“A Letter Home” – Athena Tergis (Compass)
Fiddler Athena Tergis approaches her task with the ease and delicacy of a glassblower.
It’s probably because of Tergis’s deceptively light style of play that, at first, I was not over the moon about her debut CD on the Compass label, “A Letter Home.”
Tergis, a San Francisco kid, was on track to become a classical violinist when, she says, she was “tricked” into attending Alasdair Fraser’s Valley of the Moon fiddle camp. One of the teachers that summer was Altan’s Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh. She went on to study with Ni Mhaonaigh, Alasdair Fraser and Cape Breton master fiddler Buddy MacMaster. She was the Junior National Scottish Fiddling champ three years running.
When it came time to attend college—she was slated to attend Berklee—she decided instead to live in Ireland for three years and soak up the music.
I can only imagine that there were some interesting conversations in the Tergis household at the time. Turning your back on Berklee? Yikes. But judging by her performance on “A Letter Home,” she made the right choice. It was time well spent.
The CD is produced by the gifted guitarist John Doyle, who also plays guitar and bouzouki on several tracks. Tergis is also accompanied by Liz Carroll on fiddle, the ubiquitous Chico Huff on bass, Natalie Haas on cello, Billy McComiskey and Sharon Shannon on accordion, and Ben Wittman on percussion.
My tastes generally run to the so-called “supergroups” like Solas, Flook and Lunasa. Performances by those bands are muscular, even a little macho. It eventually dawned on me that I was listening to Athena Tergis’s performance with the wrong ears. If Solas is Celtic stadium rock, Athena Tergis is cool jazz. Comparing Athena Tergis to Seamus Egan would be like comparing Diana Krall to Roger Daltrey.
There are no trombones or soprano saxophones on “A Letter Home.” No conga drums or timbales. Instead, there is Haas’s lush and luscious cello and some slick, whispery brushwork by Wittman. The accompaniment here never threatens to overwhelm or dominate. Instead, it gently, unobtrusively frames Tergis’s polished performance on a wide variety of traditional tunes, from “Johnny McGreevy’s” (a reel) to “Bi Falbh O’n Uinneig” (“Be Gone from the Window,” a slow air).
I particularly liked (as determined by the number of times I left my car CD player setting on “Repeat”) “In Memory of Coleman/Paddy Fahy’s)”, a lovely set of reels - not pounded out at the usual breakneck tempo but instead played at a leisurely pace. Tergis seems to be not so much playing the tunes as savoring them. (You will, too.) “Coleman” was written by Philly’s own Ed Reavy. (One other local tie: Many of the tracks were recorded at Morning Star Studios in Springhouse, outside of Philadelphia.)
I also gave the “Repeat” button a workout on another set, which began with a strathspey, “Miss Lyall”—I love the jerky percussiveness of strathspeys—which smoothly morphed into a set of reels, including “Paddy Ryan’s Dream,” “Con Cassidy’s Highland” and an unknown Donegal reel.
The concluding slow air, “Be Gone from the Window” is heartbreakingly lovely.
I suspect “A Letter Home” will earn your own stamp of approval.