All-Ireland Champ Isaac Alderson, Singularly Focused on the Music He Loves

Isaac Alderson

Isaac Alderson, on one of the several instruments at which he excels, the flute.

Isaac Alderson is many things…

At age 27, he‘s young.

As a musician, he’s talented in a manner many dream of but few can lay claim to: In 2002, he was named the All-Ireland Senior Champion on the flute, the whistle and the uillean pipes, in the process making this Chicago native the first American since Joanie Madden to win a tin whistle championship.

For a profession, he is making a living playing the Irish music he loves. “Irish music… I came across it when I was 11 or 12. My mom had a friend who gave me my first practice set of pipes, and I started playing them at 14. The pipes, they’re the most awkward thing for a beginner…I was really enthusiastic about it; through my high school years it was almost like an obsession. I practiced all the time,” Alderson recalled.

“I grew up in a musical household, not Irish music, but my dad had been a professional musician for a short time when he was young. He played the bass, the guitar, the harmonica. I played the saxophone when I was 10.”

Alderson’s teachers, once he discovered his passion for Irish music, were the likes of John Williams, Laurence Nugent, Al Purcell and Kieran O’Hare.

“I had a lot of people helping my interest along the way. I played a session in Evanston, and I learned a lot, hearing them play. Laurence Nugent was a primary influence.”

“My parents, my mother especially, worried about me a lot, about whether I’d be all right financially. When I was 17, my parents said, ‘Well, we think it’s about time you got a job,” and then I got handed down the session at The Hidden Shamrock in Chicago, paying $75,” Alderson laughed.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 2005, Alderson made the decision to move to New York to pursue professionally the career that had begun as a fascination with Irish music and culture.

“I never saw myself getting into it in a professional capacity… I had no idea I’d ever make any money in it at all. New York’s a great place. There are tons of bars to play in, and always lots of traffic from Ireland… you don’t feel like you’re stepping on each other’s music toes.”

There’s a regular crowd of Irish musicians in New York, many of them around the same age, having arrived in the city about the same time. A camaraderie has developed among them, and an ease in playing together.

For Alderson, a collaboration between two of those musicians in particular has emerged: Fiddle player Grainne Murphy and guitar player Alan Murray.

“Alan and Grainne and I started playing together about two and a half years ago, a regular session at the Pig ‘n’ Whistle on 3rd. Six hours of playing together every Sunday for two years… slowly over the course of time, we’ve started to feel really comfortable together musically. We work very well together.”

The Philadelphia Ceili Group has thoughtfully and affectionately arranged for the trio to play at The Irish Center tonight, Friday, April 30, at 8:30 p.m. A last-minute scheduling conflict for Murray is bringing John Walsh and his guitar to town instead with Alderson and Murphy.

“I’ve played loads with Johnny. He was born in The Bronx, but raised in Kilkenny… he’s a remarkably versatile trad musician. He often plays with Paddy Keenan. He also has a recording studio in Westchester.”

The same studio, in fact, where Grainne Murphy recorded her recently launched CD, “Short Stories.”

Murphy hails from Boston, where she was gifted with her first fiddle at the tender age of 4. She learned to play from County Clare’s All-Ireland champion fiddler, Seamus Connolly.

Alderson is effusive in his praise for Murphy, with whom he “absolutely loves“ playing. In addition to her talent on the fiddle, “she has an incredible ability to pursue lots of different things at once. She’s a lawyer by trade, and an avid runner… she maintained her job as a lawyer, finished up her solo recording, kept up her running, and went back and forth to Massachusetts to help her brother, Patrick, in his campaign for city council, which he won.”

For Alderson, for now, his focus is on the music.

“It’s not a glamorous living, but I make enough to get by, and to have fun at the same time. I have thought at times of finding something a little more stable,” Alderson mused.

There doesn’t seem to be much need for that anytime soon. In addition to his regular gigs with Murphy and Murray, Alderson is pretty well booked.

“I freelance, and I get a lot of gigs by virtue of playing the pipes… I get way more gigs as a piper than as a flutist. They share me, I guess. The pipes are the quintessential Irish instrument, especially for stage gigs; people like to see the pipes.”

Oh, yes, Isaac Alderson is many things, including modest.

He can be seen playing with Shannon Lambert-Ryan, Fionan De Barra and Cheryl Prashker in RUNA.

He can be found performing with the group Jameson’s Revenge.

He recently returned from touring with Celtic Crossroads, and is set to go back out on the road with them in July.

And he is working on his first solo CD, which he hopes to finish up this June.

“What I like best above everything else is just playing tunes…playing trad music in its unadorned form.”

For information on their Philadelphia Ceili Group performance, Friday, April 30, visit their Web site. 

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