A weird melancholy is in the air, on the eve of a particular day, and five LPs are calling to me to be heard. So, in honour of St. Patrick’s Day, here is an honorary mention of five LPs that echo something that can sometimes seem to me to be more Eriu than Eriu.
1. Ceoltoiri Chulann, “Playboy of the Western World” (Gael Linn, 1963)
Irish folk music is usually heard only as dance music. But in this film soundtrack, Sean O Riada arranged airs to be played by a traditional group with a sense of dynamics akin to a chamber music ensemble. Thought provoking. Haunting. Still impressive. A “one off”, even if a later group (including some of the players on this record) occasionally attempted (I think unsuccessfully) to capture something similar without the actual chief who arranged this record. It is all about the dynamics.
2. Alan Stivell, “Renaissance” (Dreyfus, 1972) / ”Beyond Words” (Dreyfus, 2002).
The first, with Irish airs, is the famous one (of these two instrumental solo albums) but I’ll pick the second one. Stivell, a Breton, maybe overplays the idea of being the high priest/druid of all things Celtic (possibly the result of flirting with rock occasionally), but on “Beyond Words” he gets sonorities on the wire-strung harp that could well be the DNA of everything Eriu-ish. If you ever get bitten by the wire-strung harp bug, other players out there include Rudiger Oppermann (Germany), who is almost as “out there” as Stivell (or perhaps even more so without being Celtic-inspired), and then there’s the strictly trad. heads: Ann Heymann and Patrick Ball (USA) and Siobhan Armstrong and Paul Dooley (Ireland). The late Derek Bell may have been the first in Ireland (in recent times) to look back to “the” truly Irish harp, although Stivell was there before him, thanks to his dad having built him a wire-strung harp in the 1950s. Janet Harbison’s charity album “Prayer” is one where “the (modern) Irish harp” almost sounds like “the” (wire-strung) Irish harp. Hmm….and yet it was hymnal music rather than insane banshee music. How is this possible? Electricity and recording studios can do wonders, as Andreas Vollenweider might say.
3. Moving Hearts, “The Storm” (Tara, 1985).
Asking if this record is truly Irish (folk) music is a bit like asking if Dave Gruisin’s GRP Record Label was truly a jazz label. Maybe not. To me, this seems to be the quintessential Donal Lunny recording, rather than what the recording artists were known for, but it is another “one off” type of record. An independently produced Irish “traditional” record that sounds like the “smoother” end of 1980s jazz fusion. Bizarre, but noteworthy. Not all pop-Irish music of the period was inspired by Clannad’s soundtrack to Robin of Sherwood.
4. John Feeley, “E-Motion” (Black Box, 1997).
In the 1980s, Feeley arranged and recorded Irish traditional airs for classical guitar, often well. This record is eight world premieres of Irish classical guitar compositions and, if I remember right, the Voyage of Maeldun and the Shannon Suite were the standout ones. There’s no Celtic DNA playing on the nervous system on this record, but it is Irish and I have a fondness for classical guitar, which can also serve as the easiest introduction to classical music of every era and style because if you like the sound of a guitar a guitar can still only ever be a guitar.
5. Catriona McKay, “Catriona McKay” (Glimster, 2002).
Ok, so she’s Scottish, not Irish, but there’s Irish tunes here and this, her first, self-produced, recording haunts me just a little, not so much for the harp-fiddle duos (her claim to fame with Chris Stout) or for having the first recording of her most popular tune (The Swan), but because this was the first record I heard that featured a “new” style of doing Irish/Scottish airs that I found ear-catching: using a double-bass for comping and soloing with the traditional performers. It fills the music out well. Recently deceased jazzman Chick Corea once did a duet with bassist Stanley Clarke called “The Hilltop” that inexplicably sounded Irish to me (on a record called “My Spanish Heart”: was it Gayle Moran’s influence?). McKay’s record here is “hilltop” territory, not just because the first tune is called the Hill of Tara and the last is named after an Irish castle that does not exist, except perhaps in some Uladh dreams.
Additional note: having mentioned a few great harpists, I’ll add that Vincenzo Zitello’s album “Metamorphose” is a recent great discovery: an hour of music with the great tone of the old Irish harp. All original music and all good. Not being a creature of i-tunes, it is such a pity to me that it is available only as a digital download.