Monday, April 20, 2009

Kevin Crawford and Cillian Vallely's Extraordinary Sound - Common Ground

All text (c) Ita Kelly 2009

It is inevitable that when two fine musicians tour and play together, they would happen on a common musical ground that would be worthwhile to commit to tape, or file or whatever it is called these digital days. ‘On Common Ground’ is a new release from the instrumentalists Kevin Crawford and Cillian Vallely both members of the highly successful band Lúnasa. It’s not just a coming together to play tunes they like on pipes, flute and low whistles, a lot of forethought, research and arrangement has gone into producing ‘On Common Ground’. Its unique selling point is the sonic and tonal difference due to the fact that most of the album is recorded using flat pitched pipes and flute tuned to the key of C.
“We both wanted to record in a lower pitch” explains Kevin, “just to give a slightly different flavour and we were very lucky that we both got really good instruments in and around the same time pitched in C.”
Cillian adds, “I was keen to do the album in flat pitch to make it different to everything we had done or anything we had done with the band. Also, there are not too many recordings of flat pitched flute and pipes; it’s not even a combination that’s played a lot anyway.”
Obviously the instrumentation on this album has a big effect on the sound, coupled with sourcing tunes that have a slightly different feel means it doesn’t sound like every other album. As a result it has a sweet mellow sound that suits a less frenetic style of playing. It is relaxed and comfortably natural and the tunes are selected to suit. “There are certain tunes suited to a particular key or pitch, and then when you play in a lower register it opens up this whole other sound, a whole world sonically,” Kevin explains.

As lead instrumentalists with Lúnasa, Kevin and Cillian research tunes for the band but not every tune is suited to the group’s style, instrumentation and arrangement.
“Myself and Kevin would be big into new tunes, looking for tunes, not just tunes people don’t know for the sake of it, different types of tunes,” says Cillian. “We probably wouldn’t be happy churning out an album of the old favourites, not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s good when you are putting an album together to learn new stuff; it pushes you forward a bit”

Kevin could be described as a serial music collector. “I’m very excited when I hear a lovely tune. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, or who it’s played by. I think I must get that and learn it.” From a young age he was armed with a tape recorder and as he says himself “was able to snare bits and pieces here and there”. He still returns to those recordings of sessions in Birmingham and London.
“I didn’t know how valuable they were. I just wanted to capture them so that I could learn the odd little tune. Going back to them now, a lot of the people have passed on since.” His enormous appetite for tunes made him one of the earliest adapters to minidisc and now iPod onto which he tells me he still uploads truckloads of music “a great source of staying real while you are on the road”.
The many facets of music to which the professional musician aspires are really at the core of this album. While both Kevin and Cillian are completely dedicated to Lúnasa and it is the very centre of their lives, they also have a need to explore other musical outlets.
Cillian’s background is firmly in the tradition. He learnt his trade at the knee of his parents Brian and Eithne Vallely, who founded the thriving Pipers Club in Armagh and all the greatness it has spawned in turn. He also learnt classically and played flute and saxophone for a while. The pipes however took over and as an instrument they are a full time job. Growing up, Cillian was exposed to a wide range of music and musical activity. “My mother was always putting little Irish groups together making arrangements. She was always doing things with orchestras and bands and choirs, always trying to find new different things to teach to children.”
Lúnasa tour for at least six or seven months of the year, so while it is a heavy schedule, there is time to pursue other projects.

Cillian has recorded on more than forty albums to date and has toured worldwide with Riverdance, Tim O’Brien and others. In 2002 he recorded a landmark album ‘Callan Bridge’ with his brother Niall named after their home in Armagh. They too have toured together. Other projects included performing with his brothers Niall and Caoimhín, Mícheál O Súilleabháin and a small orchestra, more of which is planned for this year.

Kevin’s name is linked with many great musicians and bands, Moving Cloud, Raise the Rafters, Grianán. His ‘d’ flute album showcased his own personal style at a relatively early stage; ‘In Good Company’ (2001) placed him in combination with an array of musical greats. They were mostly fiddle players interestingly enough and several of these continue to be his sparring partners when not on tour, James Cullinane and Tony Linnane being top of the list at present. “I’m always looking for tunes that might suit different combinations” he explains. “It’s a labour of love.”

The tunes ‘On Common Ground’ come from many sources, some well known some not quite so. Some have a very personal connection like the melancholy set dedicated to the memory of PJ Crotty, with whom Kevin became firm friends in the years preceding his untimely death in 2005. PJ represented what traditional music is all about and Kevin captures this essence well in the slow reels ‘Days around Lahinch & The Man from Moyasta’. “I always had this real fondness for his music, and for PJ himself, he was so funny, such great company. He believed in the nights of music, it was about fun and stories and the whole thing - you got the full package with PJ.”
Cillian returns to his own roots with one of the first slow airs he learnt ‘Úirchill an Chreagáin’, air to Art Mac Cumaigh’s poem and popular amongst singers but not so much with instrumentalists. The ‘Hidden Fermanagh’ collection features amongst the musical sources alongside references to music and musicians from Sligo, Galway, Roscommon and Clare.

As always it’s hard to detail all the tunes on this album and that’s why the excellent sleeve notes do such a good job. Photography on the album by Con Kelleher features shots taken under the natural red blush of Glasgow’s fruit market in the bitter cold during the Celtic Connections festival this year. They belie the warm glow of this fine musical treasury.

Accompaniment on guitar alternates between the capable hands of Paul Meehan and Donal Clancy, both of whom have accompanied Kevin and Cillian in live concerts. Paul is also a member of Lúnasa and managed to achieve a completely different sound in his backing of the duo’s playing. “Paul is musical enough to be able to take each tune as it comes and give it the treatment it requires” says Kevin. “He is so creative in what he does.”
They have already performed a number of small venues in the States, mostly folk club or house concerts where the performance is acoustic. “It’s a lovely scene" says Kevin “I love then because you get to play acoustically to just forty fifty or sixty people perhaps in someone’s living room. Cillian has all the contacts and set up a number of these dates for us.” They have also performed in Ireland and have a series of nationwide launch dates for ‘On Common Ground’ set for June.

Neither Cillian nor Kevin look too far into the future. This project is a chance to explore new territory, enjoy a different facet to their musical abilities and bring something new to audiences. Their motivation is a constant proactive search for innovation and freshness in their music and with their instruments, and ‘On Common Ground’ achieves that in spades. “It’s never a chore, I never tire of it” says Kevin summing up their enthusiasm.

Check out more music from Kevin Crawford and Cillian Vallely at the .tradnet music store on Amazon.