah pedal and stitched to the poetic bridge of the roiling elegy, helps propel the song.
The embrace and thanks for her role in the ode to Smith’s late husband (Fred “Sonic” Smith) “was great,” Ivers said recently from her home in New York. “But really being able to add something to a song that somebody wrote was incredible … I think that’s the stuff that keeps me going.”
For Sting’s performance of “Soul Cake” on Late Night with David Letterman, Ivers provided a key element to the arrangement. “As we were rehearsing, he came over to me and asked if I could play more — a part that was not on the recording,” she recalls. “After the second go-round, he came over and gave me a hug and said, ‘Thanks, that’s what it needed.’”
Ivers’ own shows are also collaborative affairs. Cloggers from the Cuniffe Academy of Irish Dance and a choir of New Hampshire’s finest young singers will be on hand for the kickoff show of her annual Christmas tour at Saint Anselm College on Saturday, Dec. 3. “An Nollaig - An Irish Christmas” draws extensively from Ivers’ 2007 album of holiday tunes, with many new selections also on the program, including “Soul Cake,” a traditional Halloween song that over the years has found its way into the Christmas season.
“In a live show, you do want to change things up a little bit,” Ivers says. “A CD stands on its own [as] a complete thought and a presentation of music that works as a whole. For a live concert, you want a bit more emotion, humor and interaction.”
One element of levity is “Miss Fogarty’s Fruitcake,” a song Ivers describes as a baking project gone horribly wrong. On trips to her ancestral home in Ireland, she often returns with luggage weighed down by her aunt’s fruitcakes, Guinness and Jameson whisky-soaked delicacies she describes with obvious delight. “But this woman didn’t have the same talents as my Aunt Mary,” Ivers says with a hearty laugh.
Although Ivers plays the fiddle like an Irish master — she’s won nine All-Ireland fiddle championships and starred in the first touring company of Riverdance — she was born and raised in New York City. Her instrument, however, was in her blood from an early age.
“One of my earliest memories is being 3 years old, playing air violin on a pink plastic guitar with a wooden spoon,” she says. “I guess there was just something about it, and I kept begging my mom to please rent me one. Of course she finally gave in. I never thought I would have a career in it, and the incredible blessing of doing something you love with life. But I’m glad it worked out.”
That’s putting it mildly. Ivers’ cross-cultural approach has transformed the violin in much the way Ian Anderson redefined the flute, or Wynton Marsalis has given his trumpet so many different voices. A good example is how she wraps Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz styling around “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire,” a song with classical origins, to produce something utterly unique and compelling.
A sense of wonder, of the pure joy of creation, is ever-present in Ivers’ music.
“The ones that are the most interesting are the ones where you don’t know how they will turn out,” she says. “It shows you that music really is about listening and adding what you need. Sometimes it can be a minimal amount of notes, but just the angst in that can make it work.”
She brings the crowd into her spell for the devotional “Holly Tree,” a highlight of her performance. Tommy McDonnell, percussionist and vocalist for Ivers’ stellar band Immigrant Soul, leads a playfully competitive sing-along. “He kind of gets the audience to sing louder and softer and challenge each other side by side,” Ivers says. “It’s a fun little thing that happens in the first half of the song.”
“Wren Day” recounts a tradition Ivers learned from her Irish-born father. On St. Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26, children rise at dawn and hunt for a wren, which they tie to a holly branch and carried through the village. They knock on each door and sing, “Give me a penny to bury the wren.” A dance is held at the end of the day, and the collected funds are donated to the needy.
“They still do in Ireland, it’s this whole day of celebration,” Ivers says. “What’s really beautiful is the whole spirit of giving back.”