Music Wherever He Goes

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As an accompanist and as a member of Highland Soles, the Pearlman family band, Neil has been moving to and making Scottish music professionally for more than a decade. A step dancer from oddlerhood, he learned the complex footwork that accompanies Scottish tunes from his dancer mother. He also danced as part of Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster's touring group at the tender age of 11. But it is his musical performance on the piano and the fiddle that has brought him to perform at Carnegie Hall, the Iron House and Club Passim. With a love for Celtic, folk and jazz music, Pearlman is involved with a number of musical projects from playing contemporary jazz to Scottish fiddle music.

Jeff Boyce: What are your feelings on Scotland's musical contributions to the world?
Neil Pearlman: Scotland has a very rich musical history that has contributed a great deal to the larger musical world from Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy" to the Scottish influenced American music styles of Bluegrass and Old Time. I suppose my feelings on Scotland's musical contributions are simply that Scottish music is emotionally and artistically powerful in a way that resonates with me very deeply. It is the music I grew up with and even after delving into many other styles of music I continue to return to it because of its raw power, beautiful melodies and driving rhythm.

How is the Scottish musical scene doing today?
The "Scottish musical scene" could mean a few different things. There is the trad music scene in Scotland itself, which is incredibly active and innovative right now. Some of my very favorite bands are in that scene. Bands like Lau, the Unusual Suspects, Kan, Flook, the Treacherous Orchestra, Session A9, and Blazin Fiddles are all pushing the tradition in interesting and exciting new directions; and that's just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to that scene, Cape Breton and the Canadian Maritime provinces have their own music scene, which is deeply rooted in the Scottish tradition. That scene is developing in different directions that are in some ways less experimental but just as exciting. Natalie MacMaster, Beolach and Troy MacGillivray are each great examples of this. Also there is a growing community of musicians in the United States that count Scottish music as their primary source repertoire but have a distinct sound separate from the Cape Bretoners and Scots. A lot of these American musicians were exposed to Scottish music through Alasdair Fraser and his popular fiddle camps and they have combined the Scottish influence with many of the other music influences in the United States. Hanneke Cassel and Ryan McKasson spring to mind but there are many others who are less well known. I would say the Scottish music scene today, in all of its facets, is strong and growing. It is a very exciting time to be playing this music and playing a role in its development.

What is your thoughts on people who oppose the idea of mixing traditional music with modern/other traditional music from around the world?
I think the key point to keep in mind here is that a tradition is a reflection of all the people within it. Since people continue to change and develop, a living, active tradition will develop with them. If a traditional art becomes stagnant it is because it isn't a genuine reflection of its people anymore and has become a museum piece. That said, there are "traditionalists" who oppose development within the traditional arts and they have a valuable role to play in keeping the tradition anchored and rooted in history. It takes all types of people to have a robust, healthy community so I think people who dislike the kind of explorations that I do are entitled to their opinion and help to balance out people like me who are pushing the envelope. Without them, the connection to the past would be in danger, but without people who are willing to push the envelope and keep the music relevant to their own lives the tradition will stagnate. An interesting point to bring up here is that what most people consider the "traditional" piano style of Cape Breton developed within the last century as players who liked boogie-woogie brought some of those influences into their playing. This didn't destroy or abandon the tradition it was simply a development to reflect the individuals in the tradition at the time.

What Top 5 pianists helped shape your playing style and why?
I have always had trouble picking favorites and top 5 or top 10 lists in any subject but here is my best shot. There are definitely others who have been very influential and a number of non-pianists who have had a profound effect on me but these 5 have been incredibly important in my development as a pianist.

Mac Morin
Mac's playing has been a huge influence on me. His approach to playing fiddle melodies on the piano has been one of the primary influences on my melody playing both in phrasing and in ornamentation. In addition, his approach to Cape Breton accompaniment, from his flourishes to his bass lines to his harmonic sense, continues to inspire me. Mac's solo CD has a number of very interesting experimentations with electric piano and subtle grooves while maintaining a strong base in the tradition.

Tracy Dares
I grew up hearing great traditional musicians around me but it wasn't until I saw Tracy's video "A'Chording to the Tunes" that I really started to understand the technical nuts and bolts of Cape Breton piano. As the source of my first experience actually playing Cape Breton piano, she deserves a place in my top 5 most influential piano players. Her playing shares a lot with Mac and although I have often been more aware of Mac's influence on my playing Tracy deserves her fair share of the credit for developing the contemporary style of Cape Breton piano accompaniment and melody playing that has primarily influenced me in that genre.

Brian MacAlpine
Brian is one of a few amazing piano players in Scotland today who bring jazz influences to traditional tunes and I could as easily have put David Millegan here except that there is a particular YouTube video of Brian accompanying fiddler Gordon Gunn that was really an "a-ha" moment for me. In it, Brian is doing an on the spot accompaniment (traditional in the sense that it wasn't planned or arranged) but instead of sticking to straightforward chords and dance rhythms he was using all sorts of polyrhythms and jazz progressions. Watching it really solidified something for me that I had been circling around for some time. I realized that there really were all sorts of uncharted regions in the accompaniment of fiddle tunes and that interesting chords and rhythms didn't have to be carefully arranged. So Brian's playing really precipitated one of the most important developmental leaps in my playing.

Oscar Peterson
This list could not be complete without Oscar. I grew up listening to him and he remains one of my favorite all-time piano players. While my own playing often gets much more atonal than his, he has a profound influence on my playing. Oscar's impenetrable sense of time and unstoppable momentum on the piano have inspired me, his musicality and phrasing have influenced mine and his playing in general has expanded what I thought was possible on the piano.

Vardan Ovsepian
Far fewer people have heard of Vardan than he deserves. He is an Armenian pianist living in the Boston area and I was exposed to his unique approach to the piano at the Maine Jazz Camp where I was a camper through my high school years. Vardan's atonal 12-tone improvisations and intricate work with rhythmic cycles fascinated me and the lessons and classes I took with him opened up my mind. The complex rhythmic explorations that are an important part of my playing now are a direct result of studying with him. He continues to inspire me to this day, and I have just started working with his brand new book of exercises entitled "Mirror Exercises."

Any particular favorite songs on your latest CD Coffee& the Mojo Hat? And why?
Well that's kind of like being asked to pick between one's children but I'm really pleased with Farewell and Monymusk Lads. Both of these tracks really came together on the record. Nicole Rabata's playing on Farewell is spot on and fits perfectly over the tight playing from the band. Monymusk Lads develops really well and I can't help but smile when I hear the groove drop on the middle section (Lochaber Badger). That said, I'm very happy with the whole CD and everything on it. It came out better than I could have hoped and I still enjoy listening to the whole thing.

I bet it was a real special moment when your father Ed played on the traditional "Mill Mill O." What was that like? And how powerful are traditional songs in your repertoire?
It was great to include my dad on the album because playing with him has been such an important part of my growing up as a musician. He taught me so much about being an accompanist and the first album I was on is a Piano and Fiddle duo with him released in 2008 called "On The Edge." We know each other's playing inside out now and so it was a
pleasure to record "Mill Mill O."

Traditional tunes and songs are a very strong presence in my repertoire but since I view the tradition as a living one I try not to differentiate too much between very old ones and contemporary ones. That said, I do feel that in spite of the great tunes being written today the old ones shouldn't be forgotten. Most of the tunes on the album are from the tradition, but there's a big mix of old traditional tunes, tunes written in the 18th century and tunes written recently.

The "Scottish clave" terminology is interesting. Please describe this term in detail.
That term itself has only come up very recently but the principle has been important in my music for some time. Scottish music and Latin music are both downbeat based dance music styles. This means that the rhythms often simplify into two major beats in each bar, making what might be thought of as 4/4 into 2/2 (cut time). They also have similarities in who they treat triplet based time signatures (i.e. 6/8). The point of all this is that the larger rhythmic principles behind these two styles of dance music are the same, which allows for a lot of complimentary grooves. The rhythm of the clave is actually very similar to many of the syncopations in Scottish music, especially bagpipe and some fiddle tunes. This, I suppose, is the essence of the "Scottish Clave" idea: the clave rhythm is implicated in many tunes and it fits right in when added to the accompaniment. There are differences, of course: Scottish music is often more angular and the groove in Latin music is more flowing. But that's what makes it interesting to bring the styles together--each has something to offer the other.

What advice would you like to share with fans and musical artists?
Follow your interests, no matter how disparate. I didn't study all these musical styles because I expected them to fit together, I just liked them all. Then I started to fit together the things I liked in each and it resulted in some very exciting music. I think as an artist the key is to follow what inspires you and worry about the practicalities afterward. You can find a way to market lots of things, it might as well be something you like!

Would you like to add anything else about your music?
I'm excited to see where this group leads. I want to explore various iterations of it, from a smaller group for intimate gigs to a much larger group perhaps including saxophones, fiddle, flute, etc. for a large festival stage. We'll see what actually happens but I have lots of ideas. Some of the new arrangements I'm doing are drawing on some other traditions such as Klezmer and Eastern European music so that may become a bit of a presence as well. But I try not to make too many long term plans--I just want to see where things go! I am part of a few other interesting projects and I love to play in more traditional settings as well so the only real thing I can say is that I will stay busy. Check out my website and get on my mailing list if you want to keep up with what I'm doing!

by Jeff Boyce

Editor’s note: Readers can learn more about this artist via his website at