Irish traditional music for your consideration

In the rather small world of Irish traditional musicians, Eliot Grasso has been widely considered one of the best uilleann pipers playing today; Dave Cory has always been one of the hottest of the rock’n’roll tenor banjo hotshots. North by Northwest, recorded in 2006, isn’t going to tarnish the luster of their reputations.

“Dave and I recorded together on a project in early 2006, and he said, ‘Hey, we should do something together,'” said Grasso. “So we sat down in a Seattle’s Best coffee shop, played through some tunes, and decided it could work. We decided to make the album about tunes that we’ve learned, played, or written since we’ve moved to the Pacific Northwest.” (Both had moved to the Pacific Northwest about two or three years ago.)

Grasso and Cory wanted to capture the sound and flavor of two musicians simply sitting down and sharing a few tunes, keeping production and fancy arrangements to a minimum.

This occasionally makes for some slightly wonky production values. (Me: “You know, your ‘air on the flute’ is great playing and I love the tune, but why does it sound like it was recorded in a hallway?” Grasso: “Um. Because we recorded it in a hallway?”) They also weren’t above using the magic of studio recording to allow Cory to later add backing tracks on guitar and octave mandolin. But North by Northwest hits the mark.

Mind you, a large number of Irish trad musos would give their eye-teeth to sound like this when just sitting down for a few tunes.

Both musicians are well known for the strength, clarity, and technical skill of their playing, and they don’t disappoint here.

Cory and Grasso have each also garnered a considerable reputation for variations, those indispensible few notes or phrases that give simple Irish trad tunes the ability to snare a listener in a maze of intricacy and complexity, and this is also borne out here. Both have a clear respect for the tune; neither ever chooses variations that lose track of the original tune, and each nimbly manages to make the tune more, never less.

My only real quibble with the album is that the lack of sharp production values does not demonstrate the true brilliancy and fire of the playing of each of these fine musicians.

Highlights of the album include a ramp-up of a first track, which starts off firmly with a tune that Grasso wrote for accordion great Billy McComiskey, sweeps through “Dan Breen’s” and finishes up with a goose-pimpling rendition of “The Beauty Spot.”

Almost all Irish trad musos connect associations and memories up with tunes; I’m very fond of the set of jigs written by Grasso. (The second tune of the set, “The Green Lady,” always carries me off once again to Edo’s Sushi in Baltimore, being fed the luscious namesake sushi roll by that best of pals, and not just because he’ll feed me sushi, Myron Bretholz.) Almost all of Grasso’s tunes deserve being taken into the tradition, and this set in particular demonstrates why.

Grasso weaves his way through session standards “The Musical Priest” and “Farrell O’Gara’s,” playing tricks with colorings, chord/key changes, and phrasing. Because the tunes are so familiar, the track highlights his admirable grip on the art of variation, with Cory subtly abetting the changes on guitar.

Grasso’s very able flute playing is a pleasant change of voice, especially on his original air “The Fallen Bridge” (for jazz guitarist Nick Marsalek) into the lovely “The Princess Royal.” (There are basically two major variants of “The Princess Royal,” one more or less attributed to Turlough O’Carolan and the other that seems to come from the English Morris tradition. This is the O’Carolan version.)

Listening carefully to a banjo player’s hornpipes will tell you how good s/he really is, and Cory’s take on Grasso’s “The Come Hither Stare” and the venerable “Poll Ha’Penny” is as satisfying as listening to his reels and jigs.

They round out a grand time with a last rousing set of reels, the banjo flashing a glittering percussive edge onto the more mellifluous pipes. (Cory has this trick of syncopating a note here or there to push the beat, and tastefully uses this to help push the track up a notch.)

This album is enjoyable listening for those who love Irish traditional music, immensely yet subtly instructive for other players, and an able demonstration of two young musicians rapidly coming into their own (Irish musicians are traditionally considered “young” until they’re about 50 years old).

Cory once claimed that the best way to get hold of him was to stand on a certain street corner and yell his name until someone went and got him, so details of his actual schedule are a bit hazy. He tours and performs out of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Eliot Grasso performs and teaches all over the the globe, based out of the Pacific Northwest. Try to keep up with him at his Web site.

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