Bringing All the Ideas Together
Fintan Vallely’s music has a reflective and at times semi-improvised quality that you wouldn’t normally expect from an album of solo traditional Irish music. From as early as his 1979 album Traditional Irish Flute Music and more explicitly in his 1992 recording Back to the Starry Lane with Mark Simos, he has shown a willingness to embrace innovation.
His output appears to be growing increasingly ambitious with each album, incorporating more self-penned material, working with larger ensembles and creating more complex and non-linear forms, thus bringing us to his latest release, Merrijig Creek, ‘merrijig’ being an aboriginal term meaning ‘grand’, released on Bandcamp earlier this year.
At the core of this album of a dozen and half newly composed tunes is Fintan’s distinctive flute style, solid and rounded, and although some of the raw edges of his sound, evident on his debut album have been smoothed off over the intervening years, the driving rhythmic emphasis, complex finger ornamentation and influence of pipers such as Seán Reid remains, lending his tone a breathy urgency that can be heard throughout his recorded output.
The album opens with ‘The Three Sisters’, a melodically interrelated set of tunes comprising of a slow air, the aforementioned jig ‘Merrijig Creek’ and finishing on a reel, ‘The Clonakilla’. Caoimhín Vallely’s widely voiced, swirling piano textures that provide accompaniment on the opening slow air, ‘An Grianán Feasa’, bring to mind the playing of Keith Jarrett or Don Cherry as much as anything from within the tradition. This jazz reference is further reinforced by Fintan’s approach to the phrasing – asymmetric bursts of short ascending and descending passages that give a sense of the musicians creating a framework for exploration as much as performing a fixed piece of music. The texture is augmented in ‘Merrijig Creek’ with the addition of Sheena Vallely, also on flute, and further still in the concluding tune by Liz Doherty on fiddle. Both these tunes have a distinctly modern feel that wouldn’t sound out of place on an album by Lúnasa or Flook.
Although several tracks on the album follow a similar format, beginning with an air and concluding with a reel (‘The Rambles of Grappa’) or a jig (‘The Maid of Annaghmakerrig’), rarely is the path that connects them straightforward, with transitions between the tunes often meandering into free sounding meditations on, and fragmentations of, the themes presented within the tunes themselves.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this approach is on ‘Gregorium Uproarium’, previously recorded on Back to the Starry Lane, which employs phrases from the ‘Musical Priest’ to tie together the lament and slow reel, ‘Ómós Tadhg MacSweeney’, and a reel entitled ‘Raithneach a Bhean Bheag’, in such a way that sounds improvised but clearly isn’t. In the sleeve notes, Fintan references John Coltrane as an influence and in listening to this track one can certainly hear trace elements of Coltrane’s modal mid-1960s output such as the closing ‘Psalm’ from A Love Supreme.
Elsewhere on the album, ‘From Ballinakill to Ballinascreen’ is a set of two slides and a reel composed by the Galway-born fiddle player and composer Lucy Farr, from whom Vallely learned the tunes directly while visiting London in 1972. Fintan is again accompanied by his sister Sheena for this set, the pair’s staggered breathing patterns, often coinciding at the end of a part, give a sense of finishing each other’s sentences. The driving flute duet is underpinned by Caoimhín Vallely’s piano accompaniment, incorporating a strong Cape Breton lift.
Perhaps one of the most experimental tracks on the album is ‘Homage to Brian Keenan’, named for the Belfast man who was held hostage for four years after being kidnapped while working as a teacher in Lebanon. The opening air, ‘Syrian Sky’, employs the subtle use of electronics, before being augmented by an open, fully resonant frame-drum accompaniment courtesy of Brian Morrissey. The middle eastern theme is further developed throughout the following reels, with the additive layering of percussive elements and whistle. As with all the tracks on the album, the set is supported by extensive sleeve notes that provide an insight into the compositional background of the piece where Fintan describes the sense of guarded elation upon hearing of Keenan’s release and how this inspired him to write the music.
The production values throughout are clean and refreshingly free from quantised perfectionism, aided by the use of reverb and delay that help to create a sense of depth in the mix, particularly in the balance of the flute and piano, the latter never overpowering the former. There are a few moments when the background creeps into the foreground, such as Dáithí Sproule’s beautiful, ornate and often lute-like guitar accompaniment on the medieval sounding ‘Roving Rhythm’; however, this does not detract from the overall effect as Fintan’s flute timbre, which brings out the instrument’s upper harmonics, is easily distinguishable at all times.
Merrijig Creek is an innovative album that brings together many of the ideas explored in Fintan’s earlier work. The elaborate and complex arrangements maintain a sense of liveness, carried off by a cast of highly accomplished accompanying musicians who create a sophisticated sonic template to frame not only Fintan’s highly personalised approach to flute playing, but also a selection of new tunes that will undoubtedly find their way into the repertoire of many new-tune aficionados.
To purchase Merrijig Creek, visit https://fintanvallely.bandcamp.com/album/merrijig-creek
Published on 19 March 2021
Kevin McCullagh is a fiddle player, DJ and sound artist from Belfast, where he is an active member of the traditional music scene. His compositions, released under the pseudonym Jan Jeffer, have featured on RTÉ Lyric FM, NTS Radio and at many Irish festivals including the Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Hilltown Contemporary Music Festival and Electric Picnic amongst others.