By Daniel Neely
In the player this week is “Firewood,” the new album by fiddle player Jake James and it’s absolutely fantastic. James has put together a dynamic album of instrumental music comprised of an equal share of traditional and original compositions, brought to life by a small cohort of high octane players.
For those who might not know him, James is one of the finest and most accomplished young musicians around. He’s won a pair of All-Ireland Championships on the fiddle, he’s owned Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Fleadh’s bodhrán competition every year since first competing in 2010, and his nearly two decades of work with Niall O’Leary has turned him into a most admirable dancer.
It’s a remarkable résumé that keeping him quite busy these days. In addition to regular session work around New York City’s vibrant scene, he’s also a member of the very popular McLean Avenue Band. In addition, he recently became a member of the seminal Trinity Irish Dance Company. (In fact, it was in Japan on tour with Trinity that he sold his first copies of “Firewood!”) Beyond this, some readers might remember him from things like Joanie Madden’s Folk ’N Irish Cruise, Mick Moloney’s most recent Winter Solstice/Irish Arts Center concert, and from this year’s Catskills Irish Arts Week, where he launched his album to a large and appreciative crowd.
James is joined here by a few special guests who add depth and variety to his own prodigious ability. They include Fionán de Barra (guitar; also the album’s producer and co-arranger on all tracks), Buddy Connolly (button accordion), Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes and low whistle), Cormac de Barra (harp), and Niall Mulligan (piano), all of whom perform brilliantly in their supporting roles.
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The album starts out with a bang with “Shaped Like a Shoelace,” named in reference to James’s lithe appearance. It’s a hard driving set of tunes ruddered by F. de Barra’s guitar, that will leave listeners with no questions about the album’s tone. From there “Firewood” unfolds with great dynamic range. “You’re Not Invited But What the Heck” features some incredible bow work, matched first by Connolly’s accordion playing, and then by Vallely’s piping. “The Long Way Round” is a lovely set of fairly complex tunes by Seán Ryan and Ed Reavy that James navigates with great personality and complete ease. Tracks like these contrast in mood and tempo with ones such as “Waltzing in November” and “Caoineadh ar feadh Gearóidín ní Dhonnghaile.” The latter, one of the album’s most beautiful tracks, is a slow air that James approaches with great pathos that intensifies when C. de Barra enters on the harp. The result is something that is deeply stirring.
In addition to showcasing James’s prodigious playing abilities, the album features several of his own compositions, including “Firewood,” “Shaped Like a Shoelace” “You’re Not Invited But What the Heck,” “For All That You Do,” “Philosophy and the Free Elf,” “Waltzing in November,” and “Chased From Times Square.” Each is a lovely vehicle for his playing and embodies what make the album great.
Ultimately, “Firewood” is anything but. James is an exceptional player who, perhaps because of his young age, is not as well known as he should be. This all changes now, because he flexes his musical muscles here in a way that will absolutely attract the attention of a much larger audience. One listen and it’ll be no surprise why Joanie Madden wrote the album’s foreword and Eileen Ivers gave a very complimentary quote for the cover – it’s just that strong. This is definitely one to check out. And do keep an eye out for James on the road with Trinity in the future – you’ll be charmed. To learn more about “Firewood” and hear samples, visit jakedjames.com.
Death of Tommy Peoples
Sad news in the world of traditional music with the passing of legendary fiddle player Tommy Peoples. A member of the Green Linnet Céilí Band, 1691 and the seminal Bothy Band, he made acclaimed albums with Matt Molloy and Paul Brady and was a solo artist of great repute through important albums including “An Exciting Session with One of Ireland’s Leading Traditional Fiddlers,” “The High Part of the Road,” “The Iron Man,” “The Quiet Glen,” and most recently “Recorded at Fiddler’s Hearth.” Originally from East Donegal, near St. Johnson, Peoples represented a rich fiddling tradition. He was also a prolific composer, with many of his tunes now session standards. He was a two-time Gradam Ceoil awardee, the author of “Ó Am go hAm – From Time to Time” (a fiddle tutor and collection of his compositions and stories), and an inspiration for countless musicians the world over. Sincerest condolences to the Peoples family.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.