The Litany of the Saints: Musical Quotations and Influences in the Music of Tommie Potts.

The Jazz Influence


My initial enquiries of Potts were in the area of possible jazz influences. Like many others I had spoken with, I wondered whether the linear improvised aspects of his musical style were not in  fact in some way derived from jazz. As my study of his music progressed, I was to discover that the answer was much more interesting, more radical, and more important as far as the history of this tradition is concerned.


Iluustration 1. Ex.1

Illustration 1. Ex.2

Ex. 2 - Audio 1

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Illustration 1. Ex.3

Ex. 3 - Audio 2

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Illustration 1. Three examples of 'riffs' in Potts' music


Examples of what in jazz are called ‘riffs’ are found occasionally in his innovative pieces. A riff may be defined as “the same melodic motif appearing in different consecutive accentual guises” (Ó Súilleabháin 1987). Illustration 1 shows three examples of ‘riffs’ (not a term used by Potts), one in his version of the reel, ‘Julia Delaney’ and two others in his version of the reel, ‘My Love is in America’, Potts responded to a direct question regarding a possible jazz influence as follows:

MOS: There were things in it [‘My Love is in America’] which reminded me of things you’d sometimes hear a jazz musician playing [lilts examples 2 and 3 as in Illustration 1]. Is there anything in that?

POTTS: There is a little influence, because when I was young, there was the ballroom - the ballroom was popular - they did those jazz dances like the Foxtrot, and Slow Foxtrot. But it wasn't the overall or deepest influence - no way!
[Speech Transcriptions, p. 45 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

MOS: Have you ever played jazz yourself on the fiddle?

POTTS: No! No! I couldn't do that no more than I could play classical pieces. The note-making is different. Like I’m Irish and to a certain extent I know nothing else, you see. But there were certain jazz - a few things I heard a few years ago, and a few times I tried it on the fiddle. [Plays]. I couldn't go on with that. It’s not my psychology. If I were younger perhaps, and had been influenced, I possibly might have gone into it. But I’m glad not.
[Speech Transcriptions, p. 8 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

Interestingly, Eddie Potts, a brother of Tommie’s who Tommie described as a fine uilleann piper in his youth, turned from traditional music to jazz saxophone as a young adult and remained with jazz throughout his life.

Illustration 2

Illustration 2 [sync]. The syncopation in bar 3 (bracketed) of Potts' 'My Love is in America'


In my conversations with Tommie, I came upon an interesting example of the kind of ambiguity that can arise in ascribing jazz influences where there are none. A syncopation in bar three of a performance of ‘My Love is in America’ where the primary accent at the opening of the bar is omitted through the use of a rest, is shown in Illustration 2. Missing a main accent in this manner - so typical of jazz styles - is never found in mainstream fiddle tradition to the best of my knowledge. Although this point in the Potts Manuscripts (attempts at notating variation in his tunes by Potts himself using an idiosyncratic form of music notation) is marked as ‘Sp’ - which Potts himself identified for me as meaning ‘syncopation’ - far from regarding it as a jazz influence, Potts perceived it as something emanating from the tradition itself:

POTTS: Well, there’s nothing terribly radical or alarming about that because flute players do it. And when a flute player loses the breath you see them playing - and in the inhale there is the note; but they come back in, and that’s syncopation on the flute.
[Speech Transcriptions, p. 36 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

Potts is here referring to the traditional flute technique of breaking the line to take a breath in such a way as to phrase the melody in an individual and interesting manner. Even here, however, missing the main accent is not common, and a typical example of a normal approach may also be seen in Ó Súilleabháin 1984, p5.

As against this, I have written elsewhere (Ó Súilleabháin 1996) about a specific influence on Potts of a 1950’s pop song, ‘Mambo Italiano’ (which I will refer to again later in this essay) as performed by Rosemary Clooney. In this instance the central repeated motif of the chorus finds its way his setting of ‘My Love is in America’ where it serves to generates one of the variations he employs. The integration of the motif is so deep, however, that its position and nature only came to light following ‘fieldback [i]’ analysis (see Ó Súilleabháin 1987). Furthermore, this single instance turned out to be the exception that proved the rule in terms of the influence of ‘classical music’ motifs over those from ‘jazz’ or ‘pop’. In the end, Potts employed an eclectic approach to whatever he heard as far as potential influences were concerned.