Irish doctor with too many thoughts, too little time and a blog that's supposed to check in on reality.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Music to Marry and Have Babies With

Rufus Wrainwright’s music was described as such by a friend of mine.
I disagree on numerous levels - Rufus is not that good and I’d be committing musical adultery as I’m marrying Caoimhín Vallely’s music and having loads of little tinkling babies.
For those of you not aware of Caoimhín Vallely, he’s a member of that famous Armagh Vallely trad family and he plays the piano like some piano god.
Irish piano music is usually relegated to some poor old sod “vamping away” in the corner to the same old chords, shoved in the back of the ceili band.
Míchéal Ó Súilleabháin has done much to show the beauty and versatility of the ivory keys in interpreting trad music. But of all his achievements, his training of Vallely must be his greatest.
When I was about 16 I tried to play Allan’s Irish Piano Player and got mind numbingly bored after a while. Not only were my fingers hurting from trying to emulate Ó Súilleabháin’s, I couldn’t get any of the little twitches that I got effortlessly on the violin. I felt like I was torturing the poor Boys of Bluehill more than they even deserved – and the way they’ve been played over the years, they do deserve it. More to the point, I sounded suspiciously like the ceili band I played the violin in – regimented, tinny and monotonous. (I don’t like ceili music – it’s a different sort of diddly eye!)
At the time I couldn’t get enough of Ó Súilleabháin’s collaboration with the awesome bodhran player Tommy Hayes – An Ras. I wanted in on the action. Their album was tight, inventive and so rhythmic all you wanted to do was shake your booty.
But Vallely is way better. He has much of Ó Súilleabháin’s style but with a sensuality that grabs you. You just want to live in his grand piano and listen to it forever.
He starts with a jig, Strayaway Child which is one of those rare jigs, an inherently upbeat piece of music that has a strange pathos. Vallely’s contrast between the A part and the rest, accentuates the quiet sadness. He then moves on to The Drunken Sailor, a minor hornpipe that lilts gently, swaying in a pale moonlight, truly sounding like some  drunken navvy weaving his happy way through damp docks.
The band (made up of his family mostly) starts the Bunch of Keys and the brother Niall’s snappy concertina leads up to an equally punctuated piece of piano. His version of Paddy Fahy’s is jazzy and sexy. Unapproved Road, a jig composed by his brother Niall is fresh and crisp. Paddy Kelly’s is a reel that I played to death for a Fleadh competition. Normally those Fleadh tunes are the ones I hate – the ones I learnt in a fixed but appearing spontaneous way, afraid to do anything that might insult the Comhltas ear. Vallely’s version is light and delightful. As are his version of contemporary reels by Brian Finnegan and Jim Sutherland. Piano and concertina fight at the start of The Kitchen Piper but in comes the other brother, Cillian on the uilleann pipes and joins it all up for a syncopated rousing finish on Corsie’s Goose. His version of Reavy’s The Whistler of Rosslea is full of Ó Súilleabháin influences but is smoother and practically transcendent.
But the reason I want to live in Caoimhín Vallely’s piano is number 4. Sean O Duibhir a’Ghleanna. I grew up in an old fashioned pub run by my family. There used to be an oak straight backed piano up against the far wall, its lid marked with generations of pint slop. On Sunday mornings, my granny would go down to the pub after first Mass, and before she would finish cleaning up from the night before, she would open the piano and play for a while. She’d always start with something slow and mournful. In my romantic imagination at the time, I would imagine the notes gliding over the smoke from the freshly lit stove, covering over the ashtrays and empty glasses before curling around the weird spiky plaster job on the yellowed ceiling. Their delicate purity would drown out the constant humming of the ancient cooler in the corner, from which we would be given a treat of a glass of TK red lemonade.
Vallely recreates this memory for me with the achingly hesitant notes at the beginning before warming into a slow air that seems to suspend time. It’s just like the morning after the night before – he’s almost afraid to be too loud, as if volume or speed might disturb a shaky balance between peaceful melancholy and a barely started hangover.
Buy this album. In Claddagh Records (no other record shop has it). Today. It’s as spiritual as it virtuosic and I challenge the most hardened diddly-eye hater not to enjoy it.



Anonymous Winds said...

Interesting. I hadn't heard his album was out.

I have, somewhere, a tape of a concert broadcast on Lyric FM, featuring trad pianists, of which Michael "God" O Suilleabhan was the anchor host, Caoimhín Vallely and a couple of others, including a girl, whose names escape me right now. What I recall most was that Caoimhín was by some distance the better of the, shall we say, *not* Michael's, but I felt at that stage, he still had a way to go before he reached the top level.

That being said, if you like piano with a slight hint of trad, Paul Machlis is well worth a listen, he did quite a lot of work with a fiddler called Alisdair Fraser, and their collaboration "The Road North" is one of my favourites(definitely on iTunes - I bought my original copy (on tape) many years ago in Claddagh), but his own album, The Bright Field is just lovely. It's not that long since I've been listening to it.

There's a guy called Didier Squiban who does Breton stuff on the piano, and it's practically unique - off the top of my head I can't think of any group at all in Brittany who feature the piano in any way - whom I consider to be the best folk (for want of a better label) pianist in the world at the moment. He tends a little to the jazz in one album, but his first two albums are exceptional. He also did some work with a guy called Yann Fanch Kemener who might best be described as Brittany's answer to Iarla O Lionaird. The first album they did together (Enez Eusa) was outstanding. Email me if you're interested in knowing more, or being introduced to the music in more detail. You'll find the address on my own site somewhere and we can arrange to meet up.

February 10, 2006 10:23 p.m.  
Blogger Fence said...

I've never heard either of those musicians. Well, I've heard some Wainwright, but not enough to love or hate.

I've quoted you, let me know if you want it taken down.

February 12, 2006 6:01 p.m.  
Blogger Auds said...

Of course you can fence - looks like pretty good idea for a site.

Winds - must check out Didier Squiban - sounds really good.

Have some Alisdair Fraser stuf already.
Other trad pianists that I know are excellent are Donna Long (Handprints is name of album) and Tracy Dares, who plays Cape Breton/Nova Scotian stuff.

February 12, 2006 9:15 p.m.  

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