Folks, preorders are now being taken for “Martin Mulvihill’s Complete Collection of Traditional Irish Music.” For those who mightn’t be familiar, Martin Mulvihill was a hugely important musician and teacher in the Bronx in the 1970s and 80s. He had hundreds and hundreds of students, many, many of whom had great success at fleadhanna over the years and went on to have real careers playing Irish music. (Take Eileen Ivers for example. She was a Mulvihill student who won over 30 fleadh titles and is now a name-brand performer.) Mulvihill was named a National Heritage Fellow in 1984, a massive achievement considering he was only the second Irish musician to receive the honor.
In 1986, Mulvihill self-published a tune book that was a major source for tunes and versions in and around New York City. Everyone played from it. However, Mulvihill’s son Brendan, himself one of the finest fiddlers out there, recently revealed that his father actually compiled three additional volumes of tunes. The complete set of four – over 2,300 tunes – will be the basis for the aptly named “Complete Collection,” which will also include photos, bios of the musicians whose names appear in the book and a biographical essay written by yours truly.
Considering how many musicians learned from Mulvihill and still play his tunes & versions, this should be considered an important and must-have tune collection. Look for a June 2023 delivery, but Brendan Mulvihill will tour the mid-Atlantic region with Angelina Carberry and Dan Brouder in June and pickup can be arranged at any of their gigs through his website. To reserve your copy (and more!), visit www.irishscroll.com.
On the media deck this week is “The King of the Blind,” the new album from uilleann piper Joey Abarta. If you dig solo piping, this album is one you need for your collection. Abarta’s playing, which you’ve heard before in places like his excellent 2013 debut “Swimming Against the Falls” and his 2016 release “Copley Street” (with Nathan Gourley), has a real charm that makes this album very easy to recommend to lovers of traditional music in the “pure drop” style. It’s one you’ll want to check out!
Abarta, who grew up in Southern California but has been living in Boston for over a decade, is one of the country’s finest pipers and his talent has been recognized in various ways. In 2009, for example, he placed second in the All-Ireland; in 2014, he was the first American piper to receive first prize at An tOireachtas since 1969; and in 2018, he was invited to perform at Na Píobairí Uilleann in Dublin, a terrific honor. These days he is the acting president of the Boston Pipers’ Club (an outfit founded in 1908) and the president of The Patrick J. Touhey Memorial Weekend, an annual festival that celebrates early American piping styles and pipers.
In addition, the Massachusetts Cultural Council (massfolkarts.org) named Abarta one of their 2022 Traditional Arts Fellows. A prestigious honor, the MCC’s Fellowship program recognizes exceptional work by Massachusetts artists and the award’s disbursement gave Abarta the opportunity to pull this project together. It’s a bit of a fabulous and well-deserved recognition.
“This recording for me has been a long time coming,” Abarta wrote in his liner notes. “The music and arrangements have been from three different phases of my playing over the last decade. […] From the first time I knew this record was going to be a reality my thoughts on the subject were: no frills, great sound, low editing, organic solo piping.”
The piping here is definitely all of those things. The album open with a set of reels on a “B-set” of pipes. Abarta’s piping is lively and controlled, and the low, deep drone adds complexity to the sound. Abarta’s fine work can also be heard on “The Old Hag in the Kiln/…” (this time on a “D set”) in which you hear some really attractive regulator work, and the set dances “Harnett’s Ace & Deuce of Piping/…,” which are given a superb outing, again on the B set.
But as would be expected, Abarta looks beyond the regular jigs and reels to bring a bit of variety. For example, a track that does this and is one that really stands out for me is “The Longford Piper / ….” It’s a set of lovely single jigs that start off with some nice lift. Abarta’s chanter and regulator work is nice here, but it’s enhanced by the footwork of Jackie O’Reilly. O’Reilly, who is Abarta’s wife, is a superb old-style step dancer and she composed and dances the steps that accompany the music. They are well done, match Abarta’s playing well, and add to the track in a most lovely way. She does the same on “Your Welcome Home/ …,” the album’s closer, and again, it makes for an excellent addition and is something that elevates an already nice track.
Another real standout for me is the song air and march “A Stór Mo Chroí/Denis Murphy's March.” Abarta has a nice approach to the air, starting simply then adding layers in a way that brings out the tune’s lyricism and his handling of the march is well done. But its a moment at the end of the air just before the change of tunes that is both jarring and fascinating that I think kind of “makes” the track. It’s hard to describe – best to hear it yourself.
Finally, there’s the titular “King of the Blind,” a piece Abarta uncovered for himself sometime during the pandemic – it’s one I really love here. The tune itself is fairly unusual, but Abarta’s breathed great life into it, running around with the melody in the most expressive of ways.
“The King of the Blind” is a mighty outing from Abarta. The music is tastefully chosen, brilliantly executed with some really nice touches, and nicely packaged – I recommend it to anyone who loves uilleann piping played without frill. The album launches this Friday, March 31, and it’s definitely one to check out, especially for the pipers and piping fans among you. To learn more, visit www.joeyabarta.com/.