By Daniel Neely
Last Wednesday, the Irish Arts Center hosted uillean piper David Power and fiddle player Willie Kelly, who had been out on tour in support of their new fiddle and piping duet album “Apples in Winter.” It was, from all indications, a brilliant night of music, which shouldn’t surprise as the album – which has been spending some quality time in my player – is exceptional and one that will delight fans of “pure drop” traditional music who favor a vibrant and carefully wrought sensibility. Simply put, it’s what this album has in spades.
Kelly is something of a celebrity in the world of New York’s Irish music. A brilliant player, he was born in the Bronx and learned from some of New York’s legendary greats, including Martin Mulvihill, Mike Rafferty, Jack Coen, Charlie Coen, and Joe Madden. And while it’s the Sligo influence that seems to dominate conversations about New York fiddle playing, Kelly’s clearly heeded the lessons of the East Galway/Limerick players from whom he learned. Apparent, too, is his passion for the Co. Clare giants Martin Rochford and Paddy Canny, players with whom he was also fortunate enough to have met and played. The result of this experience is a player whose music is lush, authoritative, and never strays too far from a tune’s inherent beauty.
If ever there was a kindred musical partner, Kelly seems to have found it in Power. A Co. Waterford native, Power spent years learning from Tommy Kearney, and later from the likes of Jimmy O’Brien Moran, Willie Reynolds, Breandán Breathnach, Ronan Browne, MacDara MacDonncha and Peter Carberry. His achievements include winning of the Oireachtas Piping competitions in 1992, performing on Broadway in the Eugene O’Neill play “A Touch of the Poet,” and touring with Masters of Tradition (Mairtín O’Connor, Seamie O’Dowd, Cathal Hayden, Iarla Ó’Lionard, Steve Cooney, Denis Cahill and Martin Hayes) as a featured performer. He’s also a member of the group Pipers Union and has three solo albums to his credit, including the critically lauded “Eighteen Moloney” (2014). Like Kelly, his playing is beautifully fashioned and incredibly attractive.
The chemistry these two share is apparent from the first track, “The Flax in Bloom / ….” There, the duo play with great flair, something that gives these well-known tunes a sense of freshness. The same can be said of “Apples in Winter / …,” a jig track on which the two musicians play as if with one mind and shows the great intuition each has for the other’s music.
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Other standout tracks include the set dance and hornpipe “Bonaparte’s Retreat / Callaghan’s” and the jigs “Bímís ag Ól / …,” both of which are magnificently rendered and throughly engaging, but honestly it’s hard to single out tracks as they’re all excellent.
The album includes some lovely solo features. Kelly’s playing is outstanding on tracks like “Ambrose Moloney’s / …” and “Ard an Bhothair / …,” but it’s on the air “Stór mo Chroi” where he best showcases his consummate talent and great good taste. Power’s solo playing is similarly strong on tracks like the long dance “Ace and Deuce of Piping” and “The Chicago Reel / …” (on which he plays whistle!), but again it’s in his air “Úr Chnoc Chein Mhic Cháinte” where he, like Kelly, makes a statement about how this music might be best approached. It’s brilliant piping and brilliant music overall.
A quick note on the production: the album was recorded at Noreside Music in Yonkers, which did an exceptional job bringing forward the richness of in the music of the two players, both in isolation and together. The result is a striking blend that seems to put the listener right between the two players – great stuff all together.
There’s a magic to “Apples in Winter” that will resonate with people who love and admire traditional Irish music played with a stately air and a gentlemanly touch. Power and Kelly obviously prefer to put the music’s elegance first, but there is a vigor in their playing that completes the package and brings energy to the tunes they’ve selected. Fans of duet recordings, like Kelly and Mike Rafferty’s majestic “The New Broom,” or Peter Carberry and Padraig McGovern’s superb “Forgotten Gems” will want to rush out and get this one, but it’s an absolutely brilliant recording that will have universal appeal, and one I cannot recommend more highly. For more information about the artists and the album, visit www.davidpowerup.com.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music in the Irish Echo every week.