Jazz vocalist Melanie O'Reilly, an Irish immigrant, keeps one foot firmly planted on the old sod

Berkeley’s Melanie O’Reilly was born into a family of storytellers, and now she’s spinning her own tales, combining her passion for jazz with her birthright Irish culture. Since moving from Dublin to the Bay Area in 2003, O’Reilly and her partner, guitarist and neuroscience researcher Sean O Nuallain, have introduced a new vocabulary to jazz’s increasingly global lexicon.

O’Reilly performs Saturday at the The Starry Plough on Shattuck Avenue and her band Aisling featuring O Nuallain, fiddler Darcy Noonan, flutist Rebecca Kleinmann and Ami Molinelli on percussion and mandolin, an evening focusing on music from her 2007 album “Dust & Blood.” (She also performs at Freight & Salvage on March 10).

A gorgeous session recorded in California and Dublin, the album features O Nuallain’s delicate but rhythmically deft instrumental arrangements and O’Reilly’s lilting vocals. Together they have developed a singular body of music that weaves together several disparate currents, including the American Songbook, original tunes combining bossa nova or Celtic cadences with a jazz sensibility, traditional Irish material, and a generous helping of Brazilian standards by Jobim and Luiz Bonfa. She sings several pieces in Gaelic, including a piece she wrote with the celebrated Irish poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill.

“We’re not diluting any of the traditions by bringing them together, it’s truly a synthesis,” O’Reilly says. “We’re respecting the traditions. That’s very important to us. Bossa nova is such a sophisticated form, and the Irish tradition is very rich, and Sean has a wonderful hold on those rhythms and melodies. It’s bringing the roots of the old into the contemporary.”

O’Reilly was raised in a family in which storytelling took myriad creative forms. Her uncle founded the International Dublin Theater Festival, and her aunt was a well-known actress. A great uncle played café orchestra jazz in the 1920s, and her mother was a pioneering female journalist on Irish radio.

O’Reilly absorbed the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie via her sister’s record collection, and as a teenager she found her creative calling as a jazz singer. After earning an arts degree from University College Dublin, she moved to Edinburgh to train as a nurse. But she ended up working steadily around the city as a jazz vocalist, honing her technique singing standards. By the mid-90s, she was looking to develop a more personal form of musical expression.

“I began to want to do something that was more me,” O’Reilly said. “I always loved poetry, and I started setting Irish language poetry to jazz arrangements, collaborating with musicians like David Milligan. I ended up in a songwriting trio with Milligan and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, one of the top Irish poets, bringing together jazz with Irish themes and language.”

She moved back to Dublin in 1997, and immersed herself in traditional Irish music, which led to her debut album, 1999’s lovely “House of the Dolphins.” She decided to check out the Bay Area when her partner and accompanist Sean O Nuallain was hired by Stanford University, where he ended up doing research on the Archimedes Project, designing technological tools for autistic children.

In 2003, he was asked to present a talk on traditional Celtic music at UC Berkeley, where he pursued neuroscience research from 2005-2008. At the same time, Berkeley’s Celtic Studies Program awarded O’Reilly a Visiting Research Scholarship to develop a song cycle on the theme of 19th century Irish immigration, a project that turned into her album “Women Who Left.”

While she’s become an Irish immigrant herself, O’Reilly keeps one foot firmly planted on the old sod, for instance performing her tribute to Anita O’Day as part of the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival last summer. Dedicated to spreading Celtic culture, she devised “Irish Music: from Sean-nos to Jazz,” with O Nuallain, a course that’s accredited by and taught at UC Berkeley’s CAL Extension. Given her cultural activism, her performance Saturday at the Starry Plough seems like an ideal pairing of artist and venue.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....