But as I’ve stated many times before, no instrument is good or bad. Only its player is good or bad, and admittedly the piano accordion has had its share of bad players.
In Irish traditional music, the outstanding exceptions today include Mirella Murray, Karen Tweed, Jimmy Keane, and Alan Kelly. They have demonstrated the capability and musicality of the piano accordion when placed in the right hands — theirs.
From Roscommon town but now living in Roscam, Galway, Alan Kelly found his first piano accordion, a Paolo Soprani model, squirreled away in the turf shed of his piano accordion-playing father, Frank, and the galvanizing piano accordion playing of Silly Wizard’s Phil Cunningham on radio sealed the deal for Alan.
“Out of the Blue” was his aptly titled solo debut in 1996, and it helped to recalibrate the ears and perception of Irish traditional music aficionados toward the piano accordion. It is an exceptional recording, and one of the tunes on it is “Fleur de Mandragore,” composed by Michel Bordeleau of the French-Canadian band La Bottine Souriante. Kelly taught the melody to, and recorded it with, fiddler Sean Smyth and guitarist Donogh Hennessy, who then recorded it on Lunasa’s debut album that same year.
In 2000 Alan Kelly released his second solo recording, “Mosaic,” and the touch of Joe Bernie’s saxophone on a track of “Out of the Blue” is expanded on “Mosaic” through the horn playing of Richie Buckley, a saxophonist best known for his work with Van Morrison, and trumpeters Daniel Healy and Mike Nolan. The sound grew larger in keeping with the larger fusion vision of Kelly for presenting his instrument.
But in 2002 Alan surprised many listeners by returning to a more straightforwardly traditional sound on “Fourmilehouse,” the duet album he made with his younger, flute and whistle playing brother John, who had guested on Alan’s previous two solo CDs. Such guest musicians as Jim Higgins on percussion and Rod McVey on keyboards carried over from those earlier albums to “Fourmilehouse,” easily among the best recordings of 2002. (Note of disclosure: I wrote the essay in the CD insert.)
Higgins and McVey join Tola Custy on fiddle, Jim Murray, Ian Carr, Donncha Moynihan, and Gerry Paul on guitars, and New York-born Stephanie Geremia on flute as guest instrumentalists on Alan Kelly’s new solo album, “After the Morning,” which also features two songs.
In the past the singing of Eddi Reader and the music of Fairground Attraction, the band in which she first came to notice, left me unimpressed. I found them porous and thin, with no there there, to borrow a famous quote from Gertrude Stein. But on Alan Kelly’s new album, Reader’s singing has never sounded more persuasive and engaging than on “I Hung My Harp Upon the Willows,” a song by John Douglas (who plays guitar on the track) about a momentous walk in the woods by Robert Burns, who was plagued by self-doubt, and Richard Brown, who boosted his confidence. The setting for the song is countryish, and Kelly plays the accordion with a harmonica feel (some believe all accordions are glorified harmonicas) as Reader sings with an Emmylou Harris-like clutch in her voice. It’s a winsome, winning track.
Less satisfying is Kris Drever’s interpretation of “Caledonia,” not Dougie MacLean’s famous song but a traditional ballad from Cape Breton Island about Glace Bay’s Caledonia Coal Mines. Taking on a song indelibly covered in 1988 by the late Tony Cuffe on his solo album “When First I Went to Caledonia” is a tough task for any vocalist, and Drever deserves credit for singing a slightly different melody here. Even so, his singing tacks toward the torpid.
The rest of Alan Kelly’s “After the Morning” is an unqualified triumph. His extraordinary skill at performing Irish traditional music on the piano accordion can be heard in “The Mountain Top / The Jolly Tinker” reels and especially “Bill Hoare’s Reel / The Rookery.” They are stirring, standout tracks infused with Kelly’s drive and dexterity, each in perfect balance with the other, full of nuance, grace, and, where desired, grit.
Kelly also performs six of his own tunes, and he is unquestionably a talented composer. His jigs “After the Morning / The Night Owl” convey a captivating, breeze-buoyed ease. His slower piece, “Eolann,” named for a nephew, draws its unfolding appeal from contemplative contentment. “Siena” is a Kelly waltz named for a city in Tuscany, and the lighthearted, lissome swing of the melody shifts into a kinetic jig he wrote, “Her Broken Leg.” The remaining Kelly tune on the album is “New Year’s Day,” which the composer admits was written “while I was in a reflective mood.” It is yet another lovely melody, almost an etude in the way he flexes his fingers on the piano accordion keyboard.
Variety in repertoire is an Alan Kelly hallmark, and his new album reflects it. “Sally Ann’s Reels” are old-timey-flavored tunes placed in an Irish traditional idiom, and the interplay between Kelly on piano accordion and Ian Carr on guitar is nimble and infectious. From Asturias, a region in northwest Spain, comes “Jota Da Maia,” a tour de force showcasing the full, ripe range of Kelly’s fingerwork and imagination. The hypnotically moving style and music of Brittany surface compellingly in “Tana” and “Duet Mat Oc’h,” composed respectively by former Kornog and current Celtic Fiddle Festival member Christian LeMaitre and Herri Leon, as well as in Leon’s “Son ar Rost” tied to the traditional “Gavotte Montagne” and “Dans Loudieg,” three Kornog staples.
Over the past 13 years Alan Kelly has played the piano accordion magnificently on three solo albums and one duet album, and his memorable stint in the ensemble put together for the late Johnny Cunningham’s music in the Mabou Mines stage production of “Peter and Wendy” only enhanced his reputation. Kelly is not merely one of the best piano accordionists in Irish music. He is one of the best accordionists. Period.
His superb, self-issued new album, “After the Morning” (cat. no. BBM 004), is available from www.blackboxmusic.ie.