Armagh-born Caoimhín Vallely is the brother to piper/whistle maestro Cillian and concertina virtuoso Niall. As a child, Caoimhín started his musical career by learning the tin whistle (at the Armagh Pipers’ Club) before moving on to the fiddle; at the same time he began going to classical piano lessons and after a while started experimenting with traditional Irish music on the piano. Then followed music studies at University College Cork and subsequently at the University of Limerick, where he completed an M.A. in Traditional Music Performance; among his tutors was Prof. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, who was to prove a major influence on his music-making (especially, we understand, through his pioneering 1987 album The Dolphin’s Way). Although Caoimhín Vallely first came to prominence as fiddle player with the Cork band North Cregg, it’s in recent years that he’s been increasingly acclaimed for his highly individual, adventurous piano playing, most notably with Niall in the band Buille (which he co-founded) and with singer Karan Casey (Niall’s wife); I’m convinced, though, that Caoimhín’s eponymous new album will not only make a very strong mark on the Irish music scene itself but also cause listeners across other genres to appreciate the new perspectives that Caoimhín, through his astounding musicianship, brings to Irish traditional music in all its forms and flavours.
In the world of classical music, although on occasion folk tunes or songs have inspired original compositions or their melodies, there have been surprisingly few instances of Irish traditional music being directly quoted or used as a primary source, and only a very few thus-influenced pieces have been written for performance on the piano (a set of Irish Dances by Percy Grainger, another set by Stanford, a couple of pieces by John Field). So it might be thought that the particular character of the piano as a musical instrument is either alien to Irish traditional music, or at least not strictly suited to its performance. Certainly, it’s not the first instrument that comes to mind when envisioning an Irish music session (not least in purely practical terms of the piano’s basic non-portability, of course!)… And (without wishing to enter a technical discussion regarding such esoteric matters as the Mixolydian mode) the pianist will realise that most Irish tunes tend to be written for, or played on, fiddle or pipes or whistle and that their transposition to the piano necessitates a degree of extra homework.
This (self-deprecatingly or modestly?) eponymous venture is Caoimhín Vallely’s second solo record, and, being subtitled “An Exploration of Irish Traditional Music On Piano”, represents a conscious – if belated – follow-up to his first, 2005’s Strayaway (which even now still has the distinction of being one of the very few albums of traditional Irish music played on the piano). Unlike the vast majority of albums by instrumentalists, though, this one takes the form of a near-continuous musical journey, one on which might well best be bestowed the term “piano stream of consciousness”. Its glorious 75-minute span is sensibly subdivided and selectively banded within, since there are several logical points of access along the stream, but the whole can still be profitably listened to in one sitting without experiencing anything in the way of longueurs or disjointedness, and the sense of onward flow is impressive. It really doesn’t feel a moment too long.
During the album Caoimhín utilises the piano to its fullest potential, with inventive “manipulation of the strings, pedals, and the use of an E-bow” as well as occasional experimentation with unconventional tonalities and harmonics. Such effects, while used sparingly, nevertheless produce some amazingly subtle sonic experiences, and entirely without the air of contrivance or ear-grabbing-for-its-own-sake trickery, these become a natural part of the overall sound picture. Caoimhín is joined on his musical journey by his long-term collaborator Brian Morrissey on percussion, whose own musicality so naturally feeds both off and into Caoimhín’s presence. The opening “track” (I use that word loosely), Splendid Isolation, is a prime example of the organic nature both of the interpersonal collaboration and of the music itself, with tunes growing out of each other and unashamedly continuing the musical development in a quasi-improvisatory manner. This is genuinely exciting, and the momentum generated is quite startling as the rhythm transforms from a fiddle reel to a classic jig and a stately hornpipe. Similarly with the section headed Amhrán Na Leabhar, which begins with the lament of that name and progresses through a lyrical self-penned tune to the delicious Monasterevin Fancy and finishing on an animated reel learnt from the great Donegal fiddler James Byrne.
The track headed Richard Dwyer’s opens and closes with pipe tunes via a transcription of Dobbin’s Flowery Vale, while the third “section”, Brian O’Lynn, uses a thoughtful, measured transposition of the jig of that name to introduce a pair of well-loved fiddle tunes (the final tune, Paddy Fahy’s, breezes in almost like Mozart’s Turkish Rondo!). The sequence’s “odd-man-out” (i.e. non-Irish in origin) tune is Mon Père Vit Dans Les Étoiles, an utterly charming accordion waltz composed by Sébastien Lagrange. Then, interestingly, interspersed between the purely instrumental “sections” of the sequence we find three songs, which are also (usefully and conveniently) separately banded. Fiona Kelleher contributes magnificent renditions of Last Night Being Windy (collected from Elizabeth Cronin) and My Dear Companion (in the version by Jean Ritchie), while Karan Casey delivers a lovely account of Patrick Galvin’s song James Connolly. In each instance, Caoimhín’s piano accompaniment is supremely sensitive in both embellishment and underpinning, and entirely at the service of the songs – establishing the mood and introducing the structure much in the manner of the classical Lied, both supporting and reinforcing the melody, and occasionally commenting on the lyric, with selective and meaningful gestures. Absolutely masterly.
Caoimhín Vallely’s consummate musicality and grasp of technique just naturally captivates. His solid grounding in Irish traditional music enables him to creatively and fruitfully explore the various moods, emotions, forms and styles the music has to offer, from classic jigs and reels to songs both sung and transcribed, the whole finishing on a brilliant (yet refreshingly non-showy) exercise in classical-style variations on The Independence Hornpipe. This is an outstanding album, one to play both to aficionados of Irish traditional music and lovers of the piano, as well as those listeners who are receptive to fresh perspectives on the traditional repertoire. A total delight, in other words.
Caoimhin Vallely is out now via Crow Valley Music
Order it here: www.caoimhinvallely.ie/shop