David Munnelly and Jonas Fromseier bring a new level of hard-driving sophistication to the Flanagan Brothers mold.
By Daniel Neely
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Flanagan Brothers were one of Irish New York’s great musical attractions. Originally from Waterford, Joe and Mike (and on occasion, their brother Louis) entertained hundreds at a time in the City’s big dance halls, like Donovan’s Hall on West 59th Street, owned by another Waterford man Mike Donovan. They were also best selling recording artists, who between 1921 and 1933 made over 160 sides for several of the day’s top record companies. The brothers’ music was wild and daring, and because the accordion and tenor banjo combo was a new sound at the time, it was also distinctive. This pairing has since became iconic in Irish music, with the Flanagan Brothers’s music inspiring a rake of latter-day heavies like Mick Moloney, Frankie Gavin, John Carty and Paul Brock.
Add longtime musical partners and Morga bandmates David Munnelly (melodeon and piano) and Jonas Fromseier’s (banjo and bouzouki) to this list. On their new album “ten: traditional music on melodeon and banjo,” Munnelly and Fromseier have taken the iconic banjo/box combination and made it their own in a very showy and satisfying way, bringing a new level of hard driving sophistication to the Flanagan Brothers mold that will appeal to traditional music fans with a sense of old time glamour.
Top to bottom, there isn’t a track here that isn’t enjoyable. The album’s opener, for example, “Four Courts / The Cavan / Miss Galvin’s,” is a blast of reels full of life and energy. There, the two musicians seem to treble and roll all the notes, lashing out the tunes with reckless abandon and ornamentation. The jig set “Dinny Delany’s / …” and the reels “Bunch of Green Rushes / …” possess exactly this fire as well. Great tunes, but they become raucous when the silvery might of the banjo and melodeon together splash down to drive the rhythm forward. It all might sound like chaos, but it’s a well-scripted and deftly contained affair that gives the album its character.
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Each musician gets a solo feature here, Fromseier with the jigs “McCarthy’s Favorite / …” and Munnelly with the slow air “Mo Mhúirnín Bán.” Fromseier’s playing is stately and rhythmic, without the frenetic energy he has elsewhere. It’s a fair departure and interesting contrast to the reset of the album. Munnelly’s air playing is a complete shift in tone simply because it’s so contained. It’s a funny inclusion that, were it played on a Paolo would sounds completely out of context, but on melodeon it brings something different to the table, acutely evoking the sound and sentiment of an era past.
For me, the album’s finest and certainly it’s most distinctive track is “Kimmel 1906,” a re-rendering of John J. Kimmel’s “Medley of Irish Songs,” which he recorded to cylinder in the first decade of the 20th century. A sophisticated and challenging piece both in melody and harmony, it works because Munnelly and Fromseier bring to it a superior musicianship and understanding of the era – it’s just outstanding. Make no mistake, this selection strays far from the pure drop stuff, but it’s fabulous. It reminds of the Kimmel tracks found on Paul Brock & Enda Scahill’s album “Humdinger,” where another virtuoso accordion and tenor banjo pair explore challenging, atypical material with great aplomb. The difference here is the audacity with which this duo seizes the material as their own – what they’re doing sounds like it would be right at home in a loud dance hall or pub, and wouldn’t that be nice these days?
“ten” is a perfect blend between the exuberance and sound of the Flanagan Brothers and a contemporary approach to traditional music. Neither Munnelly or Fromseier plays like their corresponding Flanagan Brother, which is a fine thing because it allows both players’ individual style come to the fore. And because the two musicians have an excellent, longstanding rapport, the style they’ve forged between themselves feels like an extension of the Flanagan heritage rather than an imitation of it. “ten” a great album, and one I highly recommend. “ten” is posted and available for purchase at munnellymusic.bandcamp.com/album/ten.