Cillian Vallely’s been playing uilleann pipes in the crack band Lúnasa for close on 20 years, but as far as recordings go he’s hardly ever stepped outside of that group context. Just three times that I can recall: in duo partnership with his concertina-playing brother Niall (on 2002’s Callan Bridge album), then with Lúnasa flautist Kevin Crawford (on 2009’s On Common Ground), then (quite unexpectedly) guesting on Bruce Springsteen’s 2014 album High Hopes. So The Raven’s Rock can be considered something of a rare occurrence – for, astonishingly, it’s his first ever solo record. However, apart from the disc’s glorious, brilliantly controlled centrepiece, the slow air Port na bPucaí (which, ironically, Cillian learned not from master piper Seán Ó Riada but from fiddler Tommy Peoples), The Raven’s Rock is nowhere a completely solo offering. Cillian enjoys the support of brother Niall on just a couple of tracks, and there are selective contributions elsewhere from brother Caoimhín (piano on four tracks), Jeremy Kittel (fiddle, viola) and Brian Morrissey (bodhrán), while three different guitarists (Ryan McGiver, Beoga’s Sean Óg Graham and Cillian’s Lúnasa colleague Paul Meehan) crop up variously.
Cillian’s proudly mature piping skills – and the concomitant highly adept use of all the resources and components of his chosen instrument – ensure his place as one of the foremost pipers of his generation. The Raven’s Rock is a distinctly relaxed-sounding record, where Cillian wears his virtuosity very lightly yet still manages to set the hairs prickling at the back of the neck with superbly expressive playing. Tempos are comparatively measured, leaving the tunes ample space to breathe while not at any time losing anything in onward propulsion. Cillian and his fellow-musicians are completely comfortable with their craft, although it’s clearly not easily won; equally clearly, they work hard at their relaxation, and the listener is able to savour the rapport these hand-picked musicians have with their music and with each other.
Even at the more hectic pace of the breathtaking Cottage In The Grove (listen above) set of reels and the Stormy Hill jig/slide set, Cillian finds space between the notes – an amazing feat when he’s demonstrating such accomplishment and bravura technique. This dazzling mastery comes equally into play on the majestic Breton air – played as a pipes solo – that precedes the whistle-and-piano rendition of the album’s title tune (track 4). Cillian also forsakes the pipes for whistle on the leisurely hornpipe The Boys Of Ballycastle, and the set of jigs at second-track-in (two out of the three are own-compositions, the other comes from Niall), this latter set also containing some fine lyrical counterpoint from Jeremy. As you’ll gather, and although plenty of Irish tune classics are represented on this disc, Cillian’s repertoire’s not by any means confined to, or constrained by, Irish traditional tunes, for the disc’s final set is two-thirds Scottish and kicks off with a rattling, spirited reel from the time-honoured Simon Fraser Collection, Keep It Up – which Cillian emphatically does, right through to the end of the road.
The Raven’s Rock proves a delicious CD, full of delectable playing from a musician who’s no need to prove himself yet effortlessly delivers the goods.
The Raven’s Rock is out now