BY SEAN SMITH
Flook, “Ancora” • One of the truly inimitable Irish music acts to come out of the 1990s, Flook released three marvelous albums between 1995 and 2005, then broke the hearts of their multitude of fans by disbanding three years later to pursue other things, like domestic and family life. But when they resurfaced in 2013 – appearing at the Fleadh Cheoil in Derry, among other places – a new recording seemed only a matter of time. The anticipation was worth it.
The heart of Flook’s sound is the uncanny chemistry between their two wind players: Brian Finnegan, with superb tonal control and quicksilver touch on Irish flute and whistle; and Sarah Allen, who employs a concert flute and alto flute to lend harmony and counterpoint, and even percussive-type effects, to Finnegan’s leads. Guitarist Ed Boyd (who in the interim has also been playing with some band called Lúnasa) and bodhran player John Joe Kelly spin out diverse, complex rhythms, yet without overwhelming or dominating the breathy qualities of flute and whistle. Relying on their compositions or other contemporary tunes (like Adam Sutherland’s “Road to Errogie,” Brendan Ring’s “Cats of Camazen” or Gordon Duncan’s “Pressed for Time”) enables Flook to easily move in and out of a traditional music framework, incorporating improvisations and hints of jazz, classical and world music.
More than a decade later, it all still works brilliantly. Arguably the highlight of “Ancora” is the medley that begins with Allen’s moody, mysterious, accented “Turquoise Girl,” then eases into a joyful “The Tree Climber” (by one-time Boston-area resident Simon Chrisman, who guests on hammered dulcimer); just when you’re ready for the finale, they pick up the pace by seguing into a Jarlath Henderson tune, “Twelve Weeks and a Day,” then again change the dynamic completely with Zoë Conway’s “Rounding Malin Head,” and the intricacies in the arrangement are a wonder to behold.
The compositional skills of Finnegan, as well as Allen, remain as strong as ever, such as on the waltz-like “The Crystal Year” (Finnegan’s), where the flute-and-flute combo is at its most sublime; then Allen ushers in “Foxes’ Rock,” a dramatic, moderate-speed tune she and Finnegan co-wrote that presents as a march, and Finnegan switches to whistle – Boyd and Kelly’s rhythmic presence is particularly acute here.
The album’s instrumentation is broadened not only by Flook themselves (Allen also plays piano accordion, while Boyd adds bouzouki and piano), but an assortment of friends on selected tracks that, in addition to Chrisman, includes Phil Cunningham on accordion, Trevor Hutchinson on upright bass, Niall Murphy on fiddle, Amadou Diagne on percussion, Philip Henry on lap steel and Patsy Reid as a string section unto herself (violin, viola and cello). On the more exotic end are cameos by Melvin Ifill on steel drums – whose duet with Chrisman on “The Coral Castle” is an enchanting interlude – Mathhias Loibner on hurdy-gurdy, Eva Tejador on an Asturian tambourine and Mark Tucker on theremin.
All of these guest musicians fit seamlessly into the Flook ethos, embellishing, but never distracting from, that essential sonic core. This idea of moving through change and evolution while retaining one’s fundamental character is reflected in the album title: “ancora” is the Italian word for “anchor,” but also carries a secondary meaning of continuation. Surely something in which to take comfort, especially if you’re a Flook fan. [flook.co.uk]
Páraic Mac Donnchadha, “Not Before Time” • Obviously, not all Irish musicians, even the really, really good ones, make it into the recording studio. With a few exceptions – including guest appearances on a couple of recordings almost 30 years ago – such has been the case for Galway tenor banjo player Mac Donnchadha. While he’s been on the concert or festival stage occasionally, for the most part Mac Donnchadha has done perfectly well these past four decades playing sessions here and there, and developing friendships with eminent musicians like Kevin Crawford, Maeve Donnelly, Ben Lennon, Kevin Burke, Ciarán Curran, and Claire Egan, to name a few – this on top of having known legends like Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis and Máirtín Byrne, among the visitors to Mac Donnchadha’s childhood home, itself a fount of music.
And now, 39 years in the making (hence the album’s subtitle), comes his first solo recording. With help from brother Mac Dara on uilleann pipes and sister Sinéad on keyboards, plus an assortment of musical friends, Mac Donnchadha has produced not just a relatively rare tenor banjo-focused album, but a heartfelt acknowledgement of the many personal as well as musical influences in his life, not least the East Galway/Clare style.
Mac Donnchadha and his guests collaborate mainly in trios and quartets, usually with at least one other melody instrument as well as a piano, guitar and/or bouzouki on each track, and an occasional bodhran; there are also tracks in which Mac Donnchadha is the sole melody player. With pretty basic arrangements, these alignments serve to fix attention on the banjo’s unique qualities and simultaneously contrast them against those of pipes, fiddle (played by Egan), accordion (Graham Guerin) and concertina (Cormac Begley). It’s an opportunity, if you’re so moved, to consider how the same tune can sound so different on two different instruments, and to listen for the nuances each one brings to the music.
Most of all, “Not Before Time” is marked by the infectious drive Mac Donnchadha and the other musicians (whose ranks also include Colm Murphy on bodhran, Terence O’Reilly on guitar, and bouzouki players Macdara Ó Faoláin, Libby McCroghan and Noel O’Grady) bring to these tunes; they play at a good, steady pace throughout, energetic yet with a leisurely feel, so the notes don’t go by in a rush. And if you like reels, there’s plenty of ’em, including an epic set comprising “Molly Maguire’s/Sporting Paddy/The Tempest/The Green Mountain,” with Guerin, Murphy and O’Grady, and a pairing of an East Galway version of “Pigeon on the Gate” with the late Tommy Peoples’ “First Day of Spring,” featuring Egan, Ó Faoláin and O’Reilly.
Two tracks deserve special notice: For a trio of reels that begins with “The Galtee,” Mac Donnchadha tunes his banjo down to blend with Begley’s low-key concertina, and the effect is quite striking, especially the instruments’ incidental sounds, like the push and draw of the squeezebox. Another track opens with an archival recording of Mac Donnchadha’s father Seán (the first traditional singer to record on the venerable Gael Linn label) singing “Carraig Na Siúire”; Mac Dara’s pipes provide a drone to the audio clip, and then a transition into a jig set, “Tatter Jack Walsh/Frieze Britches/Bean Páidin” – a profound tribute to the family’s musical legacy.
Mac Donnchadha details that heritage, and more, in the sleeve notes for “Not Before Time,” which add further value to the project and that underscore his family’s place, and his own, in Irish traditional music history. Included is a photo showing the back of Mac Donnchadha’s banjo, which sports a sticker with the Yiddish word “Mensch” on it; if anyone deserves to be regarded as a person of noble character, worthy of admiration and emulation, surely it’s Páraic Mac Donnchadha. [To download the album, or to order as a CD, go to paraic.bandcamp.com]