September CD Reviews

Dan Gurney, “Ignorance Is Bliss” • A native of New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley, Gurney is a cross-platform app developer, co-founder of the live web-broadcasting site Concert Window, and not so incidentally, one of the country’s finest traditional Irish accordion players. “I like knowing how things work – finding answers,” he writes in the sleeve notes of this album, his second solo release. He certainly knows how Irish music works, what with a portfolio that includes the sadly-seldom-seen quartet The Yanks – though he’s partnered regularly with his fellow Yank, fiddler Dylan Foley – and the company of luminaries like Dolores Keane, Mick Conneely, Ronan O’Flaherty and the inimitable Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, plus nine medals at various Fleadh Cheoil music competitions.

Yet as Gurney further explains, with Irish music he doesn’t feel compelled to be a wonk: “When I analyze Irish music too much, I start having less fun. The music goes deep as you want to dig, but I have the most fun when I remember ‘Ignorance is bliss.’”

This simple-is-best philosophy is reflected in Gurney’s two albums (as well as his collaboration with Foley): a straight-ahead approach that puts melody front and center, with minimal arrangement and solid, steady accompaniment – in this case by guitarist John Blake. Not that Gurney’s playing is simplistic: The crystal-clear quality of the recording effectively captures his techniques and craft, whether it’s his use of triplets and rolls or deployment of bass chords, and all delivered in tempos that are crisp but leisurely (such as on a pair of jigs, “Blasket Island/My Wife’s a Wanton Wee Thing,” that he plays solo) – and measured and patient for the lovely air “Taimse Im’ Chodlah,” which he learned from the singing of Dolores Keane during a sojourn in Galway.

It’s all quite simply a feel-good affair, listening to Gurney and Blake’s takes on some fine traditional tunes, like the set of reels “Tim Moloney’s/Molloy’s Favorite/The Boy in the Gap,” the latter he credits to Boston-area flute player Jimmy Noonan (and “one of many memorable nights at J.J.’s Pub in Dorchester”); or a pair of jigs “The Woods of Caol Rua/Miss Walsh’s,” the first of which is a John Dwyer composition, the second a tune Gurney learned from one of his greatest mentors, Fr. Charlie Coen.

Throughout the CD’s sleeve notes, Gurney readily acknowledges the influence and guidance of many musicians like Noonan and Fr. Coen, and especially Seamus Connolly, who also wrote an introduction for the album’s booklet. Connolly at one point quotes the composer Gustav Mahler, “What is best in music is not to be found in the notes,” which neatly sits alongside Gurney’s aforementioned explanation for the album title. If this is ignorance, let’s make the most of it. []

Aidan O’Rourke, “365: Volume 1” • Last month’s review of Karine Polwart’s “A Pocket of Wind Resistance” noted the persistence of the concept album, even in the digital music age where playlists of random, wide-ranging individual recorded tracks are eclipsing the traditional LP/cassette/CD album format. Equally ambitious as Polwart’s “Wind Resistance” is this new release by O’Rourke, fiddler for the genre-breaking Scottish trio LAU: a musical interpretation of the collection of short stories that Scottish author James Robertson penned daily over the course of a year, all of them exactly 365 words long (hence the “365” title). As O’Rourke explains in the liner notes, he intends to compose a piece in response to each story, writing “in the moment” to capture the pure, unfiltered emotions and impressions he experienced reading them. The 22 tracks, spread across two CDs, are the first cohort of his compositions, with piano and harmonium accompaniment by Kit Downes.

On the face of it, this seems very much like a “high-concept” album, i.e., one that may challenge the listener to do more than just listen – although that’s certainly an option. And in fact there are a few ways one could approach “365”: You can read the text of each story (provided in the liner notes) while you listen to its corresponding track; read first, then listen, or vice-versa; or read and listen at completely separate times. The investment in both activities ultimately proves worthwhile. Robertson’s stories are diverse in style, scope and tone: Some, like “Freedom” and “Jack and the Dog,” take on the form and content of fables or folk tales; “Hotel,” “The Hand,” “Bedtime” and “Birthday” center on moments of personal revelation, and perhaps unsettling clarity; “The Abbot” is gripping in its immediacy, and in the resolve of the titular character as he contemplates the certainty of death – which is the subject, and narrator, for “Death, the Shapeshifter”; “The Last Elephant” is an all-too-realistic and sardonic imagining of global and personal response to an imminent tragedy.

Similarly, O’Rourke’s pieces traverse genres, from infusions of folk and traditional styles to classical to jazz to avant-garde. The interplay and rapport between O’Rourke and Downes is often riveting, such as when they swap lead and rhythm on “The Man in the Bus”, or “Death, the Shapeshifter,” where Downes’s austere harmonium invention is subsequently joined by O’Rourke’s rich, lower-voiced bowings.

The extent of your investment in “365” may spur you to think about how music and text correspond with or complement one another, and how this compares to a film soundtrack. But the most immediate question may be, can you appreciate a concept album without having to engage the concept? In other words, can you just listen to “365” for the sake of listening to it? Sure. This album is overall a subdued and spare work, and you can get lost at times among its pensive, brooding passages, but then suddenly find yourself drawn to an intricate duet, a sudden flourish from fiddle or keyboard. So go forth into “365: Volume 1,” and consider what might await you in “Volume 2.” []