Bad Turns & Horse-Shoe Bends / Harry Bradley / 2000 /Outlet
Over the decades this Belfast-based label chronically suffered from mediocre production often born, frankly, of rushing the process. Here production was fairly good, while the flute playing of Harry Bradley was utterly sublime and ranked with the finest studio performances in Outlet’s history. Accompanied by Davy Graham on mandocello, Seamus O’Kane on bodhran, and former Deanta member Eoghan O’Brien on guitar and harp, Bradley played concert, E-flat, F, and marching band flutes with perfectly balanced force and finesse. This Belfast-born musician made an astonishingly mature, musically rich solo debut that placed him among the finest Irish flutists alive.
The Boston Edge / Joe Derrane, Seamus Connolly, and John McGann / 2004 / Mapleshade
In “The Boston Edge,” the tightness of Derrane’s button accordion, Connolly’s fiddle, and McGann’s guitar and mandolin playing clearly stemmed from proper woodshedding and occasional gigging together. The meticulous care with which the trio mapped out their music allowed them the freedom to improvise or ornament confidently while holding fast to the melody. Virtuosity and vitality ran neck and neck right from the memorable opening track, “The Curragh Races/The Skylark/The Reconciliation.” There was no letdown in taste or touch anywhere, and each instrumentalist shone within the teamwork of the trio. The edge goes to this Boston trio, whose first album together was a knockout.
The Dolphin’s Way / Micheal O Suilleabhain / 1997 / Venture/Virgin
The joke was on the New Agers: they liked it despite the fact that it was virtuosic, a rare blend of beautiful performance and beautiful production. O Suilleabhain is such a well-known dynamo as a composer, record producer, music scholar, and director of the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy of Music & Dance that it’s easy to forget how talented he is as a pianist. A classicist touch never cloyed or encumbered the traditional melodies he played here. The music was elegantly nuanced and solidly traditional, and the joy and wit behind his playing were obvious. Backup from Mel Mercier on bones and Colm Murphy on bodhran nimbly complemented O Suilleabhain on one of the best piano recordings of Irish traditional music ever made.
First Through The Gate / Brian Conway / 2002 / Smithsonian Folkways
This CD was the benchmark against which I compared every other Irish traditional release in 2002. It was the long-anticipated solo debut from one of Irish America’s most accomplished, if sometimes overlooked, fiddlers. The production was clean and defined, and the concept and execution were masterful. Brian Conway’s New York Sligo style of fiddling in “The Mullingar Lea/Dowd’s No. 9/The Lass of Carracastle” illustrated how respectfully, not slavishly, he adhered to tradition. He struck an ideal balance between upholding the integrity of a melody and enriching it with a prodigious, never-over-the-top technique.
In Good Company / Kevin Crawford / 2001 / Green Linnet
Inspired by such brilliant fiddle-flute tandems as Fred Finn and Peter Horan, Paddy Canny and Peadar O’Loughlin, and especially Junior Crehan and Josie Hayes, Crawford sought out the fiddlers with whom he often performed after immigrating to Clare from Birmingham in 1989. Old chemistry was renewed and lightning recaptured as he played beside Tommy Peoples, Frankie Gavin, Martin Hayes, Tony Linnane, James Cullinan, Conor Tully, Mick Conneely, Lunasa bandmate Sean Smyth, and former Moving Cloud colleague Manus McGuire. Crawford handled D-concert, B-flat, and E-flat flutes with unsurpassed skill and spirit, and his ability to settle in so smoothly with nine fiddlers of varied, strong styles attested to his adaptability and virtuosity.
Kitty Lie Over / Mick O’Brien and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh / 2003/ Self-issued
In Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, fellow Dubliner Mick O’Brien found a fiddler whose style complemented his tonally rich, expressive uilleann piping. This was much more than two talented instrumentalists getting together in the studio for some tunes. They carefully worked out the repertoire (much of it drawn from Sliabh Luachra), arrangements, pitch (B or B-flat), and harmonies allowing them to truly marry their instruments, one extending and bolstering the other. O Raghallaigh is himself an accomplished uilleann piper and pipemaker who was apprenticed to Geoff Wooff in Miltown Malbay, Clare, so his pipes-like style and reflexes on fiddle added immeasurably to his duets with O’Brien, and there were also some tantalizing whistle and fiddle-and-whistle duets. This was the most impressive Irish traditional instrumental CD of 2003 and one of the best in many years.
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Matt Molloy / Paul Brady / Tommy Peoples / S/T / 1978 / Mulligan
Two years after leaving the Bothy Band, with whom he made a masterpiece debut recording, Donegal-born fiddler Tommy Peoples issued this album with flutist Matt Molloy, his former Bothy Band colleague, and singer-guitarist Paul Brady. It was sometimes overlooked in the attention paid to other albums they made, whether individually or with different partners. Of course, expectations were exceedingly high for any studio recording by perhaps the best fiddler, flutist, and guitarist in Irish traditional music at the time. Falling short of genius, the album can be savored today for what it was and is: chockablock jigs and reels, played with