Claire Mann and Aaron Jones may be just a duo, but the much-lauded Celtic musicians can fill a stage with sound.
Both sing, and both are serious multi-instrumentalists. Mann plays fiddle, flute and tin whistle, while Jones performs on guitar, bass, cittern and bouzouki.
"The thing with any duo is there's a synergy to it," Jones said during a recent phone interview from his hotel in Boston. "Once you get into bigger lineups, you have some arrangements and kind of all stick to them."
With so many people playing at once, you don't have as much freedom as do two players, he said.
"With us, Claire's playing a melody, and if she feels like changing it slightly, she knows I will be there with the chords to keep it grounded, and if I feel like throwing in a twist with a crazy chord, she maintains the melody," Jones said. "Being in a duo allows us to explore the tunes and play with a freedom you don't get in a multi-person band. As long as the melody is clear, and the chord progressions stable, you have a lot of freedom to interpret a tune in new ways."
Mann and Jones will explore some tunes this Friday night, June 8, in the upstairs Cabaret Theater at the Temple of Music and Art. Only 100 tickets will be available for this intimate show by two masters of contemporary Celtic music.
Based in Scotland, Jones and Mann started playing together about 15 years ago. Jones was living in Edinburgh, a busy college town with a vibrant music and arts community, and Mann moved there from northern England. They started dating around the same time, and still cohabitate in a house in the Borders region of Scotland.
(Jones also told me that the Armstrong clan comes from the Scottish Borders, and that my ancestors were likely rustlers, stealing cattle from farms in the north of England. "In Scotland, it was a very honorable thing to steal from the English," he said.)
Over the years, Mann and Jones have played together and apart in different ensembles. Perhaps Jones' most-well-known project is the Scottish band Old Blind Dogs, which has played in Tucson often over the years. They were voted Folk Band of the Year in 2004 and 2007 at the Scots Trad Music Awards.
The two are members of the group Litha, a Celtic quartet that also features the German folk musicians Gudrun Walther and Jürgen Treyz, and played in the Old Pueblo in 2009. That group has just released a new album, Jones said.
"Litha" is a Gaelic word that refers to midsummer, or the summer solstice. Mann and Jones played with Walther and Treyz for several years under the appellation 2Duos. "We decided that for it to be a proper band, we had to give it a proper name, and when we all met, it was midsummer, so that was the ideal choice."
The German-Scottish connection illustrates the manner in which Celtic music has moved from country to country. You can hear its influences in the music of France and Spain, not to mention American country and bluegrass.
"A lot of the traditional music that came over to America and Canada was brought by Scottish and Irish people looking for a better life and freedom from the British. That's where the hillbilly sound in Appalachia comes from, in part—the 'Hillwilliams,' the Protestants from Ireland," Jones said. "Of course, I'm not saying all American folk came from Scots or Irish origins, but many traditional forms of music use the same scales, so it's not a huge leap from Celtic music to bluegrass."
After Jones played on Mann's 2001 debut solo album, Claire Mann, they decided they needed to release an album under both of their names. The result was the excellent duo album Secret Orders, released in 2005.
Jones also does regular session work as an electric bassist. When not playing music, he helps others navigate the practical aspects of working as a musician. By day, he works for the Folk, Roots and Traditional Music Section of the U.K. Musicians Union, specializing in tax and immigration issues. It's important to help musicians get their legal ducks in a row and be taken seriously as business people, he said. "They may be great players with lots of experience, but for a lot of musicians, the business aspect was never something they were taught, or had a chance to learn."
Mann and Jones also play often at home with friends and family. As is the case with many Celtic musicians, music is as vital played in a kitchen or in front of a hearth as it is on a concert stage.
"I think in both the Irish and Scots traditions, this happens," he said. "Whenever we get together with family, it's not the CD player, nor TV. It's more like, 'What new tunes have you heard?' or, 'Do you have any new songs to share?' It's very much a participation sport; it's not about sitting around. It's about community."
Jones said this is probably a result of the way musicians in certain cultures bond. "It's an instant way of belonging. If you wanted to prove your legitimate Scots heritage, even if you were from Ireland or England, if you could play the right songs, you were in. It's this common language, music."
Despite all the musical activity surrounding Mann and Jones, theirs is not a life of constant red carpets, videos and stardom, he said.
"For us, it's not a rock 'n' roll lifestyle as much as a regular, day-to-day labor of love. It's a Chevy Impala from Dollar rental instead of a limousine and first class.
"But I get to take my guitar to work. I'll enjoy it as long as I can, until I have to get a proper job, and I have to dig a hole for a living."