By Earle Hitchner
It was a year of triumph and tragedy, with Irish traditional music gaining greater ground in commercial media, yet dampened by news of the passing of such important musical figures as Sligo fiddler Martin Wynne, Clare fiddler Junior Crehan, Donegal melodeonist Tom Doherty, and Brooklyn-born fiddler, pianist, and teacher Maureen Glynn Connolly.
A good measure of the vitality of the albums that follow can be attributed to the efforts made by those and other departed musicians whose pride in tradition was generously passed on. Any one of these 10 recordings could easily top the lists compiled by other critics for 1998, a year showing new strength and occasional boldness. Here goes:
(1) THE WORDS THAT REMAIN, by Solas (Shanachie 78023)
Their third album is also this quintet’s best to date. It features innovative arrangements, a superb taste in material (including original compositions), mesmerizing instrumentals, and riveting vocals led by Waterford-born Karan Casey, who’s often backed by more assured harmonies from other band members. The group also knows how to integrate prominent guest musicians (namely Béla Fleck and Iris DeMent) in a way that adds muscle to the mix without straying from the core Solas sound.
Every cut on this expertly sequenced and produced recording is exceptional: the four- and five-string banjo duet by Seamus Egan and Fleck on "The Stride Set" of reels, Winifred Horan’s exquisite fiddling on the Galician air "La Bruxa," the vocal duet by Casey and DeMent on Peggy Seeger’s "Song of Choice," Mick McAuley’s button accordion playing on "The Gaelic Club" jig, and John Doyle’s overall touch on guitar and fine vocal harmony.
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Scarier still is the impression that Solas, recipient of back-to-back AFIM best-album awards, have not yet displayed the full — dare I say "hidden"? — talent of the band in concert or on record yet: McAuley’s lead singing ability, Casey’s jazz chops, Horan’s classical grace, Egan and Doyle’s aptitude for successful genre stretching. The future could not be brighter for this immensely gifted group or more exciting for their growing legion of fans.
(2) THE TIE THAT BINDS, by Joe Derrane (Shanachie 78009)
Five compact disks of Joe Derrane’s music, plus a cassette of the Irish All-Stars in which he played, have been released over the last five years. Included are three solo albums recorded since his extraordinary return to the button accordion in 1994. This is Derrane’s latest, and it proves beyond any doubt that he can blend his unique, highly virtuosic style of box playing with some of Irish traditional music’s most accomplished performers — Frankie Gavin, Seamus Egan, Jerry O’Sullivan, and Kevin Crawford among them–to create a sound both seamless and irresistible.
Musicians half Derrane’s age, a spry 68, would give their eye teeth to handle their instruments with his drive and dexterity. His hornpipes are nonpareil, his own compositions (five here) are tasty, and the joie de vivre he brings to his playing is unmistakable on every cut.
On an album teeming with high-level performances, one stands out as a paradigm of the tradition: "The Old Copperplate/The Hunter’s House/The Golden Keyboard." Derrane’s box and O’Sullivan’s uilleann pipes are an exhilarating, note-perfect match on these three reels, backed with rhythmic precision by Zan McLeod on guitar.
With every note he plays, every tune he writes, every new recording he issues, Derrane burnishes his reputation as one of the greatest accordionists in the history of Irish music.
(3) FOXGLOVE, by Moving Cloud (Green Linnet 1186)
Their self-titled previous recording on Green Linnet collared the No. 1 spot in the Irish Echo’s list of best trad albums for 1994, and this eagerly awaited follow-up represents a major advance for the all-star, all-instrumental band based in Ennis, Co. Clare.
There’s nothing this quintet can’t excel at, whether Irish, Shetland, Scottish, Quebecois, Irish-American, or French musette music. Paul Brock’s box playing on "Swing Waltz," composed by Gus Viseur and Baro Ferret, brilliantly evokes the boulevardier life of pre-WW2 France. M’ve Donnelly’s fiddling on some Paddy Fahy tunes is a marvel, as is fiddler Manus McGuire’s lithe bow work on his own composition, "Shelly River Waltz."
Factor in Kevin Crawford’s impeccable flute, tin whistle, and bodhrán playing and Carl Hession’s flawless contribution on piano, and you have an album whose appeal to hard-core listeners and dancers is equally magnetic.
(4) LEITRIM’S HIDDEN TREASURE, by the McNamara Family (Drumlin LHT 1)
It’s a treasure hidden no more. Few albums in recent years have made the sort of immediate impact that this one has on the international community of Irish traditional music. It’s just sublime instrumental playing among family members whose blood bond easily shifts into a musical one, tackling a repertoire that includes tunes recorded for the first time here. The tempo is exemplary, the performances are crisp and inviting, and the overall feel of the recording is blissfully free of commercial concerns and goals.
It’s Irish trad music as it was meant to be played, and it’s all the more astonishing for the fact that the band, as talented as any in Ireland right now, comprises six people from the same family. That puts the McNamaras in select kith-and-kin company, such as the Lennons (household heads Charlie and Ben both hail from Leitrim) and Galway’s Keanes. Ah, sweet vanity pressing is this, handsomely packaged and well produced, the best treasure hunt imaginable.
(5) THE GIFT, by Jerry O’Sullivan (Shanachie 78017)
Only Irish traditional music should be played on the most demanding of Irish traditional instruments, the uilleann pipes, right? Wrong. Liam O’Flynn has dabbled in Shaun Davey-penned pop orchestral soundscapes, Davy Spillane has shown on recent recordings a penchant for contemplative music, and Ronan Browne has kicked out the Afro Celt Sound System jams, so why can’t O’Sullivan branch out and embrace the different kinds of music he grew up with as a native New Yorker?
On "The Gift," the most courageous and audacious of the 10 recordings listed here, O’Sullivan does just that, helping to emancipate the elbow-flexed pipes from the straitjacket imposed by self-arrogated watchdogs of piping pure. His playing has never been better, and his wide-ranging taste runs from American old-timey, blues, jazz, and gospel (a magnificent version of "The Wayfaring Stranger") to a gavotte, bourrée, and gigue from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D-major. And for diehard Irish trad lovers, look no further than the medley of three jigs incandescently performed by O’Sullivan and fiddler Seamus Connolly as an unaccompanied duet.
Also featuring Seamus Egan, Win Horan, Pat Kilbride, Tony Cuffe, and Susan McKeown, this sumptuous feast of diverse music from America’s finest uilleann piper will satisfy the most eclectic palate.
(6) FLIRTING WITH THE EDGE, by John Whelan (Narada 72438-45444-2-3)
That Velcro tag "New Age" certainly doesn’t stick here. A seven-time All-Ireland button accordion champion, John Whelan has recorded five solo albums, dating back to the "Pride of Wexford" at age 14, and this is unquestionably his best to date.
Most of the tunes were written by Whelan, and his arrangements equal the proficiency of his composing. The polkas he wrote, "Flirting With the Edge/Rockaway Beach/Emmett’s Revenge," are as impressive as any now coming out of that polka bastion, County Kerry. His flights into world-music exotica, such as "Rwenzori" and "Mayengo Reel" with Uganda’s Samite on kalimba, are utter delights.
Just as captivating are his slower pieces, "Alterios’ Waltz" and "My Angel Boy," while "Brother John’s Jig/Kinyon’s No. 1/Kinyon’s No. 2" brim with high spirits and tight playing. And under Whelan’s guidance and with his arrangement, Broadway singer Bernadette Peters delivers a moving lead vocal on the traditional song "Dublin Lady."
(7) MYRIAD, by Gerry O’Connor (Myriad Media 001)
What Béla Fleck is to the five-string banjo, Gerry O’Connor is to its four-string cousin, capable of hot-lick picking and also tender note plucking. Hands down, he is the most talented Irish tenor banjo player ever, and this second solo album (his first, "Time to Time," came out seven years ago) showcases a skill and instinct for playing that are breathtaking.
O’Connor can nail the loping Bourbon Street jazz melody of his "Temple Bar Jam," slip effortlessly into the piebald funk groove of his "Fields of Rhythm," and tear it up while integrating some dazzling ornaments in the Irish traditional reels "Sean Sa Ceo/Glass of Beer/Sailor’s Bonnet" with Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw on piano and Manus Lunny on bouzouki. (O’Connor and Lunny were both past members of the Irish band Wild Geese.)
Other highlights include his mid-tempo rendition of "O’Mahony’s Reel," composed by Martin Mulhaire in the 1950s, and his céilí band-like approach to "The Garrykennedy Set," named for the area in Tipperary where he was born and raised. With his stint in Four Men and a Dog behind him, Gerry O’Connor is clearly poised for four-string solo stardom.
(8) THREADS OF TIME, by Cherish the Ladies (RCA Victor 09026-63131-2)
Major-label malaise? Bah, humbug. After four recordings on indie imprints, this all-women’s ensemble cracks the commercial big time with their finest release so far. Trad tunes are played with snap and sensitivity, and the lead vocals of Aoife Clancy, particularly on Yeats’s "Lake Isle of Innisfree," are spot-on throughout. Fun, finesse, a sense of adventure: they’re all here. You can hear the enhanced quality that a bigger budget brings in every cut. Bravissima, Cherish.
(9) 1798: THE FIRST YEAR OF LIBERTY, by Frank Harte (Hummingbird 0014)
Pared back to the essentials, voice and simple guitar or bouzouki accompaniment, this recording traces the arc of the 1798 Rebellion through 17 songs. Frank Harte has a staggering store of songs he can command from memory, and the ones he selected here re-create a time and place with vivid, insightful detail. His expressive voice, untrammeled by artifice, gets under the skin of stories as if they were lived yesterday. It’s the sign of a tremendously effective storyteller, which Harte is with every breath he takes to sing. A nod also to Donal Lunny for his judiciously spare backing.
(10) ONE’S OWN PLACE, by Kevin Henry (BogFire 2001)
The third vanity recording on this top 10 list — proving, I suppose, that if you want to get something done, do it yourself — "One’s Own Place" captures Sligo-born, longtime Chicago resident Kevin Henry in top form on "rushing"-style flute as well as tin whistle and uilleann pipes. His five recitations, harking back to a time in Ireland when TVs and radios were largely absent for hearthside entertainment, are consciously theatrical and slightly mar what is otherwise an album celebrating Irish traditional music at its most unvarnished and heartfelt. It’s also a family affair: 69-year-old Kevin Henry is joined by his daughter Maggie, his late brother Johnny, and his sister Verona on the release.
Next week: the Irish Echo’s Traditionalist of the Year for 1998 and the rest of the top 20 trad albums over the last dozen months.