CD Roundup: Dan Isaacson, Orla Fallon, and 'The Pretty Blue Seagull

By Sean Smith

Dan Isaacson’s Simple System, “Traditional Irish Music for the Flute”—Isaacson is fondly remembered by many Boston-area Irish musicians and listeners for his playing at local sessions, and in particular with the band The Magic Square, whose 2007 CD is a hallmark of the latter-day Boston-traditional Irish sound. Now living in Maryland, Isaacson was the ringleader for this more recent recording, the title of which refers to the technical name for the pre-Boehm flute that is still widely used in Irish music, and of which he is an acknowledged master. As Isaacson explains, “Simple System” also reflects the philosophy in the making of the CD: Instead of trying to bring a house party session into a professional recording studio, he and his cohorts essentially brought the recording studio to a house party, set in this case at a music studio near Charlottesville, Va.

The result is not a verbatim recording of a session—Isaacson notes the “light rehearsal and arrangements” that went into the tune sets—but is certainly the next best thing, a group of friends making music in a way that sounds natural and unselfconscious. Best of all, from a parochial standpoint, Isaacson includes plenty of references and connections to current or former Boston musicians on the CD sleeve notes: Tina Lech, Ted Davis, Tommy Peoples, Dave Cory, Triona Tammemagi, and Jimmy Noonan among them.

Not surprisingly, the CD’s focus is on the flute, and Isaacson plays four solo sets, including a delightful trio of “highlands,” a generally overlooked Irish dance style. Elsewhere, he is supported by a stellar cast: guitarist/fiddler Danny Noveck (himself a recent and welcome full-time addition to the Boston scene), sean-nos dancer Kelly Smit, Aaron Olwell on flute, concertina and fiddle, and Matthew Olwell on bodhran and percussion. The assembled multitude is in great form on the opening track, a medley of reels featuring a flute-twin fiddles-bodhran-dancing feet combination, while Aaron Olwell’s concertina and Noveck’s fiddle make for a stirring blend with Isaacson’s on a pair of waltzes, “The Diamond/The Primrose”; Isaacson and Aaron Olwell also serve up a powerful duet on C flutes for “Touch Me If You Dare/The Cottage in the Glen” that is given an equally potent dose of rhythm by Noveck’s guitar along with Smit’s dance and Matthew Olwell’s bodhran and other percussion.

Isaacson’s versatility is also on display, showing a considerable melodic prowess on bouzouki in a set of barndances and on a particularly energetic medley of reels “Pat the Budgie/The Steeplechase,” as well as on Uilleann pipes for the reel set “The Antrim Rose/The Windy Gap.” In addition, he plays a set of reels on solo whistle.

Writing in the CD liner blurbs, Isaacson’s friend and occasional collaborator accordionist Billy McComiskey compliments Isaacson for “the gimp” in his music, which McComiskey defines as a “studied, respectful mastery of the art form we call Irish music.” It’s the simplest, and therefore the highest and most appropriate, form of praise possible.

“The Pretty Blue Seagull: Irish Music from the O’Neill Collection”—Captain Francis O’Neill’s legendary collected works, notably O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, have drawn their share of criticism in recent years—complaints have been voiced about settings and transcriptions of some tunes—but they still stand as one of the foremost Irish traditional music resources. On this album, flute and whistle player Frank Claudy and guitarist Paul de Grae aim for a kind of moderate yet respectful tribute to the captain’s legacy, eschewing “slavish devotion to dots on a page” for the philosophy that “musical notation is at most a guideline,” as Claudy explains—an approach “we believe would have met with the captain’s approval.”

Given that premise, “The Pretty Blue Seagull” might come across as an exercise in musical scholarship, what with references to source material and sometimes copious notes provided for each tune, and thus perhaps somewhat esoteric to the casual Irish music fan who doesn’t particularly care whether or not F-naturals belong in the second part of “Casey the Whistler.” But the musicianship of Claudy and de Grae, with contributions from Joe Skelton on flute and whistle and stepdancer Patrick O’Dea, is solid and straightforward.

And there are enjoyable revelations even for the less-informed listener: de Grae’s gorgeous instrumental rendition of a significantly different version of “The Parting Glass” from O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, contrasting with the more commonly heard melody (titled by O’Neill as “Burns Farewell”) used for the song, which guest singer Annie Skelton performs to end the album; the popular session jig “Banish Misfortune,” interpreted with variations originally played by Edward Cronin, whose version was recorded on cylinder by O’Neill himself; and a trio of tunes, “Smash the Windows/Lord McDonald/Halfway House,” that are all staples of O’Neill’s collections but here are played according to how Joe Skelton learned them—the last was actually listed by O’Neill as a hornpipe, Claudy writes, but had transmogrified into a reel when Skelton heard it in Miltown back in the 1980s. The set “New Year’s Night/Curragh Races” features an inventive blend of stepping, Claudy and Skelton dueting on flute and Skelton’s additional whistle track.

Those listeners who are more expert in their knowledge of Irish music should at least appreciate “The Pretty Blue Seagull” for offering fresh scrutiny on Captain O’Neill’s work. After all, friendly debates—provided they stay friendly, of course—often help Irish music scholarship to continue thriving.

Orla Fallon, “My Land” (CD and DVD) --
One of the original instigators of the “Celtic Woman” phenomenon steps out on her own, which means you should have a fair idea of what to expect: a mish-mash of traditional Irish folk songs, pop standards and other contemporary pieces, heavily produced and orchestrated, and tinged with “authentic” Irishness (a strain of Uilleann pipes or tin whistle here, a flourish of fiddle there) -- all the hallmarks of the “Celtic” brand.

Which is not to say there isn’t some beautiful stuff here. It’s tough to be curmudgeonly about “Mo Ghile Mear” or “Ni Na La,” blessed as they are with such exquisite melodies that shine through any extravagance in production, and “Distant Shore”—written by multi-instrumentalist Dan Shea along with John Bettis—is a winsome yet dignified lament. A guest appearance by The Dubliners on two live tracks, “Spanish Lady” and “I’ll Tell Me Ma,” the latter also featuring singer/songwriter Damian Dempsey, adds a welcome bit of grit and guts. But the overall presence of treacle is just too strong, manifested in easy-listening renditions of Top-40 classics “Morning Has Broken” and “Both Sides Now” (with a dissonant piano riff that quickly becomes annoying); “Red Is the Rose,” with a guest appearance by Tommy Fleming, and “Isle of Innisfree” are similarly schmaltzy, while the American gospel classic “Down to the River to Pray” (what hath you wrought, “O Brother Where Art Thou”?) sounds almost timorous.

The DVD, built around Fallon’s live performance of material from “My Land” at Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin, serves to reinforce the near-mythological romanticism of the aforementioned “Celtic” brand. In case you might tire of sweeping camera arcs of Fallon singing, intercut with images of the earnest, focused backing musicians and enraptured audience members, the concert footage frequently segues into on-location shots: Watch Orla amble around the Dingle Peninsula, have tea on a back patio overlooking majestic rural scenery, or gaze out on the Cliffs of Moher; sometimes she’s singing the song in question, sometimes she’s just, you know, grooving on nature. It’s telling that there’s only one, very brief urban scene (one that focuses on The Dubliners), and an equally short visit to a pub session, meant to represent the social, informal aspects of Irish music. “My Land” comes to seem a rather remote, and unreal, kind of a place.