When Irish fiddle virtuoso Martin Hayes met guitarist Dennis Cahill in Chicago in 1985, he was immediately struck by the American's fluency in classical, blues and rock styles.
It helped that Cahill, a native of the Windy City, was well-versed in Irish tradition. His parents grew up in County Kerry, Ireland - about 60 miles southwest of Hayes' home in East County Clare.
Cahill "seemed to have the capacity to use the guitar in a variety of ways and to have a detailed knowledge of melodic spirituality," Hayes said. "I can't say we've gotten to the end of what we're trying to do, but we've been able to advance it as best as we can."
Hayes and Cahill play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, at Centennial Hall.
The duo has been credited with taking traditional Irish music and extending it to the furthest reaches of the form. They add bits and pieces of other genres to reward the educated listener, but they try to communicate clearly enough for the layman.
"Between them they have deconstructed the material to create a vast spacious soundscape, aching with the celebration of centuries, soaring with the slow-burning dynamics of modern classicists, like Part and Gorecki," wrote the United Kingdom newspaper The Independent.
Tickets for the show are $18 for general admission in advance, $20 at the door; $15 for students and $17 for seniors. They're available at Hearthside and Rainy Day Books.
"Sometimes Irish music sounds the same because after awhile people aren't hearing distinctions," Hayes said. "We put a lot of effort into re-expressing each piece of music and presenting each piece of music freshly without a nameplate or a systematic way of delivering it.
"Our goal, on one hand, is to play music that speaks coherently and genuinely within the tradition, but also to play music that communicates beyond the genre."
Hayes has won six All-Ireland fiddle championships, as well as a National Entertainment Award, Ireland's Grammy. He grew up immersed in the "slow, lyrical style" of East County Clare and played with his father, P.J. Hayes, a master fiddler and the leader of Tulla Ceili, an influential band in Clare County for more than 50 years.
"I've always appreciated the expression of the old players," Martin Hayes said. "I've always felt an affinity with the music, the feelings. Even non-technically proficient players have made a mark on me.
"I kind of try to make a balance between slow lyricism and fire and drive, and make that relate to each other. I'm attracted to emotional expression in music and music that really speaks with a lot of sincerity."
Hayes moved to the United States in the mid-1980s. Cahill, meanwhile, had established himself in the Chicago scene. They met and formed a jazz/rock/fusion band called Midnight Court, before re-embracing traditional music and recording solo albums.
Hayes has lived in Seattle for almost 10 years.
"I don't want to classify myself as a drifter, but there's an element of that involved," Hayes said. "There's been a lot of musical vagrancy. Seattle is a good audience. There are a lot of musicians here. But generally, I kind of lead a quiet life."
He reunited with Cahill in the mid-1990s and they've released two recordings, 1997's "The Lonesome Touch" and 1999's "Live in Seattle." They've completed 90 percent of the recording for a new release, tentatively scheduled for early next year.
"We've multi-tracked a little bit," Hayes said. "Sometimes I play viola and fiddle. Sometime Dennis plays mandolin and guitar. So it's a little different than the other recordings, unless I change my mind before it gets out."