By Daniel Neely
In 2004, fiddle champion Oisín Mac Diarmada released his solo debut “Ar an bhFidil,” a lovely album which pictures himon its back cover dressed in a track suit, playing away on a weather-worn bench with a bit of an old scowl on his face. It was an interesting juxtaposition: although the music’s rooted in carefully hewn traditional values, the youthful nonchalance in Mac Diarmada's outward appearance belied the grace in his own playing.
A lot of time has passed and Mac Diarmada is a much more widely known and respected player. But it’s only just recently that he’s has released his long-awaited solo follow up, “The Green Branch” (“An Géagán Glas”). It’s a sparse album of smart playing that will undoubtedly leave fiddle fans buzzing. But it also seems to show a different, more mature side to Mac Diarmada. You hear it in the playing, but you also see it on the album’s cover: a carefully casual collared, button up shirt replaces the athletic gear and does a better job of matching his genial smile. Why is he smiling? Included in the shot is the album’s backer Samantha Harvey. Harvey is a respected pianist, accordionist, and dancer from the United States, who, as fate would have it, recently became Mac Diarmada wife. It’s a combination that yields impressive results.
Mac Diarmada is truly one of traditional music’s young powerhouses. Hailing from County Sligo, he was one of the founders of the great group Téada (teada.com) and has recorded extensively over the years with musicians like Brian Fitzgerald and Micheal O’Ruanaigh, and the legendary Seamus Begley (about whose new album “The Bold Kerryman” I’ll write about in the coming weeks). He’s been part of some great shows, including Atlantic Steps, which are critically acclaimed and adored by audiences.
As if this weren’t enough, Mac Diarmada wears other hats. For example, he directs and is the chief examiner for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s SCT Traditional Irish Music Examinations, which are the organization’s official grading system for musicians. In addition, he manages the Irish traditional music management group “Musical Ireland,” which handles shows like Atlantic Steps, reAwakening, Irish Christmas in America, and bands including Téada and the Innisfree Céilí Band (www.musicalireland.ie). If it seems like he has fingers in virtually every aspect of the business of traditional music, it’s because he does.
So, when a musician with such exacting standards releases an album, it’s the promise of something special and that’s precisely what Mac Diarmada delivers. “The Green Branch” includes 14 instrumental tracks – jigs, reels, hornpipes, and the occasional set dance – of very high quality playing.
Mac Diarmada is a cool, methodical player who has great control and smart taste and there are a lot of excellent tunes here. Tunes like “Jackie Coleman's / …” and “The Drunken Gauger / …” are wonderful and superbly delivered. He does similarly nice things with his pairings. See, for example “Twilight in Portroe / The Mountain Road” which has a beautiful and attention grabbing key change between the tunes.
Mac Diarmada includes several outstanding recently-composed tunes here as well. I find my ear drawn to Séamus Connolly’s “The Thirteen Arches” and Charlie Lennon tunes “David’s Dream” and “Vincent Harrison’s,” but there are several others that merit a listen, not the least of which are those Mac Diarmada composed. Indeed, the pairing of his own “Céad Bliain ag Fás” with Lennon’s “The Salthill Hornpipe” makes for a great track.
Harvey provides subtle, sensitive piano backing throughout the album that complements Mac Diarmada’s playing wonderfully. What I particularly like is how she leaves her chord voicings open and gives them an almost melodic feel. It imparts a lightness to her rhythm that both enriches Mac Diarmada’s playing and gives her own music nice flow. Also nice are the occasions in which she doubles the melodic line as they add lovely texture. Listen carefully, too, for Harvey’s dancing at the end of “Veronica McNamara's / …” – her percussive feel is great and it adds an extra dimension to the album
Fans of fiddle music will love “The Green Branch.” Mac Diarmada has a lot to offer in his playing and with Harvey offers quite a package. Great stuff all around! To hear a preview of the album and to buy, visit oisinmacdiarmada.bandcamp.com
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music in the Irish Echo each week.