CD Reviews: Eliot Grasso – Up Against the Flatirons

Up Against the FlatironsNa Píobairí Uilleann NPUCD014It’s a measure of the strength and depth of Irish traditional music in America that the first in a new series of CDs issued by Na Píobairí Uilleann, entitled The Ace and...

Up Against the Flatirons
Na Píobairí Uilleann NPUCD014

It’s a measure of the strength and depth of Irish traditional music in America that the first in a new series of CDs issued by Na Píobairí Uilleann, entitled The Ace and Deuce of Piping, features Eliot Grasso, a young uilleann piper from Baltimore. Grasso is no newcomer to the recording scene, having previously appeared on Na Píobairí Uilleann’s compilation of young pipers, A New Dawn, as well as releasing solo and duet CDs. Nonetheless, it seems apposite to describe this as a more weighty and serious production, as it’s very much a ‘classic’ recording of completely solo uilleann piping, played on an older-style B set made by Andreas Rogge.

The recording’s classical quality is intoned by the opening set of jigs, familiar tunes drawn from the canonic repertoire of the pipes, and Grasso’s playing is remarkably compact and precise, tastefully embellished with a restrained creativity and inventiveness. This approach is maintained throughout the recording – there’s little in the interpretation that strays from the orthodox, and it is difficult to get away from such descriptors as ‘solid’ when listening to this music. Perhaps this sounds pejorative, although it’s not meant as a criticism, because the playing is flawless and immaculately executed throughout. Occasionally the exactitude of the performances might have been leavened by a looser approach, as although the playing is generally quite fast, there’s never a sense of the performance cutting loose so that the music lives on the edge. At the same time, the music could never be described as merely clinical, and there is a notable depth to the interpretation of the ‘Green Fields of Canada’, as well as on the two versions of ‘The Ace of Deuce of Piping’, which for me was one of the highlights of the recording.

There’s more adventurousness in the repertoire presented, particularly in the bold adaptation of the ‘Bearhaven Lassies’ and ‘Farewell to Erin’ for the pipes. I didn’t feel the first of these was entirely successful (though this may be due to my finding the tune a bit jaded by now), but the reworking of the second is tremendously effective. Grasso also includes a number of his own compositions, which fit seamlessly within the more traditional sets – the hornpipe ‘The Fern House’ will be a demanding test for future pipers, and the title jig, ‘Up Against the Flatirons’, is instantly attractive, and is sure to find its way into the wider repertoire. The broader palette is also evidenced by some other new compositions, the by-now obligatory Cape Breton tune, and some reels more usually associated with the Donegal fiddle tradition, including the cracking ‘The Scowling Wife’. On the whole then, this is a genuine and consummately-performed CD, and bodes well for the future numbers in the series.

Published on 1 November 2007

Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.

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