By Daniel Neely
It’s a new week, and for the past few days I’ve been listening concertina player Cormac Begley’s great, new self-titled debut. Begley is the son of the great West Kerry accordion player and singer Brendan Begley, and is the latest member of that famous musical family based to represent the Dingle peninsula on the global stage. Begley’s done a truly outstanding job with this album and it’s one I think traditional music lovers should get their hands on.
Begley’s musical upbringing is enviable. He is a respected and accomplished player and was the recipient of the Sean O Riada Award in 2014. However, before this album he’d only appeared on three other recordings: “Na Fir Bolg” (with Jack Talty), “Tunes in the Church” (with Clíodhna Begley and Páraic Mac Donnchadha), and “Ré” (with Liam Ó Maonlaí, Maitiu O Casaide, Eithne Ní Chatháín and Peter O’Toole), so it seems like this album was perhaps due.
And it is a true solo work in that there are no accompanists or guests: the concertina stands front and center, alone and exposed. Because Begley’s incorporated a full spectrum of concertina types (bass, baritone, treble and piccolo; the list in the liner notes indicates he used nine different instruments) however, the album displays remarkable and perhaps surprising variety from track to track. There are lots of different sounds and registers at hand. Coupled with Begley’s superior playing, his sensitivity to the possibilities of each instrument enables him to do things that are really rather remarkable.
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Take, for example, “Yellow Tinker / …,” the album’s opener. It’s a brilliant track and because it’s played on a bass instrument the first thing one will notice is how the notes sit lower than you might expect when you think of the word “concertina.” Begley gives the tune it a lovely, lifty airing suitable to the instrument’s warm, gentle sound. But it soon becomes clear that he’s not just playing the tune, but the instrument as well, which contributes to the track’s overall effect. The way he slaps his keys and occasionally bends his accompanying chords bring some interesting detail to the listening. However, it’s the way he uses the bellows’ breathy huff as rhythmic accompaniment that stands out. It is a fascinating effect that gives the track an interesting rhythmic character and makes it quite memorable.
The sense that Begley is “playing the instrument” as well as the tune is apparent in other tracks, such as “The Fermoy Lasses,” where he really rides the tune and bends the harmony in some interesting, funky ways. This approach is also heard on the schottisches “Joe Bane’s / …,” which are played on a baritone instrument. There, Begley finds the breathy huff and uses it, albeit in a more restrained way than before.
Another interesting track (played on treble instrument, incidentally) is the “Frenzy Polka,” a composition of Begley’s father inspired by the 1916 Rising. It’s a brilliant tune, but Begley brings great life to it not only through his insightful phrasing, but through his tasteful use of harmony that unfolds and becomes more intense as the track progresses. It adds immediacy to the tune’s already strong sense of drive.
One of the album’s more stunning moments is the air “Beauty Deas An Oileain,” again played on a bass instrument. Begley opens with a plaintive, relatively unadorned approach to the tune, but as the track progresses he adds extremely tasteful expressive harmonic layers that bring a sense of fullness and poetry. The instrument’s register recalls (to me, at least) that of the uilleann pipes, and I suppose the overall effect on the bass concertina isn’t too far removed from the pipes, either.
This is a spectacular album overall. Although a must-have for concertina players, there really is plenty here to charm anyone who loves traditional music. Outstanding. Pick this one up! (Incidentally, if you have the opportunity to pick up the disc and not just the download, you will be treated to a hexagonal packaging that looks like a concertina and opens to reveal the liner notes set against the “concertina’s” guts – reed plate, bellows and all.) For more information, see www.cormacbegley.com.