Leonard Barry.

Uilleann piping is superb on Barry's album 'Littoral'

In the media player this week is “Littoral” by uilleann piper Leonard Barry, a seriously good piper who has done some outstanding work over the years.  This new album is no exception: the piping is superb, his supporting cast could not be stronger and the production itself is top shelf.  If you love well-executed traditional music with a flair for great arranging, “Littoral” is an album you’ll want on your radar.

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 Readers of this column will be familiar with Barry’s outstanding work over the years, including “The New Road” from 2013, which was the first solo album he’d made since his 2002 debut “Minding the Pipes.”  Other works over the last decade include the 2016 album “Stone Walls & Street Lights” with his band New Road (Rick Epping, Andy Morrow, and Seamie O’Dowd), “Hurry the Jug” in 2019 (with Declan Folan and Shane McGowan), and his appearances on Kevin Burke’s 2019 album “Sligo Made” and last year on Burke’s web series “Music From An Irish Cottage.”  

 If you’ve kept up with Barry’s releases, you’ll notice that a lot of names he’s moved with over the years have joined him on this new album, including Shane McGowan (guitars), Andy Morrow (fiddle), Michael Holmes, Seamie O’Dowd and Brian McDonagh (bouzoukis), Michael McGoldrick (flute, bodhrán), Kevin Burke (fiddle) and Alice Allen (cello).  This is simply a massive bit of firepower and it confers upon the album an “elite” sort of touch.

 The proof is in the music.  “Jimmy O’Reilly’s / …,” for example, is an outstanding set of jigs.  The track open up with a drone, to which O'Dowd adds a melody on bouzouki.  When Barry comes in with the melody on the chanter, the guitar is running a counter melody, and the effect is lovely.  The addition of the bouzouki enhances the track’s harmonic dimension, with the full complement of instruments giving the track a very complex, layered texture.  That, combined with the lovely settings make this a great track for listening.

 Another track that uses smart arranging to particularly good advantage is “The Road to Monalea / ….”  Here, McGoldrick appears on flute, with Morrow on the fiddle and McGowan on guitar.  Again, McGowan, whose playing opens the track, fashions his guitar part in a way that enhances the tunes themselves.  What I think I like most about this track (and really, this is something that can be said about each one) is that it communicates the great warmth between the players. 

 The same can be said about “Bedford Cross / …,” the album’s set of slides.  There’s a bit of a different constellation of players here, in that it’s Burke and Holmes joining McGowan and Barry, but the vibe is nevertheless very strong.  Once again, the blend of players, tunes and arrangements give the whole a great energy that fits into the album’s bigger picture.

 The album features one slow air, “Aisling Gheal,” which is fabulously gorgeous. A tune the liner notes tells us comes from the singing tradition of Cúil Aodha, Co. Cork, it brings to mind a couple of other piping versions by Liam O’Flynn (“The Poet and the Piper”) and Ivan Goff (“Bright Vision”), both of which pair the pipes with pipe organ.  Whereas those renditions play up the softness of the melody, there’s a kind of “flintiness” in Barry’s approach that seems to reflect less the “bright vision” of the air’s title and more of the west Cork terroir upon which that brightness shines.  Barry’s handling of the chanter is great, of course, but what stands out to me most are the rich, complex harmonies he pulls with the regulators.  It’s a lovely track and superb bit of piping, and it flows really nicely into “The First of May / …,” the track that follows, which feels like an extension and logical resolution of the ideas Barry is working with in the air.

 “Littoral” is a striking release from a piper who plays with great flair.  Strong arranging enhances superb musicianship and Barry’s great taste, coupled with some very nice tunes and settings, gives this uilleann piping record a very varied feel.  Great stuff and one for the collection!  For more information, visit http://leonardbarrymusic.com.