Own label CVCD001; 46 minutes; 2005
Nowadays the piano plays a largely subsidiary role in Ireland’s traditional music. Once found in many a pub, when the instrument is still present it is rarely well maintained (as this reviewer found in one music bar not long ago where the middle D key produced simply the sound of silence) and few sessions actually involve a pianist. The most notable, if occasional, exception in Ireland is Húdaí Beag’s in Bunbeg where Hugh Gallagher occasionally unveils his electric keyboard and plays some rollicking reels or, in London, at any session attended by Pete Quinn.
Of course, pianos do still regularly feature in céilí bands, and some gigging musicians do employ their own pianist (most famous probably being the late Seán McGuire with first Josephine Keegan and later Patsy McCabe), but very few groups include an ivory-tinkler. One exception to that last rule is, of course, North Cregg, with whom it’s usually Ciarán Coughlan at the keyboard, though, occasionally, it was the band’s fiddler, Caoimhín Vallely, which leads us neatly round to the subject of this review, Strayaway.
No doubt those with strictly defined views regarding the definition of a traditional instrument will turn up their noses at an album which consists of jigs, hornpipes, reels and one slow air played on the piano (presumably the concert grand depicted on the liner’s cover), just as they probably cocked a snout to the albums recorded by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. Perhaps they might be right to do so since, after all, it’s unlikely that Caoimhín will be strapping the piano to his back and zooming around the countryside on a motorcycle pillion to attend sessions, as Joe Cooley was famously renowned to do with his accordion.
Yet there is a completely contrary point to be made. If a musician possesses the technical agility to play Irish tunes on the piano and, simultaneously, both reinvigorate them and offer a different slant to our enjoyment, then why shouldn’t he or she do so? From the evidence of Strayaway, Caoimhín is blessed with the necessary expertise and understanding of the tradition. That’s not to say that he doesn’t sometimes adopt an unexpected approach, as on the very jazzy, contrapuntal and somewhat Satie-esque Unapproved Road (written by his brother Niall), conjoined with the traditional Slieve Russell, or adopt occasional glitzy touches elsewhere.
The crucial point is that, in its own right, Strayaway is a hugely enjoyable album, but more something to enjoy while preparing Sunday lunch rather than while dozing post-prandially. The album’s title, by the way, comes from the Margaret Barry jig, The Strayaway Child – appropriate perhaps as she based her caravan for some time in the Market Square of Crossmaglen in Caoimính’s native County Armagh. On the CD he is joined by his brothers Niall and Cillian, on concertina and uilleann pipes respectively, as well as two North Cregg chums, guitarist Paul Meehan and drummer Martin Leahy, as well as bodhrán player Brian Morrissey (who definitely occupies the more sensitive area of the percussionists’ spectrum).
19th November, 2005
Caoimhín’s website is www.caoimhinvallely.net.