March CD Reviews

Manus McGuire, “The Copperplate Sessions”
• McGuire, a member of such bands as Buttons and Bows and Moving Cloud, grew up in the firmament of the Sligo fiddle tradition, but as a young man embarked on a trip to Canada that exposed him to other fiddle styles and repertoires – Cape Breton, Quebec, Ottawa Valley, Manitoba – that he brought back with him and shared on a series of seminal albums. “The Copperplate Sessions” is a recreation not just of McGuire’s journey, but also of the odyssey of the fiddle itself from Ireland and Scotland to North America, and the mutual exchange of musical influences that has occurred along the way.

Fittingly enough, McGuire has gathered accompanists from Scotland, Shetland, Canada, and the US to join him. The result is a collection of exquisitely delivered tune sets, and a pair of songs, that underscores the commonalities between the music traditions even while delineating their respective distinctiveness. The overall musicianship, especially the tight playing between McGuire and his friends, is of a high quality and an unmitigated pleasure to behold.

The “Canadian Reel Set” – starting with the justly popular “Mouth of the Tobique” – is Exhibit A, with Shetland fiddler Bryan Gear doubling up on the melody, Scottish musicians Tom Orr (piano), Duncan Findlay (guitar), and Neil MacMillan (double bass) providing rock-solid rhythm, and Canadian Emily Flack’s step dancing as the musically metaphorical cherry on top. Elsewhere, McGuire and fiddle visit the Orkney Islands — collaborating with Orcadian fiddler Fiona Driver and pianist Trevor Hunter for a sprightly trio of reels composed by Driver – and Shetland, pairing with fiddler Bryan Gear on an air penned by the illustrious Willie Hunter, “Mrs. Mary Stevenson” (featuring more splendid piano backing by Orr), and on four reels, including compositions by Hunter, Dr. Tom Anderson, and Ronnie Cooper, celebrated Shetland fiddlers all.
The Irish tradition is well-represented here, too, as McGuire and Orr take on a set of reels with a heavy Sligo flavor (“Bonnie Kate/Hare’s Paw/Old Copperplate/New Copperplate/Mason’s Apron”) and a medley of four jigs, including one each from Tipperary’s Paddy O’Brian and Tyrone native Jimmy McHugh, ending with “The Tar Road to Sligo.”

The songs so winningly voiced by Flack are Roscommon writer Percy French’s “Gort na Mona” and a Gaelic piece, “An Chiarraíoch Mallaithe (The Bold Kerryman).” Flack, who is McGuire’s frequent musical partner nowadays, also accompanies herself on piano with taste and intelligence (this is truly an album for the piano player in your life); American Ellen Giro adds a spare but expressive cello to “Gort na Mona.”

“The Copperplate Sessions” also exhibits a personal dimension to the music. Scottish fiddler Marie Fielding wrote an air for McGuire almost two decades ago, which she plays with him here. The final track, meanwhile, begins with McGuire playing the soulful, elegiac “Stephen’s Dream,” which he wrote as a tribute to his son, who died from meningitis at age 18; and then McGuire, with Fielding, Orr, McMillan, and Flack (step dance) swing into a set of well-loved reels (“Blackberry Blossom/Maude Miller/Molloy’s Favorite/Miss Thornton”). It’s a lovely sentiment made real, how this music can express our sorrow and lift our spirits and help us move forward. The tunes go on, and so does life. []

Dan Possumato, “The Last Pint” • When you’ve got a good formula that works perfectly well, why change? Possumato, a native Pittsburgher now living in Maine, has put out four CDs (plus a compilation album) featuring his melodeon and accordion playing, accompanied by a varying cast of musical friends. Much like his previous releases “Land of Sunshine” and “Tunes Inside,” the cover photo of “The Last Pint” evokes a pub setting, an atmosphere of camaraderie and informality where musicians play for the sheer joy of it – and that’s exactly what comes across on these 14 tracks.

As before, the sets are generally played in unison with minimal arrangement, and in small combinations of musicians: trios, quartets, or quintets. This time around, Possumato’s cohort includes renowned traditional Irish performers fiddlers Kevin Burke, Billy Oskay, and Seamus McGuire (brother of Manus – see review above) and bodhran player Myron Bretholz. The others, if perhaps not quite as widely recognized, are equally deserving of attention: fiddlers Bill Verdier and Vince Burns; guitarist Kathy Fallon; tenor banjoist Bruce Molyneaux; and bouzouki player Frances Cunningham.

While there are some familiar tunes, like the jig combo “Cordal/Sweet Biddy Daly’s” and the reel set “Miss Cassidy’s/Thar an gCnoc/Lad O’Beirne’s,” Possumato and crew also have a go at, among others, Charlie Lennon’s formidable “Twelve Pins” and Phil Cunningham’s inspired “Martin O’Connor’s Flying Clog.” In fact, quite a few of the selections on the album are contemporary vintage, including the titular hornpipe, written by French guitarist Pierre Bensusan, plus Cork accordionist Dave Hennessey’s “The Phoenix” and box player nonpareil Jackie Daly’s “Fly Fishing” – the kind of tunes you find yourself thinking that you want to hear more often.

Possumato also continues his practice of going beyond the Irish domain, as he and Burke, Oskay and Baker play “Hommage till en Spelman (Homage to a Fiddler)” by Swedish musician Torbjörn Näsborn, with some lovely harmonies between Burke and Oskay, and (with Burke and Baker) a Quebecois-style waltz, “Uncle Stewart’s,” penned by fiddler Lisa Ornstein and accordionist Denis Pépin, joined to Possumato’s own “Ellen’s Waltz.” Of particular interest is a pair of Newfoundland “singles,” which somewhat resemble Irish polkas; on the second of these, “Trip to Boston,” Possumato trades off with the other musicians (Burns, Fallon, and Bretholz in this case) during the A part, and it sounds like a Breton-style call-and-response.

It’s somewhat disingenuous to say Possumato’s albums are “just like” a session captured on tape (or its digital equivalent): Clearly, “The Last Pint,” like its predecessors, was put together with preparation and forethought, rather than leaving everything to chance and inspiration of the moment. Yet Possumato, by dint of his smooth, low-key accordion style, sets a tone for his recordings that makes them seem like just naturally occurring events. And well they should be. []

Van Morrison, “The Prophet Speaks” • Sir Van the Man (remember, he’s a knight now) rolls on, and at quite a prodigious pace, with his fifth studio album in the past three years, and 40th overall. After using a multitude of backing musicians on most of his recent works, for these last two albums Morrison has turned to a smaller ensemble led by jazz keyboardist and trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco, with saxophonist/bassist Troy Roberts, guitarist Dan Wilson and drummer Michael Ode. This makes for a smaller but generally more cohesive sound, DeFrancesco and his mates clearly having established a rapport with the 73-year-old Pride of Belfast that invigorates both singer and band.

Following suit with this current string of releases, “The Prophet Speaks” includes Morrison’s own material with covers of songs by, among others, John Lee Hooker (“Dimples”), Sam Cooke (“Laughin’ and Clownin’”), and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson (“Gonna Send You Back Where I Came From”) – performers whose work very effectively illuminates the inspiration he’s derived from jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, and other sources.
In fact, Morrison’s “Ain’t Gonna Moan No More” is a slowly igniting tribute to blues/jazz singers of yore, with references – literal and otherwise – to Hooker, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, and even Lord Buckley, a 1940s/50s humorist/comic who reinterpreted classical literature through jazz and jive. “When you know the score, you don’t have to moan no more,” proclaims Morrison (his phrasing makes “moan” sound like “mourn”), his blistering harmonica further fanning the flame.

All of which is to say, if anyone wondered whether at this point Morrison would be phoning it in, well, the answer continues to be a definite “no.” If any more proof were necessary, listen to his “Got to Go Where the Love Is”: Buoyed by solos from DeFrancesco and Wilson, the song is four-plus minutes of self-affirmation and self-actualization (“Got to break out of this empty shell/Start all over somewhere else/Somewhere much stronger than this/Somewhere I can be myself/’Stead of sittin’ on the shelf”), with handclaps and shouts of encouragement from the band adorning classic Morrison vocalizations. It does take you back, even as you move forward.

Oh, and by the way? Later this month sees the release of a deluxe edition of “The Healing Game,” including not only the landmark 1997 album that definitively marked Morrison’s return to jazz, blues/R&B, but also a ton of rare and unreleased recordings. A late but undoubtedly welcome Christmas present for Sir Van the Man lovers old and new. []