Dan Gurney enrichs status of the accordion

There are the recording projects that try a musician’s soul: long, exhausting hours in the studio spent doing take after take of the same track; fretting about various post-production details; squabbling with accompanists about this or that artistic aspect.
And then there is Dan Gurney’s new album.

Gurney, a Harvard University grad and former Boston resident now living in New York City, rolled out “Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion” earlier this year, a 15-track, all-instrumental CD featuring Gurney playing accordion solo and with accompaniment by pianist Brian McGrath. The album was recorded in a little more than three hours last August at Real World Studios in Longford, Ireland. Its tracks are arranged exactly in the order in which they were made: “The first note you hear on the album,” says Gurney, “is the first note I recorded with Brian.” Gurney had booked two additional days at the studio, but the work was essentially done by the end of the first day—the equivalent, perhaps, of driving from Boston to LA on a weeklong car rental and getting there in half the time.

Speedy and efficient use of studio time, however, is not the main criteria for evaluating a CD. Happily for Gurney, “Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion” fulfills the mission statement in its plainspoken, declarative title, spotlighting the marvelous intricacies and dynamics of both music and instrument. In reel sets, such as “The Brook/Ambrose Moloney” and “Farewell to Ireland/The Beauty Spot/The Flowers of Red Mill,” and jig medleys—“Greensleeves/Banks of Newfoundland” and “Driving the Cows Home/The Bowlegged Tailor” among them—Gurney shows himself to be less interested in break-neck tempos than in bringing out the qualities of tunes, while investing all with a considerable drive. And in presenting a repertoire tending toward less-familiar, off-the-beaten-track material that includes other types of instrumentals, such as set dances and hornpipes—and aided by research notes from Don Meade on each tune—Gurney helps, in his own way, to further enrich the place of the accordion in the Irish tradition.

The album also is a tribute—even an expression of gratitude—from Gurney to some of the most influential figures in his musical development, notably Monsignor Charlie Coen and Joe Derrane: A set of barn dances, for instance, harks back to a regularly occurring session organized by Monsignor Coen during Gurney’s early immersion into Irish music; the “Fly By Night/Eclipse” hornpipe set, meanwhile, evokes Derrane’s legendary deft touch.

A good recording, much like good luck, is supposed to be the residue of hard work. In this case, success also came from Gurney’s adherence to his goal of producing a straightforward, as-it-comes presentation of Irish music. Gurney hoped to recapture the feel of a foundational period in his life: 2009, the year he lived in Galway on a post-graduate fellowship, and devoted himself to crafting his musicianship and exploring the tradition with a renewed focus.

“I wanted to recapture the atmosphere of Galway,” says Gurney. “Although I certainly played plenty of gigs and sessions when I was there, I also spent a lot of time just playing on my own, learning tunes, working on my style. It was all very spontaneous and laid-back, and that was the sound I was looking for.”

This approach might seem a significant change of pace for Gurney, given his ample experience working in ensembles, whether as a member of fiddler/vocalist Lissa Schneckenburger’s band, in performance and recording stints with Matt and Shannon Heaton, and as part of The Hay Brigade, the folk/jazz-fusion quartet he formed with Forrest O’Connor, Duncan Wickel, and Nicky Schwartz. But where solo albums are concerned, less is more for Gurney.

“It can be distracting if you have too many accompanying musicians, or if there are a lot of arrangements,” he explains. “My favorite solo albums are simple in structure—just two musicians in a studio. And, again, that was the mindset I kept from the year in Galway.”

So Gurney reached out to McGrath, a County Fermanagh native whom he met while in Galway, and signed him up as accompanist for the recording. “What I like about Brian is that he plays banjo as well as piano,” says Gurney of McGrath, who recorded the album “Ireland’s Harvest” with Derrane and De Danann fiddler Frankie Gavin. “He knows the tunes from the perspective of a melody player, so he plays piano in a very complementary style. He gives you just the right kind of rhythm.”

Chalk it up to the right mix of personalities and talents, or a fortuitous alignment of the planets, but when Gurney and McGrath sat down in the studio and began playing into the microphones, “we just got on a roll,” says Gurney. “I had written down some sets I wanted to play, we picked them out, and everything just kind of flowed.”

Gurney also credits recording engineer Paul Gurney (no relation) for the satisfying results: “Paul is a genius with sound. He was mixing the tracks even as we were listening to them, and he got everything just right. Usually, I don’t like listening to my recordings, but I’m still enjoying this one.”

The CD over and done with, Gurney is happily settling into his new digs near the Little Italy section of New York City, having recently moved from his childhood home upstate in Dutchess County. Suffice it to say, he is no hurry to leap into a new project.
“I’d like to play some gigs, maybe get a band going,” he says, “but I’m happy to let things settle for a while.”