By Earle Hitchner
A RAKE OF REELS, by John Nolan, JN Records 1001, firstname.lastname@example.org.
If it’s possible to posit a New York style or school of Irish traditional music, often burly and brilliant, then Bronx-born button accordionist John Nolan would be one of its leading lights. The first American ever to win the All-Ireland senior button accordion championship (1982), he was taught by John Glynn and then Martin Mulvihill, and influenced by Joe Burke, Billy McComiskey, and the late Seán McGlynn, all of whom were musical fixtures in New York City (Burke from 1962-65).
Their instruction, influence, and example clearly rubbed off on Nolan, and he integrated them into a style undeniably his own, full of lift and churning power, the twin engines of Irish dance music. It’s no surprise, then, that dance music dominates "A Rake of Reels," the new album he self-produced.
The title track is an 11-reel tour de force, where Nolan at times displays nimble, spare touches with his bass hand as he drives the melody ahead with his right. What’s remarkable about this lengthy medley is the amount of ornamentation he puts into the playing, which holds the tempo masterfully as he tosses off triplets with a blissfully
uncluttered, uncloying skill. It’s over 12 minutes of dance music, abetted by the céilí drumming of Jimmy Kelly Sr., that simultaneously rewards close, critical listening.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
The repertoire is no less redolent of New York: tunes by Brooklyn-born Billy McComiskey, Martin Mulhaire (Eyrecourt, Co. Galway, accordionist who’s lived in New York since the late 1950s), Paddy O’Brien, and Larry Redican, the last two of whom were part of the famed New York Céilí Band. There are also two tunes by Ed Reavy, a Philadelphia resident whose impact as a composer is still felt in New York’s Irish music community.
Nolan himself wrote a tune that has passed into the repertoire of session players everywhere, "The Boogie Reel," and he plays it with the backing of the man who inspired it, keyboardist/bassist Keith "Boogie" Sammut. Two more Nolan originals, "The Twisted Bellows" hornpipe and "A Tune for Mary" reel, suggest his talent for tune-making may be as good as his accordion playing.
Amid all these Irish dance tunes, he injects a French-style waltz, "Sleepless Nights." Nolan plays this McComiskey-penned tune with the graceful swing of a box boulevardier, and the fiddling of John Reynolds helps set it into relief.
Though the production is uneven and some of the accompaniment is applied too thickly at times, "A Rake of Reels" delivers on the promise of its title. It’s heady music from the heart, aimed squarely at your feet.