By Earle Hitchner
Many years ago, when the Philadelphia Céilí Group held its annual Irish music festival at Fisher’s Pool in Lansdale, Pa., I remember how thrilled Séamus Connolly, a fiddler with more All-Ireland titles (10)than anyone else, was to finally meet Harlem-born Irish fiddler Andy McGann. "He’s one of my biggest heroes," Connolly said with an ear-to-ear smile.
Another outstanding fiddler born and raised in Ireland, Manus McGuire,shares Connolly’s admiration for McGann. "He was a big influence on me," McGuire said from his home in East Clare. "I just love his playing. He gets great tone on the fiddle and has great feeling in his music."
All those McGann musical attributes were powerfully obvious to the lucky owners of "Joe Burke, Andy McGann & Felix Dolan Play a Tribute to Michael Coleman," a 1966 LP from Shaskeen Records, which originally issued just 500 copies. The album, which Green Linnet made available on CD in 1994, was lightning in a bottle, 15 tracks recorded in under six hours by three instrumentalists who achieved a level of brilliance in the studio that soon became the stuff of lore (and countless tapes by other musicians).
McGann was 38 years old when "Tribute" came out, boosting his stature as one of the best Irish fiddlers alive. Since then, he’s burnished his reputation through a duet album (1976) with Longford-born fiddler Paddy Reynolds, a solo debut (1977), another recording by the trio featuring Burke and Dolan (1979), and a 1991 recording taken from an Irish fiddle festival held at Boston College in 1990.
Receiving informal tutelage and tips from Michael Coleman himself in New York City, McGann, in turn, took Bronx-born fiddler Brian Conway under his wing, and since then Conway has helped develop the talent of Brooklyn fiddler Patrick Mangan. That stateside Irish fiddling continuum, from Coleman to McGann to Conway to Mangan, embodies the Irish tradition at its most enduring.
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In mid-February, 72-year-old Andy McGann, who had kidney surgery just three months ago, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Mid-Atlantic Region, encompassing the territory between the New York metro area and Washington, D.C.
Joining him will be button accordionist Kevin McGillian, born in 1928 in Legfor Drum, close to Strabane, Co. Tyrone. Self-taught at an early age on the button box, McGillian was inspired by two other accordionists from that area of Tyrone, Edward McNamee and Robert Finley. In 1954, McGillian immigrated to Philadelphia, and since then he has performed at festivals, concerts, ceilidhs, and pubs in the Delaware Valley. He and his wife, Mary (née Boyce), originally from County Donegal, have six children, all musicians who have shared the stage with their father on many occasions. McGillian is a widely admired mainstay in Philadelphia’s Irish music scene.
Formal induction of Andy McGann and Kevin McGillian into CCÉ’s Hall of Fame will take place at the Irish-American Center, 297 Willis Ave., Mineola, L.I., on Friday, Feb. 16, starting at 9 p.m. For more information, contact Paul Keating at (201) 722-0059.
Making a special appearance at the induction will be button accordionist Joe Burke, McGann’s longtime friend and playing partner, who will be flying in from his home in Kilnadeema, Co. Galway, for the occasion. There will also be a céilí by these musicians and others, which should last until 1 a.m.
The Irish Echo congratulates both of these newly elected Hall of Famers, Andy McGann and Kevin McGillian, on a lifetime of distinguished achievement.
In recent weeks, you read about the Irish Echo selections for the top 20 traditional albums of 2000. As promised, here are another dozen, in alphabetical order, that finished just out of the running: "The Blackberry Blossom," by Mary Mac Namara (Claddagh); "The Grouse in the Heather," by P.J. and Marcus Hernon (Feenish Sound); "Harmonica," by Mick Kinsella (OBM); "Long Expectant Comes at Last," by Cathal McConnell (Compass); "Mac Mahon From Clare," by Tony Mac Mahon (Mac Mahon Music); "Music From Cill Na Martra," by Connie O’Connell (Shanachie); "The New Road," by Charlie Piggott and Gerry Harrington (Cló Iar-Chonnachta); "The Rowsome Tradition," by Kevin Rowsome (Kelero; grandfathered in from 1999); "The Schoolmaster’s House," by Mike McHale with Mary Coogan (Teach Ceol, 6 South Jefferson Ave., Catskill, NY 12414); "Time for a Tune," by Charlie Lennon (Worldmusic); "Two Gentlemen of Clare Music," by Gerard Commane and Joe Ryan (Clachán); and "Water From the Well," by the Chieftains (RCA Victor).
In response to reader inquiries about how to obtain "The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin" (Four Courts Press), a 332-page trade paperback and two CDs that together finished third in the top 10 list, here’s the U.S. distributor contact information: International Specialized Book Services, Inc., 5804 N.E. Hassalo St., Portland, OR 97213-3644, (503) 287-3093 or (800) 944-6190.
Brief box trio tour
"Accordion Masters" is the title of an upcoming Midwest tour by John Whelan, Raynald Ouellet, and Chris Parkinson. They represent the Irish, Québecois, and English musical traditions, respectively.
A resident of Milford, Conn., Whelan is a seven-time All-Ireland champion of the two-row button accordion, and he has just released his fifth solo album, "Celtic Fire," for Narada, a Virgin label.
From Montmagny, Quebec, Ouellet is an expert player and maker of accordions who performs in a driving, syncopated style. He has performed at the Washington Irish Folk Festival, the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, and the Library of Congress.
From England, Parkinson is a co-founding member of the House Band, with whom he’s made several albums. Besides melodeon and two-row accordion, Parkinson is a skilled harmonica and keyboards player.
The trio will be in concert at Legion Arts, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Feb. 23; Old Town School of Music, Chicago, on Feb. 24; Weidner Center, U. of Wisconsin, Green Bay, Wisc., on Feb. 25; and the Ark, Ann Arbor, Mich., on Feb. 28.
New albums on horizon
It’s been four years since Waterford-born vocalist Karan Casey made her solo debut, "Songlines." This March 13, the former lead singer of Solas, who now lives in Cork City, will be issuing her eagerly awaited second solo recording, "The Winds Begin to Sing," on Shanachie.
London-born piano accordionist Karen Tweed, whose mother hails from Kerry, is finishing up a solo album that will feature an eclectic lineup of guests: pianist Timo Alakotila, accordionist Maria Kalaniemi, fingelhorn player Paul Jayashinha, and guitarist Roger Talroth. Tweed considers this new album her official solo "debut," although in 1994 she issued a pair of solo recordings, "Drops of Springwater" and "The Silver Spire," tied to her book of 93 session tunes, "Karen Tweed’s Irish Choice." There will also be another duet album by Tweed and fellow accordionist Andy Cutting.
Talented Tyrone-born singer, guitarist, and songwriter Paul Brady has cut a deal with Nashville’s Compass Records to release eight of his rock-pop albums since 1981, including last year’s "Oh, What a World," due in stores Feb. 13. The remainder, all newly remastered by Brady, will be released over the course of this year, with 1981’s duly lauded "Hard Station" scheduled for April.
Mick Conneely, a gifted fiddler born in Bedford, England, but now residing in Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo, will be releasing his first solo recording this year. Conneely has toured with De Dannan and Mary Bergin, is a member of the Connemara-based quartet Errislannan (one CD out so far), and guests on Kevin Crawford’s upcoming Green Linnet solo album, "In Good Company."
Other new releases in the offing are John Carty’s "Yeh, That’s All it Is" and Joe McKenna’s "The Irish Low Whistle," both on Shanachie.
Irish . . . and all that jazz
Home video sets in VHS ($150) and DVD ($200) formats, a splashy coffee-table book ($65), a five-CD box set ($60), and a promotional agreement with Starbucks (you do the "venti" budget): all are part of the pricey promotional engine pulling Ken Burns’s 19-hour "Jazz" train through PBS-TV affiliates this January.
But not everyone is hopping onboard. Many critics have chafed at what they regard as the series’ narrow, conservative ("tight-assed" was writer William Berlind’s adjective) codification of jazz. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are heavily featured, for example, while Sun Ra and Keith Jarrett are less so.
This may be déjà vu to anyone familiar with the age-old argument between "purists" and experimenters, between canon and "cutting edge" in Irish traditional music. A rough analogy, I suppose, would be to focus heavily on Michael Coleman and the Tulla Céilí Band and essentially skip over, say, Tommy Potts and Moving Hearts in a documentary of comparable length.
There will probably be some argument-sparking experimentation at the Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th St. (between Park and Lexington), Manhattan, from Feb. 27 to March 4. That’s when Dublin jazz guitarist David O’Rourke, who’s played with pianist Tommy Flanagan and guitarist George Benson, returns with his Celtic Jazz Collective. They blend jazz (drummer Lewis Nash, bassist Peter Washington, saxophonist David Lee Jones, pianist Fintan O’Neill, and percussionist Steve Kroon) and Irish traditional music (uilleann piper Paddy Keenan, fiddler Marie Reilly, and button accordionist Martin Reilly).
The mix doesn’t always work. Sometimes the ensemble playing can get too loose and amorphous. But when it clicks, the music is both challenging and invigorating.
Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 10:30 and midnight Friday and Saturday; and 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday. Phone: (212) 576-2232.