Like the Chieftains before her, fiddle player, composer, and bandleader Eileen Ivers is expanding the parameters of what is commonly thought of as Irish traditional music. The Bronx-raised violin-playing phenom is now based in Rockland County, NY, when she is not on the road. As an accompanist, she has backed up many icons in the world of rock and pop music: Hall and Oates, guitarist Al DiMeola, vocalist Paula Cole, singer/poet Patti Smith, and Steve Gadd, among others. She has been called “the Jimi Hendrix of the violin” by the New York Times and the Irish Voice says, “she electrifies the crowd with a dazzling show of virtuoso playing.” She is perhaps best known for her work in the Broadway production of Bill Whelan’s “Riverdance.” She performs Thursday, December 21, at the State Theater in New Brunswick.
Ivers began playing fiddle as an eight-year-old, she says in a phone interview from her home in Rockland County. She and her husband, who have no children, also have a small house, her parents’ old house, in County Mayo, in western Ireland. After coming to the States from County Mayo, Ivers’ father worked for KLM Airlines and her mother worked as a housekeepr and maid in Long Island. “Both my parents are from Ireland, and they encouraged me and my sister,” she says. “We had a wonderful teacher in Martin Mulvihill, and he was a major influence. All the kids in that generation were learning the music. Even now I try to teach; you still try to make time to pass on the tradition as well.” Both she and her sister took music and Irish step dancing lessons.
As a child Ivers, now 41, heard Irish traditional music in the house on records. “My mom wanted me to play piano and I did for a few years but then I found the fiddle,” she says. “From the beginning it was an instrument that has so much emotion in it; you have these beautiful low aires that can be played as well as these joyous tunes that can make people happy and dance. It’s just an instrument you are constantly growing with and having fun with.”
Ivers has two albums, “Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul,” a 2003 release, and her more recent “An Nollaig, An Irish Christmas,” both released on her own Musical Bridge label. On the former she is joined by South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo as well as an array of vocalists. Kumalo is best known for his throbbing bass lines and solos that adorn Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album.
Ivers studied math at Iona College, graduating in 1987, and then went back to school for post-graduate work (she was three credits shy of getting her masters in mathematics when the role in “Riverdance” came up and her musical career was launched). As a child she says it was her dream to work for NASA. One of her professors in college encouraged her to pursue her interest in math, and she did. Ivers says that “math and music go hand in hand, and I did my master’s paper on the connections between math and music, going all the way back to mathematical scales from Bach. I just loved the discipline of math and was getting into another place, pecking away at my master’s degree when one musical opportunity began to follow another. And since then, I’ve just followed the music and never looked back. I’ve never had that ‘real job.’ It was always just kind of an evolving thing, which ‘Riverdance’ solidified.”
At the State Theater on December 21, Ivers will perform mostly selections from her new Christmas album. She will be accompanied by Tommy McDonnell on vocals, Isaac Alderson on uilleann pipes and flute, Greg Anderson on acoustic guitar and keyboards, and Leo Traversa on electric and acoustic bass. She will also be joined by a team of dancers from the Broesler School of Dance for some “Riverdance” styled Irish step dancing. “I love to include dancers in the show,” Ivers says, adding they have also invited local choirs to the New Brunswick show, including the CantoNOVA choir from Ramapo College.
“Most of the show is traditional Irish material dating as far back as the 12th century, and the show flows in a nearly chronological order. I try to take the audience through a typical Irish Christmas. There is a song from the west of Ireland about making a Christmas pudding and we’ve resurrected Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.’ Bach wrote for the people too, and for that piece he wrote in a 6/8 time; we’ve infused an Irish jig rhythm. We will also be doing some popular carols like ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing,’ as well as a tune I wrote for my parents.” Ivers adds there is also a tune from Charlie Brown, “Christmas Time Is Here.”
Aside from her work on Broadway’s “Riverdance,” Ivers has also contributed music for several Hollywood films, including “Back to Titanic,” “Quest for Camelot” with David Foster, and “Some Other Son,” a 1990s film about a 1980 hunger strike led by Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland. Ivers has shared the stage with two of the world’s most celebrated violinists, classical virtuoso Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and jazz musician Regina Carter, in the critically acclaimed “Fiddlers Three,” a show that continues to fascinate symphony audiences throughout the United States. ZETA Music, the world’ leading electric stringed instrument maker, recently introduced the Eileen Ivers Signature Series blue violin.
In her relatively short career, Ivers, a nine-time All-Ireland fiddle champion and recipient of more than 30 championship medals, has collaborated with the London Symphony, the Boston Pops, and of course, “Riverdance.”
Looking back on her accomplishments, Ivers says she is still learning more about how to bring Irish traditional music, in slightly altered and modernized forms, to the rest of the world. “A huge chunk of my decision to pursue music was realizing how you could affect people in a wonderful way,” Ivers says. “To this day we always go out to the lobby after a show and sign CDs and meet every last person who wants to meet us.”
Eileen Ivers, An Nollaig — An Irish Christmas, Thursday, December 21, 8 p.m., State Theater, Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $25 to $45. 732-246-7469.