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'Fort of the Jewels'

Fort of the Jewels - Front Cover.jpg

John Dally, The Piper's Review, (Iris na bPiobairì), Autumn, 2004

FORT OF THE JEWELS -This recording is all about the music. The understated cover shows the piper's strong, relaxed fingers on the chanter. That, in essence, is what piping is all about. It is an especially apt image for this recording, which is intensely personal, beautifully honest, enchanting and mind boggling all at the same time.

Brian McNamara needs no introduction here. One of the great moments in the history of the Club was Brian's performance at the Tractor Tavern during the last tionol. Suffice it to say, McNamara comes from a famous musical family of Leitrim. He is justly recognised as one of the most elite and musical pipers anywhere in the world. This is his second solo CD, and although it would have seemed near impossible by virtue of the strength of the recording, he takes his music to a new level with this recording.

The first and the last thing you will notice is McNamara's huge range in terms of technique, tone and expression. McNamara attacks certain notes on the beat with articulations that are as aggressive as a snare drum. Other times note's presence is felt, rather than heard. He really works the chanter, bending, cutting, popping and massaging the notes and embellishments. He will push the beat for a number of phrases, and then fall slightly in back of it. This is delightfully agonizing for the listener. The subtle variations in emphasis and lilt are completely natural. The reels and jigs roll along relaxed and up-tempo. For as much detail as he puts in a tune, they never sound overwrought or purely flashy. This is particularly true of track15, Ormond Sound and The Connaught Heifiers. His slow airs are elaborate, flowing and evocative. They never sound contrived. Taimse im'chodladh, which is easy to over play, answers the question, "how do you fly with both feet on the ground?".

There are just two tracks of hornpipes. If I have any complaint about this recording at all it is that I would like to hear more hornpipes. The concluding track, Kilcooley Wood and The not so bashful bachelor is so clear and unfettered it's impossible to praise it without over stating the obvious. Benedict Koehler joins Brian on the other track of hornpipes, Mrs Crotty's and The Humours of Tullycrine. The pipers deliver these muscular and tawny tunes with the confidence of a boxer marching into the ring.

Too often regulators are used almost as an after thought. When they suddenly appear it's a shock, and then they are gone. After hearing this recording, I will always hear regulators differently. Here the melodic fit is tight and full of purpose. McNamara's regulators are perfectly balanced with the chanter and the drones, seemless.

In the course of preparing for this review I've listened to the CD at least fifty times. I've reread piping tutors and listened to many other CDs, trying to get a better idea what to say about it. It became clear anything one can say about this CD is beside the point. When standing in front of a Picasso, anything you might say is made ludicrous by the presence of greatness. Just listen.

John Dally.

Pat Ahern, Irish Examiner, July 15th 2004.                      

Master Piper calls the tune
The uilleann pipes are the ultimate solo instrument. With the chanter providing the melody, the drones laying down a sonorous background and the regulators adding stabs of harmony, the instrument is a miniature orchestra.

Brian McNamara is a master conductor of this happy combination of wind and reed. Fort of the Jewels is exhibit three in McNamara's well-argued case for the music of native south Leitrim, and follows on Leitrim's Hidden Treasure (1998) and A Piper's Dream (2000).

He takes a minimalist line in his recording technique, using first or second takes to capture the essence of the music, using a single microphone and applying little or nothing in the way of post-production. He values performance over technical perfection.

He believes that the music is not a product to be packaged but a delicate, living organism. He declares that the music is more important than the musician and that he is simply a medium for the music. Those beliefs are more than evident on this recording.

Fellow piper - and pipe maker - Benedict Koehler joins for a couple of tight duets and Grainne Hambly adds some simple but highly effective harp accompaniment, but this is a genuine solo album. South Leitrim may form the focus but many tunes are from the common repertoire. It is perhaps unfair to pick highlights from such a carefully chosen repertoire, but among those tunes that jump out from the speakers are a pair of local hop jigs, Top the candle and Do it Fair.

Dun na Sead comes with the most comprehensive sleeve notes that you are ever likely to encounter, full of information and attitude.

Pat Ahern

Alex Monaghan, The Living Tradition, Sept./Oct. 2004

Brian McNamara is a Leitrim piper who was featured on the excellent McNamara family CD Leitrim's Hidden Treasure in 1998, and since then he's established quite a reputation as a player and tutor. This is his second solo album, packed with pipe tunes from South Leitrim and beyond, played in Brian's distinctive style. From track 1 it's obvious that the music here is first class. The packaging is spot on too, with excellent notes and graphics.

Brian plays in a precise and measured way, taking things at a reasonable pace so all the intricacies of his fingerwork are plain to hear. His technique is more akin to the closed, staccato style of Rowsome or Ennis than the fluid open traveller style, but the notes are nicely spaced, giving an open weave to the music. Brian isn't wedded to the staccato style by any means: the slow air Dún na Séad shows all the marks of traveller piping with its wild blasts of sound and haunting slides. One of the things which makes Brian McNamara such a fine piper is his intuitive feel for the music, and he adapts his style to suit the tune rather than the other way round. The opening set of jigs includes a free-flowing interpretation of Charlie Lennon's Handsome Young Maidens, and a couple of minutes later there's a crisp controlled canter through the snappy slip-jig Top The Candle, perfect for each melody.

Brian is joined on several tracks by young harpist Gráinne Hambly, and this combination evokes the ancient glories of Irish music. There are also three powerful duet tracks with fellow piper Benedict Koehler, who also made one of the sets Brian plays here: pipe duets are rare in recorded music, and these are a treat indeed. The tunes are mostly well known: Mrs Crotty's Hornpipe, Hardiman the Fiddler, Ormond Sound and the like - but the playing is rich and intoxicating. The two pipers mix and match perfectly, complementing and exhorting each other on The Arra Mountains and a wonderfully impromptu version of The Connaught Heifers.

Highlights? Too many to list. The blaring Bs on Redican's Mother, those opening jigs starting with Paddy From Portlaw and ending with the fabulously titled I Love You Not And I Care Not, presumably an early draft of What's Love Got To Do With It? Only one third of Fort of the Jewels is given over to reels, leaving plenty of room for pieces like The Humours of Glynn and the hornpipe The Not So Bashful Bachelor which ends this most enjoyable and satisfying album. The reels, when they come, are all the better for the wait: a sumptuous version of Patsy Touhey's Favourite, the swaggering Spike Island Lasses with percussive chanter and singing regulators, and a gentle build-up to the sparkling Sandy Over The Lea on the flat pipes. If you can't find this CD in the shops, try - and check out the other Drumlin recordings too.
Alex Monaghan

Philippe Varlet, Hard-to-find imported Irish CDs

Piper Brian McNamara is a member of the well-known Co. Leitrim musical family who released a few years ago the wonderful album "Leitrim's Hidden Treasure." Brian's own first solo album, "A Piper's Dream," released in 2000, already provided a chance to hear him majestic playing and admire his command of the close, or tight (staccato), style of piping, as well as enjoy a selection of tunes flavoured by Brian's interest in the Leitrim local tradition.

This brand new CD continues where the previous one left off, with more great music from a masterful player, and more seldom heard tunes from his native county. Throughout, the technical brilliance, the glorious sound of beautifully tuned instruments, and the display of invention in the playing make for a thrilling listening experience. Brian, who performs on a D "concert pitch" set and C "flat" set, is joined on a few tracks by Vermont piper and pipe-maker Benedict Koehler, himself a wonderful player, and is sometimes accompanied by the expert harpist Grainne Hambly. On a personal note, I will add that, having had the privilege to meet and play with Brian, I found him to be one of the nicest people I know, a true gentleman piper. Rating: ****
Philippe Varlet

Siobhan Long, Irish Times, July 23rd 2004.

Second time around, Leitirm piper Brian McNamara's distinctive style is a triumph of precision engineering, his control of the chanter evidence of a musician who's not so much joined to his instrument at the hip as at the elbow and fingers. McNamara's strengths are his clean lines and forensic exploration of the rich Leitrim piping tradition.

This collection bristles with rare tunes and stalwart slow airs, drawing on the legacies of writers Stephen Grier and Alex Sutherland, as well as contemporary composers including Charlie Lennon. McNamara's tight, controlled playing whispers of Liam O Floinn's influence, but his approach to the arrangements of the title track and his duet with Benedict Koehler on Mrs. Crotty's / The Humours of Tullycrine are all his own. Grainne Hambly lends subtle harp too.

Siobhan Long

Geoff Wooff, 2004.

Brian McNamara’s playing style is instantly recognisable; a veritable musical ‘fingerprint’, an individualism which I thought had almost disappeared in the current climate of traditional music popularity. Things to listen for on this disc, after you have enjoyed the tunes, are the organ-like quality which comes from bringing all the sounds of the pipes together, the subtle use of varying tone colours on the chanter, to emphasize the music, the shear enthusiasm and verve that brings the music across so well. Just as I am very proud of my C set and happy to hear it played so brilliantly I feel sure that David and Benedict feel equally for their wonderful D set. Brian is now very well known around the world as both a performer and a teacher, so this new recording will be welcomed by all who enjoy good piping          

Geoff Wooff, 2004.

Peter Browne

The music on this CD shows Brian McNamara as a mature and accomplished piper. His playing is skilful, tasteful and steady and his use of ornamentation and piping techniques brings out the essential musical nature of his selections. The tunes have been well chosen - Brian has a loyalty to Leitrim which has rewarded both the listener and himself with some rare musical gems from his native county. There are other sources also, with tunes supplied from famous players and known traditional composers of recent times, as well as music learned from friends and favourite recordings and it is all rounded off by a couple of fine slow airs. 

Peter Browne

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