Since a chance meeting 30 years ago, Emmy nominees Molly Mason and Jay Ungar have played together on a number of NPR shows, several movie soundtracks (including “Legends of the Fall” and “Brother’s Keeper”) and saw their track “Ashokan Farewell” selected as the main theme music for Ken Burns’ acclaimed PBS documentary “The Civil War.”
It was a slow burn for Jay and Molly at the beginning, though. After their first encounter in a New York state club, Ungar became busy with his band, and Mason headed to Minnesota to work in the house band of Garrison Keillor’s new show, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
After working together on various projects, the two eventually married, formally fusing their musical and romantic chemistry. While they both love a lot of different kinds of music, the differences they do have only serve to make their duo a stronger act, Mason said.
“My focus has always been in chords and rhythms, and his in melody. Both of us are strong in harmonies,” Mason said. “I’m a real backup player, and he is a real melody player, but we both enjoy trading those roles now and then, supporting the other in the ‘less familiar’ zone, sometimes even teaching or giving tips and encouragement.”
Jay and Molly’s waltzes are some of their most popular tracks, as they’ve taken the traditional form and given it a a sleeker, more modern confidence via their playing styles.
“There is something personal and beautiful about a good waltz, and Jay has such beautiful tone and expression for slower things,” Mason said. “Not all fiddlers have that as a strong point.”
Jay and Molly’s interests extend beyond the duo. Their band, Swingology, blends American dance music with swing and country blues. Their new book, “Catskill Mountain Waltzes and Airs,” brings together more than 60 original tunes with chord symbols for equally ambitious fellow musicians. They run a week-long Fiddle and Dance camp in the Catskill Mountains.
They also have a new album, called “Fiddler’s Holiday.”
“It’s a kind of winter-season bunch of songs and tunes, most of which are newly composed or traditional songs that are not so well known,” Mason said. “We recorded it live with an orchestra and with Mike and Ruthy [Jay’s daughter Ruth Ungar her husband Mike Merenda] on Rounder Records.”
Mike and Ruthy will be appearing with Jay and Molly at their upcoming show, but don’t ask for an early setlist, because these musicians prefer to play it by ear.
“We don’t know what we’ll be playing for sure,” Mason said, “but we’ll probably include ‘Backyard Symphony,’ ‘Ashokan Farewell,’ ‘The Wizard’s Walk,’ and no doubt something to celebrate spring.”
Mason said the group is looking forward to returning to Traverse City and performing at the Dennos Museum Center.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Mason said, “and we look forward to being there in early spring and playing for those hardy north country folks!”
Jay and Molly will be in performance at The Dennos Museum’s Milliken Auditorium on Sat., April 5 at 8pm. For tickets, visit dennosmuseum.org or jayandmolly.com