Two of my top ten Irish traditional albums for 2005 were "Within a Mile of Kilty" by Ben, Charlie, and Maurice Lennon, Brian Rooney, Seamus Quinn, and John Gordon, which was the #1 release of that year, and "I Will If I Can" by John Carty, which was #10. Two of those musicians, Leitrim-born fiddler and button accordionist Brian Rooney and London-born fiddler, tenor banjoist, tenor guitarist, and flutist John Carty (of Boyle-Cashel parents), have recently released their first full duet album, "At Complete Ease," and it's easily one of the best recordings I've heard so far this year.
Eleven years apart in age (Rooney is older), these two musicians show no signs of a generation gap on this CD. The tightness of their playing (Carty on fiddle and tenor guitar, Rooney solely on fiddle) stems from sessions they shared in London during the late 1970s. In New York we tend to elevate our Irish traditional music scene as the epicenter of all diasporas. But London's diasporic Irish trad scene has its own distinguished history of influence and impact, as this album affirms.
I've admired John Carty's talent since "The Cat That Ate the Candle," his 1994 solo album devoted almost entirely to his banjo playing. With "Last Night's Fun," his first fiddle-centric solo CD in 1996, he firmly established himself as a multi-instrumental threat. (He's additionally proficient on tenor guitar and flute.) Carty is a member of two bands, At the Racket and Patrick Street, and often performs with Chieftains' flutist Matt Molloy and guitarist Arty McGlynn in Ireland, where the trio issued "Pathway to the Well" in 2007.
The artistry of Brian Rooney became apparent to me in 1999 with his superb solo debut, "The Godfather," produced by John Carty, who plays banjo on it. In 2002, Rooney's second solo CD, "Leitrim to London," was nearly as impressive and included a track of his fine accordion playing. Like veteran flutist Tom McElvogue, whose sparkling "The Long Hard Road" in 2010 hinted at the journey taken to gain some form of wider recognition, Rooney represents the best of England's immigrant and native Irish traditional culture deserving more international attention.
"At Complete Ease" is pure-drop duet playing but without the mania for "correctness" sometimes marring otherwise well-intentioned, hard-core traditional recordings. There is no one prescribed way to play a tune. The challenge is to interpret a melody without distorting or destroying its essence and appeal. Carty and Rooney understand that. What's ironic is that the luster of their playing emanates from their avoidance of luster. They perform with, not at, each other, much as they would in a pub where patrons come to listen more than socialize.
All 14 tracks are exemplary and unfussily exhilarating, but five merit special mention.
The jigs "Old John's / A Thousand Welcomes" feature Carty and Rooney on fiddles backed by Arty McGlynn on guitar. Through this deceptively spare setting emerge so much musical information and communication, and the two fiddlers exhibit a bowing symmetry that is nothing less than spellbinding.
Playing the reels "Highest Hill in Sligo / Palmer's Gate" are Carty and Rooney on fiddles with Brian McGrath on tenor guitar and piano. It's another model of tight, joint playing, but the individuality of each fiddler lends a bracing edge to a fundamentally unison performance.
Another set of reels, "Collier's / Rakish Paddy / Pinch of Snuff," opens with Carty soloing, followed by Rooney soloing, and then the two fiddlers linking for the final tune, all nimbly shadowed by McGlynn on guitar. It's a showcase for both separate virtuosity and blended performance, with the latter betraying not a whit of pullback from either fiddler.
Something similar occurs in "Old Arboe / The Battering Ram / The Drimacoo Reel." Carty plays the air as a strict solo and is joined by guitarist McGlynn for the jig, and then Rooney joins those two for the concluding reel. This progression is executed with impeccable touch and taste.
The last track on the album is the longest: "The Humours of Glendart / Biddy the Darling / The Wheels of the World / Tobin's Favourite / The Wind That Shake the Barley / The Lady on the Island." This six-and-a-half-minute medley is like a succulent sandwich. The slices of freshly baked bread are the ensemble playing of Carty, Rooney, McGrath, tenor guitarist Alec Finn, fiddler Mickey Rooney (Brian's brother), and fiddler James Carty (John's son) on the first and sixth tune. The layers of lean meat are the successive fiddle solos by John Carty, Brian Rooney, Mickey Rooney, and James Carty on the intervening tunes. All I can say is: bon appetit.
The polkas "Bonny Annie / The Clare Dragoons," the waltz "My Own Western Home," and the hornpipes "Humours of Ballinlass / O'Callaghan's" augment the variety and titular ease of the recording.
To borrow the occasional folksiness of newscaster Dan Rather: The chances of finding slickness on this CD are slim to none, and slim just left town.
"At Complete Ease" is an album by two master instrumentalists and good friends finding common purpose and pleasure in the music they were raised in and love. They and it enrich us all. Pounce.
The CD is on Racket Records (RR010) and can be acquired by visiting www.johncartymusic .com or by e-mailing info@john cartymusic.com.
Carty in Catskills
John Carty will teach and perform at the 2011 Catskills Irish Arts Week from July 10 to 16 in East Durham, N.Y. From Monday to Friday, his advanced fiddle class will meet from 10 to 11:30 a.m., and his advanced tenor banjo class will meet from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Both classes are golden opportunities to learn stateside from one of Ireland's premier players, a recipient of TG4's prestigious Traditional Musician of the Year in 2003.
For online registration, full schedule, or other information about CIAW, visit www. catskillsirishartsweek.org, e-mail irishartsweek@gmail. com, or phone 518-634-2286.
Donnelly and O Grada in concert
Among Ireland's most accomplished all-instrumental traditional bands was Moving Cloud, and former member Maeve Donnelly on fiddle will team up with another outstanding musician, flutist Conal O Grada, for a house concert sponsored by the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society at 7:30 p.m. on Mon., July 18, in Fairfield, Conn. These two musicians should not be missed. For reservations and exact location, call Tim Quinn at 203-256-8453 or e-mail him at tmquinn@ optonline.net.
Donnelly and O Grada will also be teaching and performing at the 2011 Catskills Irish Arts Week from July 10 to 16. On weekdays, Donnelly's intermediate fiddle class will meet from 10 to 11:30 a.m., and her advanced fiddle class will meet from 1:30 to 3 p.m. O Grada's intermediate flute class will meet from 10 to 11:30 a.m., and his advanced flute class will meet from 1:30 to 3 p.m.
Len Graham on Joe Holmes at CIAW
Last year, Antrim-born, Armagh resident singer Len Graham wrote a magnificent book, "Joe Holmes--Here I Am Amongst You: Songs, Music and Traditions of an Ulsterman" (Four Courts Press, Dublin, Ireland; www.fourcourtspress.ie). A teacher of Irish singing on weekday mornings and afternoons at the July 10-16 Catskills Irish Arts Week, Graham will also be giving a presentation, drawn from his book, on his close Antrim friend and fellow singer Joe Holmes (1906-78) at 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 14, at Weldon House, 2119 Route 145, East Durham, NY 12423. It promises to be one of the highlights of CIAW.
Alfresco music and dance
Donnelly, Carty, button accordionist Charlie Harris, flutist Eamonn Cotter, pianist Geraldine Cotter, and concertinist Cathlinn Nic Gabhann will play from 7:30 to 10 p.m. on Wed., July 13, as part of Lincoln Center's "Midsummer Night Swing" series. In collaboration with the Catskills Irish Arts Week, Culture Ireland, and Imagine Ireland, this Irish music and dancing event will take place near the bandshell of Damrosch Park on West 62nd St. (between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues) in Manhattan. Info: 212-875-5766. Tickets: 212-721-6500.