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Tony McManus makes ‘big music’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

CEOL MORE, by Tony McManus. CD from Compass Records, 117 30th Ave. So., Nashville, TN (615) 320-7672.

Playing a subtly complex work by Charles Mingus is a challenge for any musician, especially an acoustic guitarist raised on Scots and Irish traditional music. But Tony McManus knows what he’s doing — and then some.

He’s mastered the subtly shifting textures and elastic rhythms of Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the jazz bassist’s tribute to saxophonist Lester Young and his trademark chapeau. McManus’s feathery picking, note bending, and piquant accenting lend the tune a lyricism that’s as soulful as it is skillful. It’s a hypnotically beautiful rendition and a fitting companion to McManus’s earlier guitar recording of “What a Wonderful World,” the ballad that Louis Armstrong made his own in 1968.

In the realm of Celtic traditional music, Tony McManus has few peers — fellow Scotsman Dick Gaughan, Omagh-born Arty McGlynn — on the acoustic guitar as a melody player. His album title, “Ceol More,” is a play on the term “ceol mor,” or “big music” (the classical piping music of Scotland), distinguishing it from “ceol beag,” or “little music” (marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs). McManus brings a measured, haunting touch to “The Lament for the Viscount of Dundee,” a selection of “ceol mor” whose nuances he nimbly ornaments on guitar, then segues into some fleeter fingering on the four-part “Dr. MacPhail’s Reel.”

Not eliding or clipping notes for the sake of speed as some other guitarists are wont to do, McManus understands the value of hitting each note fully in the pair of Donegal jigs titled “The King of the Pipers” and in the quick-tempo last tune of the QuTbecois medley “Exile/La ROve du QuOteux Tremblay/Pierre’s Right Arm.”

He can also take the melody of a song as familiar as Robert Burns’s “Ye Banks and Br’s of Bonny Doon” and make us hear it with new ears. This is also true of his brooding, slowed-down arrangement of the traditional reel “The Old Bush,” where his inventive approach never compromises the integrity of the original.

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The bass playing of Capercaillie’s Ewen Vernal is a bit tub-thumpy and too bold in spots, but that’s not a serious distraction on “Ceol More,” which amply fulfills the implication of its title. This is flat- and finger-picking of an exceedingly high order, “big music” (and “little music”) made intimate on acoustic guitar, as only a thinking-man’s virtuoso like Tony McManus can provide.

McManus will be performing at Johnny D’s in Somerville, Mass., on June 4 and making his New York City solo concert debut On Friday, June 7, at 9 and 10:30 p.m. at the Blarney Star, 43 Murray St., NYC ([212] 732-2873.

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