Some people remember where they were the precise moment when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Others, their first kiss. Me, I remember the precise time and location when I first heard Conal Ó Gráda's first album, The Top of Coom. Some very good musical recordings express their genius in a subtlety which takes repeated listening and a deep knowledge of the musical context of the album to truly comprehend. Not so with The Top of Coom; it grabbed my ears the second I first heard it, and immediately changed my mind about the kind of sounds and rhythm that it was possible to produce on a wooden flute.
Ó Gráda plays with a precise rhythm and a wide range of timbre. His use of fingered ornamentation is not excessive; most of what sets his style apart from others comes from his rhythm and versatile breath control. He can play as gently as anybody, but he can also drive the flute to a resonant, coarse tone which begins to push the boundaries of what we would think of as the sound of a wind instrument. As well anything in between; his playing is not random bursts of noise, but rather a controlled exploration of the range of the instrument. Gary Hastings described Conal as "half man, half steam-engine." When he plays dance music, it actually makes you want to dance.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Ó Gráda has released a new album, called Cnoc Buí. How does it compare to The Top of Coom? Well, his style is recognizable from the first album; there hasn't been a day and night change in the intervening years. But the album itself is somewhat different. Save for Colm Murphy's bodhrán on a couple of tracks, the CD is entirely unaccompanied. Now, the accompanists on Ó Gráda's first album were no slouches (e.g., Arty McGlynn), but unaccompanied recordings are all too rare these days, and always pleasant to hear. Also, a notable omission from the first album, namely, polkas, has been corrected. Ó Gráda's style fits the polka rhythm very well, and Cnoc Buí includes three tracks of polkas.
With only two exceptions, all of the tunes on the CD are traditional. There is a good mix of common and less common tunes. The audio quality is good, and the sound hasn't been drowned in reverb. All of the tunes on this recording are played on the concert flute (The Top of Coom featured a couple of tracks played on the fife).
My only complaint about the CD is that there are no liner notes. It's a small thing, but I always like to read artists' comments about the tunes. But overall this is a great CD, one of my favorite this year. I've been listening to it for about two months now, and it sounds fresh every time.