As good as “Long Expectant Comes at Last” was two years ago by Fermanagh-born singer, flutist, and whistle player Cathal McConnell, his “solo” album, made in snatches, had its inconsistent moments, with a kitchen-sink mentality governing the number of guests (a whopping 31), not all of whom enhanced its impact.
In contrast, Bronx-born fiddler Brian Conway has employed a piecemeal recording process to full, fruitful advantage on “First Through the Gate” (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40481). Begun in 1997, this long-awaited solo debut from the 41-year-old musician was recorded around his busy schedule as an attorney in Westchester County, N.Y., and out of that deliberative process he has crafted a monumentally impressive album.
Everything about the CD sparkles, from the 15 tracks of music to the 29-page insert booklet containing an essay by Mick Moloney on Sligo fiddling, in which Conway figures as a leader of the so-called New York school or style; tune descriptions by Don Meade; an annotated discography, and a select list of resources. (I contributed an artist bio.) But all this writing would be only so much jewel-box fodder if Conway’s fiddling were not as accomplished as it is.
In “The Mullingar Lea/Dowd’s No. 9/The Lass of Carracastle” reels, his bowing is bright and articulate, with an occasional snap to its masterfully controlled vigor, ably backed by Felix Dolan on piano.
“The Cuckoo/Flowers of Spring/Dunphy’s” and “Minnie Foster’s Clog/The Newcastle Hornpipe/Fly by Night No. 2” are a refreshing reminder of how hornpipes can be played on the fiddle. Accompanied by Dolan again, Conway understands that these mid-tempo dance tunes should lightly swing, that their challenging rhythm should be preserved through a graceful fluidity, with no hint of the roteness or reluctance some other Irish fiddlers fall prey to.
New York-style Sligo fiddling reaches critical mass when Conway performs with his mentor, Andy McGann, and his pupil, Patrick Mangan. A line of influence among the three fiddlers can be traced to no less than Sligo icon Michael Coleman himself, whom McGann knew and learned from in New York City.
But influence shouldn’t be confused with imitation, for each of the three has his own distinctive style. What makes their tracks together, “The Blackberry Blossom/The Silver Spire/The Dawn” reels and “Jerry’s Beaver Hat/Scatter the Mud/Kitty’s Wedding” jigs, all the more startling is the almost telepathic level of communication between them, with guitarist John Doyle providing a properly moderated rhythm underneath. This joint playing is about drive, not overdrive, and represents Big Apple bowing at its peak.
Backed by Mark Simos on guitar, Conway shows a subtler side of his fiddling on three highlands, “O’Flynn’s Fancy/Casey’s Pig/Jimmy Lyons’.” His ornamentation is deft and detailed, with some nimble surprises layered into a performance that becomes a tour de force precisely because it does not call undue attention to itself.
Throughout the album, Brian Conway keeps the melody in clear, crisp focus, ensuring that the compositional integrity of a tune never slips into an exercise of ego. Most of the melodies are familiar, but the purpose of this recording isn’t to trot out new or unusual tunes for their own sake. The main goal is to lend a non-museum glow to standards, and at that he certainly succeeds — and then some.
Hearing Conway and Mangan play “Martin Wynne’s Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4” reels, for example, is an unalloyed joy. It’s also a quiet pleasure to recognize the invention of Conway in linking two reels, “The Spike Island Lasses” and “Tom Moylan’s Frolics,” that he heard in different combinations on Joe Burke’s “Galway’s Own” album in 1971.
“First Through the Gate” is that rarest of releases: good production, instructive booklet (nods to Moloney and Meade), savory tunes, and superb playing. The music moves from strength to strength, and its variety and virtuosity should be boilerplated for future albums from other instrumentalists. Brian Conway has done his mentors and New York Irish fiddling proud, and this keeper CD is one of the frontrunners for best album of the year.
It can be obtained from Conway directly at his Wednesday night session at Dunne’s Pub, 15 Shapham Pl., White Plains, N.Y., ( 684-9366); Ossian USA, 118 Beck Rd., Loudon, NH 03307, ( 783-4383, email@example.com, www.ossianusa.com), and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Mail Order, 750 9th St., N.W., Suite 4100, Washington, DC 20560, (1  410-9815).
Many Irish traditional music fans know of Mark Simos’s work through recordings he’s done with fiddler Brian Conway, button accordionist John Whelan and fiddler Eileen Ivers, and the California-based Irish band Knock-Na-Shee. But in recent years, Simos, now a resident of Massachusetts, has established himself as a fine songwriter. In fact, Grammy-winning Alison Krauss + Union Station have recorded a number of his songs, including “Take Me for Longing,” which appears on their new, two-CD “Alison Krauss + Union Station Live” release on Rounder.
The profusion of hard-body hotties in classical music — Vanessa-Mae, Bond, Eroica Trio, Ahn Trio, OperaBabes — prompted this cheeky comment from Belfast-born flutist James Galway: “There are others who haven’t been photographed in a wet T-shirt playing a white violin going over a wave.”
On a more serious note, Galway’s new CD, “A Song of Home: An American Musical Journey” (RCA Victor/BMG), was recorded with fiddler Jay Ungar and guitarist Molly Mason near Woodstock, N.Y., during the two weeks after 9/11. It opens with one of Jerry Holland’s most beautiful tunes, “My Cape Breton Home,” and includes “Off to California,” an Irish hornpipe plucked from Francis O’Neill’s collections.
ELVIS TO ENTER THE HALL
Elvis Costello, that is. Any musician who’s done interesting, inertia-defying work for a quarter-century with the Attractions, Pogues, D