Paul Sullivan – Irish Soul
Paul Sullivan is a professional pianist who has toured the world as a solo concert performer and also as pianist with the Paul Winter Consort, a ground-breaking musical ensemble that won a Grammy Award in 2006 for its album Silver Solstice.
Sullivan is also a teacher and recording artist, with over a dozen albums, including his most recent one, Irish Soul. It’s a collection of rare and familiar Irish melodies, from the ancient tunes popularized by Thomas Moore in the 19th century to classic dance tunes from the traditional music repertoire. And there’s a beautiful selection of distinctly Irish-American tunes that were popular when Sullivan was growing up in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood in the 1960s.
Paul currently lives with his wife and son along the coast of
Maine, and we caught up with him recently to talk about the album and his own
Tell us a little of your own Irish background – where does your family come from in Ireland?
Well, I’m proud to say that I’ve got purely Irish blood. My father was Cornelius J. Sullivan, and his family came from Adrigole, on the Beara Peninsula in County Cork. My mother was Rita McArdle, whose family was from Belturbet, not far from Armagh, in County Cavan.
How did an Irish-American kid from Dorchester find his way into jazz and eventually the Paul Winter Consort?
I originally attended St. Gregory’s School in Dorchester, but I got my first professional music training at a special school in Cambridge, near Harvard Square. At the time it was called the St. Paul Choir School, and now it’s named the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School. That’s where I really got my musical start. I was in love with music all my life, and was constantly learning. When I graduated from Yale, I moved to New York City and made my living as a freelance pianist. Talk about learning! I played with orchestras, I played in jazz clubs, strip clubs, Broadway Musicals, Ballet lessons. You name it. It was the best possible training in musical versatility. And eventually the path led to playing with Paul Winter, which I’ve been doing off and on for almost 30 years.
We were impressed by your selection of tunes on Irish Soul. Instead of forgoing the “Irish-American” tunes that some musicians now consider passé, you embrace them and give them new life. What was your motivation in recasting these beautiful – albeit often overplayed – melodies?
Well, I never set out to make an authentic “Celtic” recording. First of all, I play the piano, which is not exactly an authentic Celtic instrument. And secondly, I had never even heard the word Celtic when I was growing up in Dorchester in the 1960s. The only Celtics we knew were the basketball team with Bob Cousy and John Havlicek.
So I made no pretensions about playing authentic Irish music. I wanted to explore the experience that I had as an Irish Catholic boy growing up in Dorchester. The Irish tunes I play were the tunes that I learned and loved in those days. It’s a personal journal, and I wanted to keep it unpretentious and “authentic.” Authentically Boston Irish, circa 1965, that is.
And you give a fresh and exciting rendition on classic hymns like Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty, and accordionist Paddy O’Brien’s lovely tune, Fedora. What is it about Irish music that appeals to you?
In a word, soul. There is so much soul in Irish music. It bursts out everywhere. Irish music is crackling with fire, defiance, rage, high humor, and some of the most rapturous tenderness ever expressed in music anywhere on earth.
Tell us about the original songs you composed for this album?
I wrote three songs for the CD. Most of my other 13 CDs are recordings of my own original compositions, and I couldn’t resist adding some original tunes to this CD. They are my reflections on family history and tales I had heard about Ireland. One is called “The Ocean Between Us,” which is about both the gulf between the two countries, and at the same time, the connection as well.
You allude to connections between Irish music and African-American music. Could you talk a little about that?
Well, yes, it’s the word I talked about before--soul. There is no real historical connection between African American music and Irish music, but there is a particularly strong emotional connection. Different ways of telling the same story, if you will. And when I was playing a lot of jazz and blues in New York, I kept noticing that the two styles of music, different as they sound, really had a close kinship somehow. There was an open door between them. Over the years I toyed with the relationship between these two worlds, and that has culminated in this CD.
Any plans for visiting Ireland soon?
As a matter of fact, we are just putting together a concert tour in Ireland
for Fall 2008. I haven’t been to Ireland since I was seven years old, on a little tour with the St. Paul’s
Choir. So this will be a real homecoming to me. Most of my extended family
and clan will be coming along too. I think it will be profound and hilarious,
in equal measure.