New York born fiddler Brian Conway is a leading exponent of the highly ornamented Sligo fiddling style made famous by the late Michael Coleman. The winner of two All- Ireland junior titles in 1973 and 1974 and the All-Ireland senior championship of 1986, Brian's early studies were with his father Jim of Plumbridge County Tyrone and with Limerick born fiddler/teacher Martin Mulvihill. However, it was the legendary fiddler and composer Martin Wynne who taught him the nuances of the County Sligo style. Later, Brian met and befriended the great Andy McGann of New York a direct student of Michael Coleman, who further shaped his precision and skill on the instrument.
In 1979, Brian recorded a duet album, The Apple In Winter (Green Linnet) with fellow New York fiddler Tony Demarco. In July of 2002 Brian released his debut solo CD, First through the Gate, on the Smithsonian-Folkways. This CD was voted the prestigious Album of the Year by the Irish Echo. Brian is also featured on the CD, My Love is in America, recorded at the Boston College Irish Fiddle Festival, and on the documentary "Shore to Shore" which highlights traditional Irish music in New York.
Brian remains faithful to the rich tradition handed down to him. The distinctness of his tone, the lift of his playing, and the deft ornamentation he brings to the tunes have placed him among the finest Irish fiddlers of any style, Sligo or otherwise. He has performed all over North America from San Francisco to New York and places in between such as Chicago, Milwaukee and Colorado. His talents have also been enthusiastically received throughout Ireland and the rest of Europe. He is also a noted instructor who has mentored many fine fiddle players, including several who have gone on to win All-Ireland championships.
In addition to his recording "First Through the Gate" on the Smithsonian Folkways, label, Brian released a CD titled A Tribute to Andy McGann on the prestigious Irish Label Cló Iar-Chonnachta in 2007 in which Brian is paired up with Irish Music legends Joe Burke and Felix Dolan
Brian followed this CD with a much anticipated second Solo CD titled "Consider the Source" in deference to the rich environment from which Brian learned his music. This CD was also released on the Cló Iar-Chonnachta Label in 2008 . This CD features guest appearances by Niamh Parsons, Dan Milner, Billy McComiskey, Joannie Madden, Felix Dolan, Brendan Dolan ,Heather Bixler, John Nolan ,Gabriel Donohue, Eamonn O'Leary and Brad Albetta. An internationally acclaimed CD, Earle Hitchner of the Irish Echo described this CD as "Easily one of the best releases this year". The Irish Echo later honored Brian with the award of the Traditional Irish Artist of 2008.
Brian latest recording features him with Joanie Madden, Billy McComiskey and Brendan Dolan on the highly acclaimed Compass release titled the Pride of New York.Brian remains one of the musical rocks of the Irish Traditional Irish Music Scene in New York.
Consider The Source Cló Iar-Chonnachta 2008
A Tribute to Andy McGann,Cló Iar-Chonnachta 2007
First through the Gate, Smithsonian Folkways 2002
Irish in America: A Music Record of the Irish People in the United States, Folk Legacy 2001
The Celtic Fiddle of Liz Knowles, Lyrichord Discs 1998
The Boston College Irish Fiddle Festival: My Love is in America, Green Linnet 1991
The Rights of Man: The Concert for Joseph Doherty, Green Linnet 1990
Playing with Fire: The Celtic Fiddle Collection, Green Linnet 1989
Joe Burke: The Tailor's Choice, Green Linnet 1983
The Apple in Winter - Brian Conway & Tony DeMarco, Green Linnet 1981
The Prosecutor Plays the Fiddle
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THE PROSECUTOR PLAYS THE IRISH FIDDLE By Earle Hitchner [Published on March 16, 2006, in ...THE PROSECUTOR PLAYS THE IRISH FIDDLE
By Earle Hitchner
[Published on March 16, 2006, in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Copyright (c) Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]
By day, Brian Conway is committed to teaching a lesson to public officials guilty of embezzlement, perjury, or other criminal misconduct. By night and over weekends, he is committed to teaching lessons to a dozen students of Irish traditional fiddling, at which he is a virtuoso.
For this deputy chief of the Public Integrity Bureau within the Westchester District Attorney’s Office in White Plains, N.Y., the dual sides of his life complement each other. “There’s something about an assistant district attorney who can play the fiddle that tickles people,” Mr. Conway said while waiting for his 10-year-old daughter, Fiona, to finish Irish stepdancing lessons on a recent Sunday. “Playing and teaching Irish music have actually helped to forge bonds and relationships in my profession.”
Occasionally the two sides overlap. Every Wednesday night from 7:30 to 10:30 since 1997, Mr. Conway has hosted a popular Irish traditional seisiun (music jam) at Dunne’s pub in White Plains, and one Wednesday evening the 44-year-old fiddler was startled by a visitor. “A former defendant walked in whom I had been responsible for sending away to state prison for two years,” Mr. Conway recalled. “On a break I went up to him and asked if he knew who I was. He said yes, although he didn’t know I played at Dunne’s. Fortunately, there was no ill will, and he returned over the next couple of Wednesdays to hear me play again.”
To hear Brian Conway play the fiddle is to hear the New York-based Sligo style at its most pristine and precise. Sligo, a northwest county in Ireland, is famous for its fiddling, characterized by an engaging, staccato-like lift in rhythm and tempo and by ornamentation (rolls, triplets, grace notes) often breathtaking when executed by an expert.
Born in the Bronx to violin-playing parents from Tyrone, Northern Ireland, Mr. Conway was exposed to several master musicians often visiting the family home. Two in particular left indelible imprints on him: Martin Wynne (1913-1998), a fiddler from Bunnanaddan, Sligo, and Andy McGann (1928-2004), a fiddler born in New York City who was tutored by another Sligoman, Michael Coleman (1891-1945), regarded as the most influential fiddler in the history of Irish traditional music. “There was nothing careless about what Martin and Andy did musically, never a sloppy or haphazard moment in their playing,” Mr. Conway said. “They would take playing a reel as seriously as a brain surgeon would take an operation.”
This diligence typifies Mr. Conway’s own playing. In 1973, just a year and a half after starting fiddle lessons, he won his first All-Ireland junior championship at age 12. A year later, he won his second All-Ireland junior title, and in 1981 he was barely out of his teens when he, fellow fiddler Tony DeMarco and guitarist Caesar Pacifici released “The Apple in Winter.” The recording, reissued on CD in 2000, paid tribute to Wynne, McGann, and other seminal New York resident musicians whose influence endures.
In 1986 Mr. Conway became the last U.S.-born winner of the coveted All-Ireland senior fiddle championship. In competitive circles, that is the ultimate validation for a proverbial Yank matching skill against some of Ireland’s finest players.
It would take Mr. Conway 16 more years, however, before he released his solo debut, “First Through the Gate,” on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. His penchant for perfection resulted in what was arguably the best Irish traditional album of 2002, but it did create some mild, comic tension inside the recording studio with one of his accompanists, pianist Felix Dolan. “I tortured poor Felix in the studio,” Mr. Conway admitted. “After we would lay down a track, Felix would say, ‘It’s fine, it’s fine, leave it alone,’ and I’d say, ‘No, let’s do one more take.’ I just wanted to get it right.”
Mr. Conway is currently encountering some of the same good-natured resistance from his daughter, to whom he’s teaching the fiddle. “It’s the only area of occasional friction between us,” he said with a laugh. “I try to give Fiona a new tune on the fiddle every week or so. She’s learning fiddle and piano at the same time, which is a lot.”
Passing along an undiluted form of Irish traditional music is of paramount importance to Mr. Conway, whose fiddle pupils have included such All-Ireland junior champions as Maeve Flanagan, his niece, and Patrick Mangan, who issued his own solo debut, “Farewell to Ireland,” in 2003. They are new links in an impressive, New York-based, Sligo-style fiddling chain connecting Coleman, McGann and Mr. Conway. “Some players, especially since ‘Riverdance,’ think Irish traditional music needs to be fixed in order to appeal to more people,” Mr. Conway said. “But the truth is that it doesn’t need to be fixed because it was never broken to begin with. It’s a beautiful art form that doesn’t need to be made interesting. It already is interesting.”
Last month, Mr. Conway’s brilliance as a fiddler and fiddle instructor was formally recognized with his induction into the Mid-Atlantic Region Hall of Fame of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the largest organization of Irish musicians and music followers in the world. This honor came a decade after the posthumous induction of his father, Jim, who died in 1991.
“My parents and all the musicians who encouraged me strongly believed in and clung to the traditions they grew up with, whether in Ireland or America, and I want to set a similar example for my daughter and my other students,” said Mr. Conway, who is finishing up his second solo CD, due out later this year, and is also planning a tribute album to McGann. “I work hard as an assistant district attorney, and that gives me the base and balance allowing me to play Irish music for the sheer joy of it. Irish music remains fresh for me because I don’t have to play it. I want to play it.”
Mr. Hitchner, a columnist for the Irish Echo, writes on Celtic and other roots music for the Journal.
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Music Essentials By Earle Hitchner firstname.lastname@example.org In 2004 Eileen Murphy and I each cam...Music Essentials
By Earle Hitchner
In 2004 Eileen Murphy and I each came up with 25 albums we deemed desirable, if not absolutely essential, for a home library of Irish music. It was our Nifty Fifty. Of the albums I chose, most were released on CD during the past millennium, so I thought I'd stick mainly to the current millennium for my 15 -- okay, my sweet 16 -- CD picks here. They include three albums from 1978, 1987, and 1998 that I felt guilty in passing over before. Let the armchair wrangling and finger wagging begin anew.
Bad Turns & Horse-Shoe Bends / Harry Bradley / 2000 /Outlet
Over the decades this Belfast-based label chronically suffered from mediocre production often born, frankly, of rushing the process. Here production was fairly good, while the flute playing of Harry Bradley was utterly sublime and ranked with the finest studio performances in Outlet's history. Accompanied by Davy Graham on mandocello, Seamus O'Kane on bodhran, and former Deanta member Eoghan O'Brien on guitar and harp, Bradley played concert, E-flat, F, and marching band flutes with perfectly balanced force and finesse. This Belfast-born musician made an astonishingly mature, musically rich solo debut that placed him among the finest Irish flutists alive.
The Boston Edge / Joe Derrane, Seamus Connolly, and John McGann / 2004 / Mapleshade
In "The Boston Edge," the tightness of Derrane's button accordion, Connolly's fiddle, and McGann's guitar and mandolin playing clearly stemmed from proper woodshedding and occasional gigging together. The meticulous care with which the trio mapped out their music allowed them the freedom to improvise or ornament confidently while holding fast to the melody. Virtuosity and vitality ran neck and neck right from the memorable opening track, "The Curragh Races/The Skylark/The Reconciliation." There was no letdown in taste or touch anywhere, and each instrumentalist shone within the teamwork of the trio. The edge goes to this Boston trio, whose first album together was a knockout.
The Dolphin's Way / Micheal O Suilleabhain / 1997 / Venture/Virgin
The joke was on the New Agers: they liked it despite the fact that it was virtuosic, a rare blend of beautiful performance and beautiful production. O Suilleabhain is such a well-known dynamo as a composer, record producer, music scholar, and director of the University of Limerick's Irish World Academy of Music & Dance that it's easy to forget how talented he is as a pianist. A classicist touch never cloyed or encumbered the traditional melodies he played here. The music was elegantly nuanced and solidly traditional, and the joy and wit behind his playing were obvious. Backup from Mel Mercier on bones and Colm Murphy on bodhran nimbly complemented O Suilleabhain on one of the best piano recordings of Irish traditional music ever made.
First Through The Gate / Brian Conway / 2002 / Smithsonian Folkways
This CD was the benchmark against which I compared every other Irish traditional release in 2002. It was the long-anticipated solo debut from one of Irish America's most accomplished, if sometimes overlooked, fiddlers. The production was clean and defined, and the concept and execution were masterful. Brian Conway's New York Sligo style of fiddling in "The Mullingar Lea/Dowd's No. 9/The Lass of Carracastle" illustrated how respectfully, not slavishly, he adhered to tradition. He struck an ideal balance between upholding the integrity of a melody and enriching it with a prodigious, never-over-the-top technique.
In Good Company / Kevin Crawford / 2001 / Green Linnet
Inspired by such brilliant fiddle-flute tandems as Fred Finn and Peter Horan, Paddy Canny and Peadar O'Loughlin, and especially Junior Crehan and Josie Hayes, Crawford sought out the fiddlers with whom he often performed after immigrating to Clare from Birmingham in 1989. Old chemistry was renewed and lightning recaptured as he played beside Tommy Peoples, Frankie Gavin, Martin Hayes, Tony Linnane, James Cullinan, Conor Tully, Mick Conneely, Lunasa bandmate Sean Smyth, and former Moving Cloud colleague Manus McGuire. Crawford handled D-concert, B-flat, and E-flat flutes with unsurpassed skill and spirit, and his ability to settle in so smoothly with nine fiddlers of varied, strong styles attested to his adaptability and virtuosity.
Kitty Lie Over / Mick O'Brien and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh / 2003/ Self-issued
In Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, fellow Dubliner Mick O'Brien found a fiddler whose style complemented his tonally rich, expressive uilleann piping. This was much more than two talented instrumentalists getting together in the studio for some tunes. They carefully worked out the repertoire (much of it drawn from Sliabh Luachra), arrangements, pitch (B or B-flat), and harmonies allowing them to truly marry their instruments, one extending and bolstering the other. O Raghallaigh is himself an accomplished uilleann piper and pipemaker who was apprenticed to Geoff Wooff in Miltown Malbay, Clare, so his pipes-like style and reflexes on fiddle added immeasurably to his duets with O'Brien, and there were also some tantalizing whistle and fiddle-and-whistle duets. This was the most impressive Irish traditional instrumental CD of 2003 and one of the best in many years.
Matt Molloy / Paul Brady / Tommy Peoples / S/T / 1978 / Mulligan
Two years after leaving the Bothy Band, with whom he made a masterpiece debut recording, Donegal-born fiddler Tommy Peoples issued this album with flutist Matt Molloy, his former Bothy Band colleague, and singer-guitarist Paul Brady. It was sometimes overlooked in the attention paid to other albums they made, whether individually or with different partners. Of course, expectations were exceedingly high for any studio recording by perhaps the best fiddler, flutist, and guitarist in Irish traditional music at the time. Falling short of genius, the album can be savored today for what it was and is: chockablock jigs and reels, played with élan and often breathtaking expertise, plus a tangy hornpipe, "Mulqueeney's," and a song movingly sung by Brady, "Shamrock Shore."
The Merry Sisters of Fate / Lunasa / 2001 / Green Linnet
Despite the cheeky title of the band's third album, nothing was really left to fate on this merry -- and mesmerizing -- exploration of Irish, Breton, Galician, Asturian, and original music. The most innovative and intriguing instrumental group in Ireland, Lunasa brings impeccable traditional chops to music imaginatively and often provocatively arranged. Here they experimented with shifting rhythms and tempos in medleys picked with care and performed with alternating gusto and grace, and the effect they produced was so evocative that it exerted almost a narrative force. Audacious but not indulgent, the then lineup of Sean Smyth, Kevin Crawford, Trevor Hutchinson, Donogh Hennessy, and Cillian Vallely showed no signs of cruise control or idling in their music.
My Name Is Napoleon Bonaparte / Frank Harte / 2001 / Hummingbird
The loss of Dublin singer and song collector Frank Harte in June of this year is acutely felt every time I play this magnificent two-CD release comprising 26 songs and a 52-page booklet. Donal Lunny's spare accompaniment allowed Harte's voice, revealing the grain of fine wood, and verve for interpretation stand out as they should. Listen to how he sung "Whiskey in the Jar," a song whipped by every pub jockey and boomed out by every ballad basher on the planet. Harte did what all great song interpreters do: he made it new. He dug beneath artifice to locate art, the gold nuggets of genuine sentiment and historical moment. We will never hear his like again, and this double-disc release proves it.
The Nervous Man / Micheal O Raghallaigh / 2001 / MOR Music
Born in Dublin and raised in Rathmolyon, Co. Meath, Micheal O Raghallaigh is a supremely gifted concertinist who, with this solo debut, climbed into that hexagonal-box aerie occupied by the likes of Noel Hill, Chris Droney, Niall Vallely, Mary Mac Namara, and Jacqueline McCarthy. Best-known as a member of Dundalk's Tain Caile Band (All-Ireland senior champions in 1998, 1999, and 2000) and the Dublin-based group Providence, O Raghallaigh truly blossomed here as a soloist. His ornamentation was precise and purposeful; his exploration of harmonies, full and adventurous; and his tempo, unfrenetic and fluid. You have to go back to vintage Noel Hill to find concertina playing this luminous.
No Place Like Home / Gerry O'Connor / 2004 / Myriad Media
If hindsight (hind-hearing?) is 20/20, then I ranked this CD too low--sixth--in my top 10 for 2004. Born in Garrykennedy, Tipperary, and now living in Dublin, Gerry O'Connor spoils us with his skill on the four-string banjo. I often hold him to an impossibly high standard: himself. He is the greatest Irish tenor banjoist who ever drew breath. "No Place Like Home" was another signal achievement for O'Connor but in a way different from his prior solo albums. He intentionally subdued some of the dazzle in order to heighten the innate beauty of the melodies, including three he composed. Precise, innovative, and powerful, his banjo picking remains a marvel.
The Old Fireside Music / Mike and Mary Rafferty / 1998 / Larraga
This is another recording I should have ranked much higher in my top 10 list for 1998. I wince at the memory of slotting it ninth for that year. From Ballinakill, East Galway, Mike Rafferty on flute and uilleann pipes was joined by his daughter Mary on accordion and whistle for what can be considered a family recording. On it Mike's brother Paddy lilts, his sister Kathleen sings, and his future son-in-law Donal plays guitar and bouzouki. The title of the CD perfectly described the music on it, and all the albums Mike Rafferty made since 1995 constitute a body of work rarely matched by any other Irish traditional musician in the same period. If you're seeking the pure drop, quench your thirst here.
The Poet & The Piper / Seamus Heaney and Liam O'Flynn / 2003 / Claddagh
Why not? There's music in great poetry, and poetry in great music. These two, friends for a long time, combined their gifts for a CD that was somewhat neglected when it came out. This was loam-rich verse compellingly recited by Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning author, and tunes immaculately played on uilleann pipes and whistle by O'Flynn, a founding member of Planxty. If you need just one reason to get this album, listen to track two, Heaney's reading of "Digging," a poem of how writing and turf cutting mirror each other. "Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests," Heaney recites. "I'll dig with it."
An Raicin Alainn / Lasairfhiona Ni Chonaola / 2002 / Self-Issued
Born in Galway City but raised in Inisheer, Lasairfhiona Ni Chonaola has a voice so honest, soulful, and intimate that it transforms everything she sings. She slips inside a song rather than emoting on top of it, and her phrasing in Irish has a rapturous Munster twist. All those qualities coalesced here in her singing of "Inisheer on Inisheer," in which she adapted a poem by Ethna Carberry (1866-1911) to a melody by Thomas Walsh. Even when Ni Chonaola lilted, as she did so inventively on "Coincidence," the listener was left with the unmistakable impression of a wordless story well told. "There's always a soundtrack going on in my head," she confided to me in an interview. This was one of the most captivating and fascinating CDs of Irish singing in recent memory.
Speed 78 / Mike Rafferty / 2004 / Larraga
Flute and uilleann pipes player Mike Rafferty belied his age, 78, on this solo album. Lending fine support were his daughter Mary on button accordion, her husband, Donal Clancy, on guitar and bouzouki, Willie Kelly on fiddle, Felix Dolan on piano, and Joe Madden on button accordion. The music was gracefully paced and played, infused with all the soulfulness for which Mike Rafferty is well known, especially in his four unaccompanied flute solos. The 22 tracks included five spoken-word stories from Mike that only add to the album's natural appeal. When will Mike Rafferty get the National Heritage Fellowship long overdue him?
The Well-Tempered Bow / Liz and Yvonne Kane / 2002 / Dawros Music
Charting their own course after three years in Sharon Shannon's Woodchoppers band, these sisters from Letterfrack, Galway, came up with an assured, sparkling duo debut. They focused on the composing talent of Paddy Fahy, a fellow Galway musician from Kilconnell, through expert renditions of his richly melodic tunes, unnamed as is his wont. Also on the album were compositions by Ed Reavy (his "In Memory of Coleman" reel followed James Hill's "The Bee's Wing" hornpipe in a standout Kanes' medley), Paddy O'Brien, and Brendan Mulvihill, plus three by Liz Kane herself. "The Well Tempered Bow" had no superficial flashiness substituting for a more difficult-to-achieve understanding of what makes a tune tick. It was a CD of depth and heft.
Fiddle Expert Won’t Quit His Day Job
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BY KEVIN RANSOM News Special Writer As All-Irelend fiddle champions go, Brian Conway is a bit ...BY KEVIN RANSOM
News Special Writer
As All-Irelend fiddle champions go, Brian Conway is a bit unusual.
For starters, even though he's an acclaimed musician who travels out of town for several gigs each month, he also has a day job. But Conway's day job is actually a career - he's an assistant district attorney in Westchester County, New York.
"Yeah, my colleagues in the DA's office always tease me that my day job is my 'B' job,'' said Conway, who is the featured performer at the annual Crossroads Ceili show at The Ark on Thursday and Friday.
However, even though fiddling is his true passion, Conway does not entertain any desire to quit the DA's office for the life of the traveling musician. "Not that I make all that much money as an assistant district attorney, but if I were to just try and make a living from performing, in order to even come close to my present salary, I'd be traveling 48 weeks a year, and that's not something I really want to do.''
So Conway is content just to hit the road every other weekend or so, which he's been doing since 2002, when he released his "First Through the Gate'' CD on the prestigious Smithsonian Folkways label.
The Ceili has been an annual event for the last several years.
The brainchild of Detroit-area fiddler Mick Gavin, the event brings together many local Irish-music players, singers and step-dancers. Several of the fiddlers who'll perform with Gavin are his students, as well as his sons, Michael and Dean. Also on the bill will be pianist Barbara Magone and percussive dancer Nick Gareiss. In conjunction with the concerts, music workshops also will be conducted, including a fiddle workshop led by Conway.
While the word "ceili'' originally referred to the gatherings where musicians would provide the music for dancers, the term has become more broadly defined to also refer to Irish-music performances, noted Conway.
Conway's parents were born in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland and emigrated to the United States in the 1940s. Conway grew up in the Bronx, surrounded by great Irish musicians who had also moved to the U.S. from their native Ireland.
Ireland is home to various regional fiddling styles, each a bit distinct from the next. Conway is steeped in the Sligo style of fiddling, although he incorporates other styles as well.
"The Sligo style is very lively, a lot of syncopation, with a lot of ornamentation,'' Conway said by phone from his home in Ossining, N.Y. "Now, the Donegal style is marked even more by faster playing, and it's choppier, with more of a bite. But as you go south, that choppiness attenuates, and as you get into Clare and Galway, the music gets slower and has more pathos to it.''
Conway's father played fiddle, "but coming from the north, he was more influenced by the Scottish fiddlers, and he held the fiddle a lot like you see some Appalachian fiddlers hold it - almost halfway down to his waist, instead of up under the chin.''
Conway still finds it amusing that he was able to learn from the Sligo-style masters while growing up in New York City. "Here I was, living in the Bronx, and I was in the middle of the richest, most fertile source of Sligo music in the world - because most of the great ones had left Sligo in the '20s and come to New York.''
Like many musicians who play in a traditional style, Conway finds it a challenge to stay connected to the tradition while also being spontaneous and creative.
"That's actually more of a challenge than going completely outside the boundaries, because once you do that, there are no rules, and anything goes. But if you can play well technically, and also put feeling and soul into it, there's plenty of room for creativity.''
With the audience for Irish music growing in recent years, some trad-Irish musicians are tempted, noted Conway, to "get more positive feedback from the audience by becoming more of an entertainer than an artist'' - but Conway isn't one of them.
"I don't want to denigrate the art just to get more people coming to the concerts,'' he said. "For me, it's more about being faithful to the art. Besides, with my background, it would really be impossible to do it any other way.''
Writer and critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at KevinRansom@hotmail.com
20 Top Traditional Music CDs by Don Meade
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Irish America has long exercised an outsized influence on Irish traditional music. Massive Irish imm...Irish America has long exercised an outsized influence on Irish traditional music. Massive Irish immigration to these shores and the concentration of those immigrants in America’s largest cities made New York and Chicago as important, if not more important, than Dublin and Cork as incubators of Irish music talent for many years. A 19th century fiddler or piper who stayed home in Ireland might never hear a musician from farther away than the next parish, but his cousin in New York would find himself rubbing shoulders with players from all 32 counties.
The greatest collection of Irish traditional music ever compiled, Francis O’Neill’s 1903 Music of Ireland and his 1907 Dance Music of Ireland, were published in Chicago. When records companies started issuing ethnic music in the early 20th century, the greatest number of cylinders and 78 rpm discs by far were recorded in New York. The recordings of New York-based musicians who included uillean piper Patsy Touhey, fiddler Michael Coleman and flute player John McKenna had a tremendous impact back home in Ireland, inspiring generations of imitators and making the “New York style” a de facto Irish national standard.
Nowadays, of course, the musical center of gravity has shifted back to the shamrock shore, but Irish immigrant and American-born Irish traditional musicians are still among the best anywhere, as can easily be proved by listening to these twenty choice recordings.
Brian Conway – First through the Gate – Smithsonian Folkways – Bronx native Brian Conway is the current standard bearer of the long tradition of County Sligo-style fiddling in New York City. He got his start from his father Jim, a fiddler from Tyrone, but it was the late Sligo fiddle legend Martin Wynne who tutored him in the intricacies of the Sligo style. Brian went on to win All-Ireland championships in every age group and to record a fine duet LP with fellow New York fiddler Tony DeMarco. This solo recording, many years in the making, is his masterpiece—a stunning collection of jigs, hornpipes, reels, slow airs and other tunes with varied piano, guitar and cittern accompaniment. In addition to solos, Brian plays several duets and trios with the late New York fiddle great Andy McGann and with his own pupil Patrick Mangan, a teenage All-Ireland champ in his own right.
Conway Keeps the Sligo Style by Paul Keating
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It is part of the American dream that a child of immigrants can grow up to be anything they want to ...It is part of the American dream that a child of immigrants can grow up to be anything they want to be, if they work hard and keep their eyes on the prize. So it shouldn’t be that surprising that a young lad who grew up in a Bronx household of two Irish immigrants from Co. Tyrone should one day be considered one of the finest in a long line of outstanding New York fiddle players.
In fact, so direct and dominant were the links from Co. Sligo through Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran, Martin Wynne and Lad O’Beirne, it is said that the pure style of Sligo fiddling was transported to New York to be preserved evermore in the Big Apple. Longford’s Paddy Reynolds and New York’s Andy McGann (born to parents from the Ballymote area of Sligo) added to that legacy and played important role models for today’s generation of Irish fiddlers in New York.
It seemed entirely appropriate then to invite Brian Conway to Sligo to deliver the Commemorative Oration at the annual James Morrison Festival in Riverstown on July 31. It was time to recognize once again that a New York musician and a style of playing had a current impact on Irish music beyond the rich symbolism of that extraordinary lineage.
When Brian Conway accepted the invitation of Martin Enright to come and participate in the Morrison festival last October, he couldn’t have foreseen the auspicious adventure he was about to embark on. Enright is a Kerryman, teaching in Sligo, who first heard Conway in 2001 in O’Neill’s Pub in Manhattan and instantly was taken with the pure Sligo sound that is Conway’s calling card. Last year he was further impressed when hearing a track from Conway’s first solo album, First Through the Gate (www.brianconway.com) which captivated everyone in Irish music for its comprehensive scope on his musical influences over the years.
Enright reached Conway by cell phone in Cape May to personally extend an invitation to this year’s gathering, with the added honor of speaking at the Drumfin Memorial to Professor James Morrison during the festival. Morrison (1893-1947), a contemporary of Michael Coleman’s (1891-1945) was better known as a teacher and his recordings, like Coleman’s, spurred the development of traditional music in Ireland at a critical time.
According to excerpts in the Sligo Champion, Conway said: “What we do in the States, particularly in New York, represents a legitimate, if not vital, component of the Sligo style of music given the historical links.” His participation strengthened that link as he spoke also of maintaining the past as the best way to ensure the future of that music. Witnessing his exceptional shepherding of younger musicians recently over the funeral rites for his hero Andy McGann, it was clear that the mantle has been passed to very willing shoulders—broad and confident—for the task at hand.
Joe Burke, the veteran and knowledgeable accordion player from Kilnadeema, Co. Galway proclaimed Conway an able successor to his good friend Andy McGann. “He is an excellent musician playing the music with his own twists but there is no doubt as to where it came from and that he has made it his own now. He stayed straight down the line rather than dabbling in other styles.”
Brian Conway First through the Gate Review
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Brian Conway, a fiddle player born and raised in New York, is one of those rare musicians who has de...Brian Conway, a fiddle player born and raised in New York, is one of those rare musicians who has developed a naturally Irish way of playing without having spent long periods in Ireland. This is his first solo release made up from studio sessions over a few years. This unhurried approach to making a CD means all the tracks are top class and have a freshness and clarity which adds to enjoyment of the music. He is joined on some selections by his mentor Andy McGann and by his own pupil Pat Mangan, another New York native.
It takes a special combination of circumstances to produce a fiddler of this maturity and style, and Brian has enjoyed his fair share of help and encouragement. His first teacher was Martin Mulvihill from Limerick. Brian's other big influence was Martin Wynne, one of Sligo's best-loved sons who died in America a few years ago. As his experience and ability grew he became friends with Andy McGann, himself a native of New York but a man who in his early days met, studied with and played with some of the great names of the 78rpm era, including Michael Coleman, Lad O'Beirne, Paddy Killoran and others. Brian has stayed faithful to the style of those exiles of the past and it pleasing to report that the influences of American swing, jazz and all the other paraphernalia that are obvious in the playing of Eileen Ivers or Liz Carroll are completely absent from this record.
Kicking off with a set of reels, Brian's mastery of the instrument is immediately obvious, as is the influence of Andy McGann. Anybody who has listened to McGann's classic Shanachie LP from the '70s will recognise the master's tricks; a wonderfully light touch on the bow that emphasises the triplets and rolls and a fierce rhythm that bounces the tunes along without ever feeling hurried. What can't be learnt though is the way traditional players introduce subtle variations in ornamentation and melody. Brian Conway shows tremendous understanding of the possibilities presented by the idiom in his own use of rolls, triplets and the occasional drop to the bottom string to play a note an octave lower than normal.
The choice of tunes often has references back to those recordings that McGann made with Paddy Reynolds or Joe Burke, although they are not slavish copies. A brisker tempo than McGann's in the slip Barney Brallaghan show that Brian Conway is his own man. The McGann and Reynolds LP is also brought to mind when Conway plays a couple of duets with his guests. All three fiddlers join forces for one selection each of reels and jigs and their playing is wonderful throughout. This is a good example of how Irish music bridges the generations. There are more links with the past when Brian and Pat Mangan play four of Martin Wynne's reels. Three of these tunes are fairly well known and widely played but this is the first time the fourth has been recorded. The sleeve notes tell a nice tale of how Brian coaxed this reel out of Martin.
Mark Simos on guitar and Felix Dolan on piano provide most of the backing. Dolan's piano has graced some of the great New York recordings since the '70s and his touch is always sure and supporting. The guitar sounds very well mixed and sits comfortably against the fiddle, clear and yet never dominant.
The sleeve notes on this CD are exemplary. Running to nearly 30 pages, they give a short biography of Brian and his musical influences and each selection of tunes is supported by some brief but informative notes.
All in all this is an unassuming classic and a worthy addition to the Smithsonian catalogue. There has been no great hype to launch the CD and indeed it took several months before it was available in the British Isles. If you see a copy grab it with both hands.
Brian Conway: Sligo in the Bronx by Michael Simmons
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Brian Conway speaks with an accent that proudly declares his Bronx upbringing, but he plays fiddle w...Brian Conway speaks with an accent that proudly declares his Bronx upbringing, but he plays fiddle with such a pure Sligo lilt that you'd swear he'd spent his entire life in Ireland. Conway is not as well known as he should be -- he's only released one solo recording and his day job as a lawyer in the Westchester County district attorney's office keeps him close to home -- but those lucky few who have heard him at his weekly seisiún at Dunne's Pub in White Plains, New York, or at one of his rare concerts, all agree that he is the real deal.
Conway owes his mastery of the distinctive ornaments, rolls, and rhythms of the Sligo style to a quirk of history. Emigrants from all over Ireland had been moving to New York City since the 1840s, but in the 1920s, when the record companies first started recording Irish musicians in earnest, there happened to be a large number of virtuoso fiddlers from Sligo in town.
Without a doubt the most famous of these fiddlers was Michael Coleman, who moved to New York in 1914. Coleman was a powerful musician whose records essentially defined Irish fiddling in the first half of the 20th century, and to this day many musicians refer to Sligo County as Coleman Country. Other notable figures include Paddy Killoran, whose Pride of Erin Orchestra played the ships that sailed the Ireland-to-America route in the 1930s, and James Morrison, who made numerous recordings in the 1920s and 1930s, and whose efforts as an instructor of both fiddling and dancing earned him the title of "The Professor." Coleman, Morrison, Killoran, and countless less famous musicians passed on their traditions to a younger generation of New York musicians of Irish descent such as Andy McGann, Martin Wynne, James "Lad" O'Beirne, and Paddy Reynolds. This second generation of New World Sligo-style fiddlers in turn passed the music down to a third generation of fiddlers like Conway.
Brian Conway was born in 1961 on June 16, a date that the bookishly-inclined will recognize as Bloomsday, the day that all of the action in James Joyce's Ulysses takes place. "I realize it's an auspicious day for someone with an Irish heritage to be born on," he says. "But if I had my choice, I would have picked a date with a Yeats connection. He had a strong association with Sligo County and he wrote "The Fiddler of Dooney," which is my favorite poem. In fact, the title of my solo recording First through the Gate is taken from a line from the poem."
When Conway was ten years old, it was decided that he should learn to play the violin. "My mother's best friend wanted her kids to learn to play Irish fiddle with Martin Mulvihill, who lived nearby," he says. "My father was passionately in love with the violin -- he played a bit in the Ulster style -- so he thought that was a good idea. So I was told, not asked, mind you, but told, that I was going to take violin lessons along with my older brother Sean. Before we went to our first lesson my father showed us how to hold the violin and bow and taught us a scale and a tune. My brother picked it right away, but I was completely incompetent."
Conway remembers his early lessons as disasters, but over time Mulvihill's patience and kindness helped him over the rough patches. "Martin was so laid back and informal," Conway recalls. "I was so nervous but he was such a nice man. In my first lesson he kept telling me to "pint my finger down" when I was holding the bow. I couldn't figure out what he was saying and my mother had to explain to me that he was saying "point your finger down" in his Irish accent. I don't really think that I learned much of my personal style from him, but Martin ultimately gave me a strong foundation in violin playing, an excellent introduction to Irish music and, perhaps most importantly, a respect for the culture of Irish music."
After a few months of lessons, Conway became very enthusiastic about fiddling and started to show some real progress, when his father discovered that Martin Wynne lived nearby. Wynne had learned to play fiddle in Ireland from Philip O'Beirne, the man who taught Michael Coleman to play. Wynne also knew and played with Coleman, James Morrison, and Paddy Killoran in the 1930s and 1940s.
Jim Conway persuaded Wynne to take young Brian on as a student. "Martin Wynne was an extremely shy man," Conway says. "At first he wouldn't see me in person and he sent me my lessons through the mail. One of the first ones I got was a cross-bowing exercise for "The Mason's Apron," which I still have. Eventually he allowed me go to his house for lessons and in time he became like a member of the family. I was nervous about telling Martin Mulvihill about my lessons with Martin Wynne, but when he found out he so excited. He knew how important Martin Wynne was, even if I didn't know it at the time."
Martin Wynne introduced Conway to the Sligo style of fiddling, and helped inspire in him a deeper appreciation for the history of the music. "Martin Wynne was full of stories about the musicians he had played with over the years," Conway says. "He also had great insight into the various ways of approaching a tune, of how to play it in a personal way but not stray from the tradition. It was like I was able to go to Sligo and study with a master without having to leave the Bronx."
So for the next year or so Conway took lessons from the two Martins and progressed rapidly. He became so accomplished that when he was twelve years old he won the All-Ireland title at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann held in Ireland. The next year he won it again, which inspired him even more. "I had a small tape recorder and I would play Michael Coleman tapes every morning," he says. "I would listen to "Farrel O'Gara" to wake me up. I would listen to it when I was eating cereal and I would listen to it when I went off to school. I'm pretty sure none of the other kids in the Bronx were doing that."
Although Conway was studying with two very accomplished fiddlers, he cites another player that he never took formal lessons from as having the greatest influence on his style. "My father took me to meet Andy McGann a few months after I started with Martin Mulvihill," he says. "By then I had learned a couple of tunes and my father was so proud of me. He had me play them for Andy who, in his typical style, didn't want to say anything critical in front me, even though I wasn't very good. I used to sneak into the pub where he played and just watch his every move. Like Martin Wynne, he knew Michael Coleman and even took some lessons from him. He really helped me with my bowing and he taught me how to play a tune at a moderate tempo and still have it sound lively."
His father began hosting regular Friday night sessions, which attracted some of the finest players in New York. Along with Martin Wynne, Conway got to play with fiddlers like Louis Quinn, Tom Connolly, Vincent Harrison, Paddy Reynolds, and Andy McGann. "I think that when I was a teenager, most of my friends were older than my father," he says. "One player who was closer to my age was Tony DeMarco. When I was sixteen we recorded a couple of tracks together for Mick Maloney for his record Irish Traditional Instrumental Music from the East Coast of America, which came out on Rounder. A few years later Tony and I recorded an LP for Green Linnet called The Apple in Winter."
Conway could have pursued a career as a professional musician, but he opted instead to pursue a career in law. But even during his university and law school years and his first years as a lawyer, he still managed to play. In 1983 he made a guest appearance on The Tailor's Choice, a recording by the button accordionist Joe Burke, and over the years he appeared on various compilations of Irish music in America. In 2002 he finally released his solo debut, a wonderful collection of traditional tunes called First Through the Gate (reviewed in Fiddler Magazine, Winter '02/'03).
"A lot of modern players think it sounds old-fashioned, but there was no way I was going to make an album without some piano. I love the way it sounds with a fiddle. It has such a different tonal characteristic than the guitar and the rhythms have a much richer, almost rolling quality. I play differently with a pianist. I feel more comfortable and I find the phrasing comes more easily. Perhaps it's because of all the Michael Coleman records I listened to growing up, which almost always had piano on them."
Most of the tunes on the CD came from McGann, Wynne, Coleman, and James Morrison. "I get some of my tunes from other fiddlers in sessions," Conway explains. "The rest I learned from Andy, Martin, and the older fiddle players that were around when I was growing up. I find that a lot of the older tunes, the ones that have stood the test of time, are the ones that really appeal to me. Many of the modern tunes are fine, I guess, but I don't think a lot of them are going to be around in a few years."
Conway is still having so much fun exploring the existing repertoire that he hasn't felt the need to add to the stock of tunes. But that may change soon. "I still haven't composed any of my own," he says. "Joe Burke said that you should wait until you're forty to write your first tune. Well, I'm just over forty now and I'm beginning to consider it. I have a few ideas I've been rolling around in my head that maybe I'll write down before too long."
First Through the Gate is full of fine musical moments, but for Conway the finest are the fiddle trios with his mentor Andy McGann and Conway's own protégé Patrick Mangan. "Patrick is a wonderful player, and I was so glad he got the chance to record with Andy," Conway says. "I like the way that we all play in the Sligo style but also sound different, that we each sound like ourselves."
Mangan's appearance marks a new phase in Conway's development as a fiddler, that of becoming a teacher. "I was so fortunate to have teachers like Martin Mulvihill, Martin Wynne, and Andy McGann," he says. "I feel that I really should pass along what they so generously gave to me. And I do have to say that teaching has been the best thing I ever did to improve my own playing. I've developed my own teaching style, which is more focused than the way I was taught. I teach a tune phrase by phrase, just break it down into its parts, and then show the student how I bow it. I don't think my way is necessarily the best way, but that lets the student understand how I think about the music, which in turn may help them form their own ideas.
"I try to stress that it's not just technique they need to learn, but that the students need to understand the cultural roots of the music. They need to listen and they need to get out and play. Taking lessons in a vacuum may lead to technical ability, but I find it makes the music sterile. I try to keep my students from becoming too pyrotechnical, to keep reminding them that music is an art, not a technical exercise."
So what's in the future for Brian Conway? "I've been working on a new CD, but it's taking a while," he says. "First Through the Gate took about four years to complete. My new CD will be more collaborative and will feature many of the musicians I've worked with here in New York. I want to work with some singers and I want to do more slow airs. The older I get, the more I appreciate the beauty and complexity of the slow airs.
"For me, there is no more personal instrument than the violin. You may start out imitating someone, like I started out imitating Michael Coleman, but ultimately, you need to stop listening to them and start finding your own way. The challenge is to work within a tradition, but still put your personal stamp on it. Learning to do that is something that takes a lifetime."
Brian Conway First through the Gate Review
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There are a lot of albums being released these days, and though many of them are quite good, even ve...There are a lot of albums being released these days, and though many of them are quite good, even very good, few could be said to be over-due. This one is. Brian Conway is a rock solid player in the New York Irish scene, inheritor of the Sligo-influenced tradition in New York through the tutelage of players such as Martin Wynne and Andy McGann, and a talented teacher. Knowing those things I expected the album to be solid, technically advanced, and influenced by the 78 recordings of Coleman and Morrison. It is all those things, but is also suffused with a sweetness and clarity of tone that took me, pleasantly, by surprise. The opening of the album, The Liffey Banks, is light and sweet and altogether wonderful, and Conway keeps that tone throughout. His playing is not flashy though his tecnique is superb; technical prowess and variation are always in service to the needs of the music, rather than strutting their own stuff. In many ways. Conway’s playing—and this recording—should be taken up as a model by younger players.
The supporting cast is an impressive crew; the ubiquitous John Doyle on guitar and also Mark Simos, whose intricate accompaniment style is a perfect foil; Felix Dolan on piano, Myron Bretholz on bodhran and Pat Kilbride on cittern. And there are a few gems with Andy McGann (one of Conway’s teachers) and Pat Mangan (his star pupil) playing fiddle along with him; to hear The Blackberry Blossom with these three playing in unison is a treat indeed. It is an album that was long in gestation, taking five years to come to fruit. The result is a balanced, thought out recording that is making a splash in the traditional Irish community. Very recommended.
First through the Gate/Brian Conway Essay by Earle Hitchner
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In From Shore to Shore, a widely praised 1993 film documentary focusing on Irish traditional music i...In From Shore to Shore, a widely praised 1993 film documentary focusing on Irish traditional music in New York City, fiddler Brian Conway acknowledged that some have labeled him a musical conservative. But as First Through the Gate brilliantly demonstrates, he's really a musical conservationist, preserving and passing along the best of the past while melding it with the talent and imagination of the present.
"You need change and variety and growth in Irish traditional music, but not at the expense of abandoning its roots," Brian explains. "To be your own player while staying within certain boundaries is more of a challenge than to erase all boundaries. Those boundaries can be hard to define, but when you're brought up with them, they become second nature, and you can also recognize when they're being broken or set aside."
From James "Lad" O'Beirne (1911-1980), an exceptional, underappreciated Sligo fiddler who moved to New York City in 1928 and later visited the Conway home on two occasions, Brian directly absorbed "the idea of not forgetting what the tune should sound like. You can embellish, but not to the point where the melody becomes subordinate to style. Otherwise, the tune will morph in every generation of players to the point where it may be significantly different from what the composer intended." That's not rigidity. That's respect. It permeates Brian's long-awaited, stunning solo debut here, and has been ingrained in him from the moment he expressed interest in playing Irish traditional music.
Born in the Bronx, New York, on June 16, 1961, Brian was encouraged early on in music by his parents, both from County Tyrone. His father, Jim, emigrated from Plumbridge; his mother, Rose, came from Newtownstewart, and together they raised five children: Sean, Brian, Rose, Paul, and James. "My mother played the classical violin when she was younger, and my father played the violin around the house and was a good Ulster player," Brian says. "He didn't play in a real strong traditional style, so he was aware of his shortcomings in that regard and had wanted his sons to play in a traditional style. I was 10, my brother Sean was 11, and we both went to fiddle lessons." (Younger sister Rose would also pursue fiddling, and in 1985 she appeared on Cherish the Ladies for Shanachie Records.)
The instructor to whom Brian and Sean went initially was another Bronx resident, Martin Mulvihill (1923-1987), a fiddler from Ballygoughlin, County Limerick, and one of the most renowned teachers of Irish traditional music in America. Brian's tutelage, however, started shakily in early 1972. "My first lesson was an outright disaster," he says. "My brother Sean had a clue. I didn't. I couldn't even play one string at a time. The first three months, I was overwhelmed and discouraged, but still making some progress. Sean was doing really well. My father took me aside and told me he'd thought that I'd be the one who would be advancing. I was motivated by the disappointment I heard in his voice to not let him down, and I just lit a fire under myself to do better. Within weeks, the fiddling took hold for me."
Another teacher-student relationship, the kind forever altering the course and outlook of any impressionable child's life, developed shortly thereafter. Brian's father reconnected with an old friend in the South Bronx, Martin Wynne (1913-1998), a fiddler from Bunnanaddan, County Sligo, who had been taught by Philip O'Beirne, father of Lad O'Beirne and instructor of Sligo legend Michael Coleman. A great admirer of the Sligo fiddling style, Jim Conway persuaded Martin to tutor his son.
"I started to have lessons with Martin through the mail," Brian says. "He was a very shy, reclusive person back then, and he sent me the crossbowing on the second part of 'The Mason's Apron,' and right after that, he allowed us to visit his house in the Bronx. We befriended him, and he basically became a member of the family."
For a time, Brian had two exceptional teachers: Martin Mulvihill and Martin Wynne. "Both had no ego," Brian says. "Neither one minded that I was going to the other for lessons. In fact, Martin Mulvihill was ecstatic when he found out that my father was a friend of Martin Wynne. It was the best of both worlds."
In 1973, just a year and a half after he took up the fiddle, Brian won his first All-Ireland title at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Listowel, County Kerry. He was 12 years old, and the adjudicator, Chieftains' fiddler Seán Keane, praised his approach to playing. The next year, Brian won his second All-Ireland championship, and in 1986 he won the All-Ireland senior fiddle title, becoming only the fourth American to achieve this feat.
From his high-school to his early college years, Brian soaked up the informal musicmaking at his parents' home on Friday nights, when button accordionist Dave Collins, flutist Gus Collins (no relation), and fiddlers Martin Wynne, Andy McGann, Paddy Reynolds, Louis Quinn, Tom Connolly, and Vincent Harrison would drop by. They all influenced his fiddling. "I had more older friends than most kids my age," he admits. Other traditional musicians who shaped his style and repertoire included fiddlers Paddy Glackin, James Kelly, and Seán Maguire, who "adds a playfulness and sense
of humor to his music," Brian points out.
What he received from Martin Wynne was much more than mere tunes and tutelage. "He gave me a deep love for the music and a sense of humility, something you can't get from a teacher in a sterile setting," Brian remembers. "He also told these wonderful stories of musicians he knew and places he'd been. I'd hear how other fiddlers played certain tunes, going all the way back to the 1930s, giving me insight early on that you can approach a tune in many different ways. I'm lucky in that as an American, I had as good an environment to learn in as anybody living in Ireland. I had Martin Wynne almost every Friday night, plus Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas."
What Brian received from Andy McGann, who was born in Harlem and had gotten tips in fiddling from Michael Coleman himself, was a keen appreciation of pace and musicality. "Andy is one of my idols," Brian says. "My father first took me to see him play at a feis, where I fell in love with his playing. Later, still under age, I'd sip a Coke at a pub where Andy was playing and just watch him. When he took a break, I'd ask him about something he did in his fiddling, and we became friends. It was by watching and listening
to Andy that I began to understand the challenge of making music sound lively at a moderate tempo. I think he's better than anyone else on this planet at doing that."
The combination of his father's encouragement and unerring ear for Irish music, his mother's selflessness in transporting him to lessons and hosting the Friday night house sessions, Martin Wynne's attention to detail and formal instruction that deepened into friendship, Dave Collins's support and inspiration, and Andy McGann's example and mentorship provided Brian with the strongest of musical foundations on which to build. And build he did.
At age 16, he was invited by Limerick-born singer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney to appear on Irish Traditional Instrumental Music From the East Coast of America, Volume 1 (Rounder, 1977; reissued on CD asTraditional Irish Music in America: The East Coast in 2001). Brian recorded a pair of reels as a solo and joined fellow New York fiddler Tony DeMarco for another pair of reels, where "the tightness of the playing is comparable to Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds at their best," Moloney notes.
That latter track was a foretaste of a full album by the two fiddlers, The Apple in Winter (Green Linnet, 1981; reissued on CD in 2000), capturing New York City's Sligo fiddling sound at its most impressive. "I was 15 when I started playing with Tony," Brian recalls. "He was one of the people who started coming regularly to the house on Friday nights. One of those Friday nights, [Green Linnet's] Wendy Newton visited and liked what she heard, and we wound up recording the album over a weekend in Connecticut. We were ready, too. Most of the tunes we had learned from each other and from Martin Wynne."
The respect Brian and Tony had for the musicians who inspired them was plainly visible in the two vintage black-and-white photos they included on the LP's back cover and in the CD booklet. One was of the Paddy Killoran Traditional Irish Music Club in 1958, with Martin Wynne standing in the back, and the other shot was of fiddlers Andy McGann, Lad O'Beirne, Louis Quinn, and Ed Reavy sitting with other performers.
In 1983, Brian was invited by famed Galway button accordionist Joe Burke to play with him on a pair of hornpipes for The Tailor's Choice (Green Linnet). On that album, Burke referred to Brian as "one of the best fiddlers of his generation," a reputation he strengthened eight years later on another album, My Love Is in America (Green Linnet), featuring 16 U. S.-resident Irish fiddlers who convened for a historic 1990 concert at Boston College. Aside from their solos, Brian and Tony DeMarco joined 76-year-old Martin Wynne on a pair of reels, the first of which, fittingly enough, was called "Lad O'Beirne's."
Among other recordings on which Brian appears are the Garryowen Ceili Band's From the Shores of America (Ceile, 1976), The Rights of Man: The Concert for Joseph Doherty (Green Linnet, 1991), Dan Milner and Bob Conroy's Irish in America (Folk-Legacy, 2001), Julee Glaub's Fields Faraway (2001), and the solo debut scheduled for 2002 by young Brooklyn-born fiddler Patrick Mangan.
Winner of All-Ireland junior titles in 1994 and 1999, Mangan is proof positive of another formidable Conway talent, teaching. (Maeve Flanagan, Rose's daughter, is also a prize pupil of his, winning an All-Ireland junior fiddle title in 2001.) Brian and Patrick collaborate on three tracks here, including, with Andy McGann, two that underscore the remarkable mentoring chain linking Coleman, McGann, Conway, and Mangan, all Sligo-style fiddlers in New York City. But "you're not listening to Michael Coleman in the 1920s on this CD, nor Andy McGann in the 1970s," Brian insists. "You're hearing something that's a logical musical progression from that. My playing is not a copycat of Andy's, and Pat's is not a copycat of mine."
Begun in 1997, First Through the Gate was recorded piecemeal-an approach that Brian, who works as a lawyer in the Westchester County district attorney's office in White Plains, N.Y., found comfortable and fruitful. "It's better than just bashing it out all in one short period," he says. "This way, I get to reconsider what I've done so that it passes muster. I have to say I'm very happy with how it turned out and with the contributions of all the other musicians. Andy, for example, was a rock in the studio and just nailed the
three tracks he's on."
Besides McGann and Mangan, those other musicians-pianist Felix Dolan, guitarists Mark Simos and John Doyle, bodhrán and bones player Myron Bretholz, cittern player Pat Kilbride-wisely keep Brian's own fiddling front and center on the remaining tracks. Typical of the album is his playing of the reels "The Spike Island Lasses / Tom Moylan's Frolics," an exemplary blend of technique and passion, done at a tempo reflecting the truism that if you drive too fast, you'll miss a lot of the scenery along the way.
Nothing is missed or missing in Brian Conway's fiddling. From hop jigs, hornpipes, and highlands to the slow air "Were You at the Rock?" he performs with a skill, grace, and force that are steeped in tradition but distinctively his own. "My father was my first and most important audience," Brian says, and the crucial motivation Jim Conway (1916-1991) gave his son back in the early 1970s has blossomed into the extraordinary musicianship heard on First Through the Gate. That title comes from a line in William Butler Yeats's popular poem of 1899, "The Fiddler of Dooney." In it, the fiddler (appropriately from County Sligo) expresses the hope that after he dies, St. Peter, heaven's gatekeeper, will "call me first through the gate."
If he played as well as Brian does here, he'd be a shoo-in.
-New York, January 2002
Brian Conway First through the Gate Review by Earle Hitchner
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**First through the Gate was voted CD of the Year in this review by Earle Hitchner** Since its re...**First through the Gate was voted CD of the Year in this review by Earle Hitchner**
Since its release in early August, this album, produced by Conway and Edward Haber, has been the benchmark against which I've compared every other Irish traditional release in 2002. Strip away the impressive packaging (29-page booklet of essays, tune descriptions, and discography), and you still have the best Irish traditional music recorded last year. This long-anticipated solo debut from one of Irish America's most accomplished, if sometimes overlooked, fiddlers was well worth the wait. The production is clean and defined, the concept and execution are masterful, and the spotlighted playing by Conway is stirring throughout.
Born in the Bronx and now living in Ossining, N.Y., this three-time All-Ireland champion fiddler applies his New York Sligo-style skill with utmost taste and conviction. Conway's playing of "The Mullingar Lea/Dowd's No. 9/The Lass of Carracastle," for example, illustrates how respectfully, not slavishly, he sticks to tradition. He strikes an ideal balance between upholding the integrity of a melody and enriching it with a prodigious, never-over-the-top technique.
A further measure of his sway with the bow can be heard in the performances he inspired from both his mentor and his pupil: Andy McGann and Patrick Mangan. Those tracks are priceless, but then, everything about Brian Conway's "First Through the Gate" is an unabated pleasure. This album goes beyond mere recommendation. It's essential.