She first garnered international attention by reciting a poem and singing three songs in Irish on Hector Zazou’s “Lights in the Dark” album in 1998. Confirming the promise apparent in her guest participation on Zazou’s recording was Ni Chonaola’s absolutely stunning solo debut in 2002, “An Raicin Alainn.” There and on her brand-new solo CD, “Flame of Wine,” she communicates with a voice of uniquely expressive beauty — ethereal but not to a manipulative Enya degree — in songs well-suited to that voice.
The title of Ni Chonaola’s new album is a literal translation of her first name: “lasair” means flame, and “fion” means wine. These are also apt metaphors for the several love songs she sings. They’re full of intoxicating ardor and passionate yearning, and show how love can unmoor, as much as mend, souls.
Accompanying her on the new recording are co-producer Maire Breatnach on fiddle, viola, and piano, Bill Shanley on guitar, Mary Bergin on whistles, Johnny McDonagh on bodhran, and her brother MacDara O Conaola on bodhran.
Their spare style ably frames her voice, which gains power not through shouts but stillness, letting emotion simmer beneath breathy gradations sometimes into exquisite near-inaudibility, the sounds of silence. Her unhurried, hush-inflected approach creates a cocoon of intimacy for listeners, and nowhere is that effect more successful than in the two songs she sings without accompaniment, “An Draighnean Donn” (“The Blackthorn”) and “An Raibh Tu ar an gCarraig” (“Were You at the Rock?”).
Backed by Breatnach’s fiddle, Bergin’s whistle, and Shanley’s guitar, Ni Chonaola also delivers a delicate rendition of “Bean Dubh an Ghleanna” (“Dark-Haired Woman of the Glen”). With Breatnach on piano and fiddle, she sings “An Gleanntan Uaigneach” (“The Lonely Valley”) in a fresh, limpid way that sheds the automatic association of the melody with “Carrickfergus,” and additional lyrics by her father, Dara, an accomplished Aran writer, deepen the originality of her interpretation.
The children’s ditty “Damhsa na gCoinini” (“The Rabbits’ Dance”) and “Si Do Mhamo I” (“She Is Your Grandmother”) include Ni Chonaola ‘s alluring lilting, which lends further buoyancy and lightheartedness to the lyrics. There’s also a skipping schoolgirl charm to her version of “Gra mo Chroi mo Chuilin” (“Love of My Heart”), again featuring some lyrics from her father’s pen, and to “Sadhbh Ni Bhruineallaigh,” an amusing song from Connemara.
Where this new recording slightly falters is in the arch-preciousness occasionally seeping into Ni Chonaola’s singing. Her ah-ing in “Galleon,” her own song, only makes the thin lyrics sound thinner, and the ah’s wafting into her recitation of “Aoibhneas an Ghra” (“Love’s Enchantment”), a love poem in Irish, cloy what could have been cleansing. A light synthesizer drone in the background of “Flame of Wine,” which she calls her “signature tune,” likewise signals excessive refinement. In these moments you get the unsettling impression she may be auditioning for a “Celtic Woman” spot.
But Ni Chonaola’s interpretive strengths far outweigh these few misjudgments. Even though “Flame of Wine” falls short of the seamless, utterly transporting radiance of “An Raicin Alainn,” both of her solo albums constitute a breakthrough in sean nos-inspired singing. Together they reinvigorate the venerable through the unpushy pristineness and nuanced virtuosity of her voice. It is she, not Sinead O’Connor, who is pioneering a “sean-nua” style of Irish singing.
For more information about Lasairfhiona Ni Chonaola and her new CD, visit www.flameofwine.com and www.aransinger.com.
Here are two double bills to die for this month and next: Lunasa with Liz Carroll and John Doyle, and Jerry O’Sullivan and Tommy Peoples.
For anyone in or near the greater Washington, D.C., area, make a beeline for the Birchmere club in Alexandria, Va., on Thurs., Jan. 19, at 7:30 p.m. That’s when Ireland’s finest all-instrumental band, Lunasa, will share the concert stage with Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll and Dublin-born guitarist and singer John Doyle, whose latest CD, “In Play,” I enthusiastically reviewed in “Ceol.”
You’ll get to see guitarist Paul Meehan, Lunasa’s newest member, in action, and no doubt the finale for the night will involve Lunasa’s Meehan, Kevin Crawford, Sean Smyth, Cillian Vallely, and Trevor Hutchinson joining Carroll and Doyle for some tunes. The Birchmere is located at 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. Phone (703) 549-7500 or (800) 551-7328 (Ticketmaster).
On Sat., Feb. 25, New York native uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan, whose third solo CD, “O’Sullivan Meets O’Farrell,” was one of the top releases of 2004, and Donegal-born fiddler Tommy Peoples will share the bill at the Irish Center/Commodore Barry Club, 6815 Emlen St., Philadelphia, Pa. This concert is a cooperative undertaking by the Philadelphia Ceili Group and the Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Series under the guidance of Frank Dalton. O’Sullivan and Peoples will also be holding workshops that Saturday. For more information, visit www.philadelphiaceiligroup.org/events.html.
Lunasa without Carroll and Doyle will also be performing on Fri., Jan. 20, at 8 p.m. at Bodles Opera House, 39 Main St., Chester, N.Y., and Sat., Jan. 21, at 8 p.m. at the Hibernian Cultural Center, 19 Temple St., Worcester, Mass. Phone (845) 469-4595 for Bodles Opera House and (508) 792-3700 for the Hibernian Cultural Center.
The biggest news in jazz recordings for 2005 was “Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall,” a Blue Note CD of a concert recorded on Nov. 29, 1957, by Voice of America. Jazz critics have been falling over themselves in praising this CD culled from a larger, longer concert bill that included Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker with Zoot Sims, and Sonny Rollins. Top ticket price for this extraordinary “Thanksgiving Jazz” concert of nearly half a century ago was $3.95. It’s enough to make you weep and wallow in wistfulness.
In Irish traditional music, far less critical hubbub has been generated by a CD issued in 2005 that I also consider a singular historic contribution to the canon: “The Humours of Glendart” by John Gordon (1928-2002), a fiddler originally from Drumcully, Co. Fermanagh. By the time of his death, Gordon was virtually forgotten by all except for his family, friends, and a select group of players who knew him and his music, especially during his peak period from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. It took two years to source, clean up, and edit the 15 tracks heard on this album, and the effort has been well worth it. David Lennon has done the heaviest archival lifting here, with full support and encouragement from his father, Ben Lennon, and uncle, Charlie Lennon, who tastefully added piano accompaniment to several cuts.
Ben Lennon in particular believes that had John Gordon departed for America instead of Britain in 1948, he would have enjoyed some of the encomium heaped upon Sligo fiddlers Coleman, Morrison, and Killoran. Though no one can say for sure what the stateside reaction or reception to Gordon’s fiddling would have been, it’s a safe bet, based on the quality of his playing on this CD, that he would have been a significant asset to the Irish traditional scene here.
Albums like “The Humours of Glendart” are what make any year of Irish traditional music special. Kudos to the Lennons for restoring this impressive lost figure in fiddling to us.
Now if we can only figure out a way to liberate those 10 radio transcription records made by Michael Coleman less than a year before his death on Jan. 4, 1945. Long considered lost, they were discovered about a decade ago, cleaned up, and remastered by Harry Bradshaw, yet they remain in mothballs because of lingering rights/permission concerns. Imagine: the final recorded testament of the most influential fiddler in the history of Irish traditional music is still ensnarled and stymied by legalities. It’s enough to make you weep and wallow in the slough of despond.
MACMASTERS OF THE FIDDLE
Always of interest to Irish traditional fiddlers on both sides of the Atlantic is Cape Breton fiddling, and the stature of Buddy MacMaster and his niece, Natalie, ensures that the CD they made together and released in 2005 will attract widespread attention. “Natalie & Buddy MacMaster: Traditional Music from Cape Breton Island” also features the piano accompaniment of Betty Lou Beaton, Buddy’s sister, and the guitar work of Dave MacIsaac. It is available from Cranford Publications, which you can call at (888) 860-8073 or visit at www.cranfordpub.com.