Self-Issued CD (1998)
This brave (indeed almost foolhardy) recording project was undertaken by Philadelphia's elder statesman of the uillean pipes, Thomas Standeven. It's a double CD, 43 track, 146 minute compilation of tunes played by John Vesey, who was one of Philadelphia's finest Irish fiddlers until his death in 1995. Most of these tapes were personal, homemade recordings of house visits in which Standeven, Vesey, and several other friends met to swap tunes. Certainly, they were never intended as an album! Add to this the fact that Standeven has used the tapes well over the years, listening to them and learning from them many times over, and you'll get a sense of the recording quality. Miraculously, though, they are well-balanced and clean-sounding tapes despite all, and a good portion of this CD project sounds remarkably professional.
A few words about Vesey's music; his fiddle style was well within the Sligo tradition. He himself came from Ballincurry in rural south Sligo. His first teacher was Michael Gorman, the Sligoman who became so popular in London Irish circles in the 1950s and '60s. He also listened to records of Paddy Killoran, James Morrison and Michael Coleman - Sligo players all - while growing up in Ireland in the '30s and '40s. The influence of all these masters is quite evident in his playing and his settings of tunes. He does appear to me to be on the quick end of the already fast Sligo style, which made his fiddling intense and lively. He had a sure grasp of both ornamentation and variation, which ensures that his playing on these discs doesn't get tedious.
Still, it must be said that 146 minutes is long to listen to any one musician or indeed to any one instrument, let alone to old and imperfect 'field-type' recordings. Some of the tracks feature a piper, a flute or piccolo player, or another fiddler accompanying Vesey; practically all of them feature piano accompaniment, usually provided by Standeven himself. Several of the ensemble pieces get wild and wooly, in some the musicians are out of synch, in others the microphone was too close to the piano, and in a few the fiddle sounds overly shrill and tinny - in other words, there are some pieces that could have been left off. For all these reasons, I doubt if anyone will listen right through this opus from beginning to end. On the other hand, the album presents a warts-and-all slice of traditional music making by a master, which is in itself a rare thing. Moreover, it's an uncommon glimpse of Philadelphia's Irish music community, which has always tended to get overshadowed by New York's. It includes some of the only recordings I've ever heard of legendary live radio shows, to boot, complete with a slick-voiced announcer trying to sound clever - at one point he keeps interrupting Vesey and finally gets his chance to say "I like those chromatic slides across all four strings, John!"
If nothing else, this recording has enormous historical value, which is only enhanced by Standeven's booklet of notes. He explains the basic whos, wheres and whens of each tune, as well as what information he has on the composers, the players, and Vesey's relationship to the tune. In one case, he recounts an anecdote of Vesey refusing for years to admit that he ever played the set dance King of the Fairies, until Standeven confronted him with the tape that ended up as track 9. You wonder how Vesey ever had such a sure touch on the tune, and such a personal setting, only to forget all about it! The anecdote ends with Standeven playing the tape for Vesey. He then comments, "we both enjoyed a little humor on that occasion," which gives an excellent sense of the piper's charmingly formal way of speaking.
One question that pops to mind is whether the somewhat philosophical conversation at the beginning of the notes between Vesey and Willie Clancy was captured on tape, or whether Standeven reconstructed it from memory. I rather suspect the latter, but if it's the former it would have been wonderful for the talk to have been included on the CD as well!
Historical interest, philosophical ramblings, and charming anecdotes aside, Sligo Fiddler mainly presents a wealth of tunes, for listening and learning. You might have to nibble this one a bit at a time, for as Vesey once said about a favorite reel, "there's a lot of music in this one!"
This CD is available from: www.sligofiddler.com
Steve Winick - 26.6.00
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