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BRIAN McNAMARA 'Fort of the Jewels' Drumlin Records BMNCD2

Brian McNamara is a Leitrim piper who was featured on the excellent McNamara family CD Leitrim's Hidden Treasure in 1998, and since then he's established quite a reputation as a player and tutor. This is his second solo album, packed with pipe tunes from South Leitrim and beyond, played in Brian's distinctive style. From track 1 it's obvious that the music here is first class. The packaging is spot on too, with excellent notes and graphics.

Brian plays in a precise and measured way, taking things at a reasonable pace so all the intricacies of his fingerwork are plain to hear. His technique is more akin to the closed, staccato style of Rowsome or Ennis than the fluid open traveller style, but the notes are nicely spaced, giving an open weave to the music. Brian isn't wedded to the staccato style by any means: the slow air Dún na Séad shows all the marks of traveller piping with its wild blasts of sound and haunting slides. One of the things that makes Brian McNamara such a fine piper is his intuitive feel for the music, and he adapts his style to suit the tune rather than the other way round. The opening set of jigs includes a free-flowing interpretation of Charlie Lennon's Handsome Young Maidens, and a couple of minutes later there's a crisp controlled canter through the snappy slip-jig Top The Candle, perfect for each melody.

Brian is joined on several tracks by young harpist Gráinne Hambly, and this combination evokes the ancient glories of Irish music. There are also three powerful duet tracks with fellow piper Benedict Koehler, who also made one of the sets Brian plays here: pipe duets are rare in recorded music, and these are a treat indeed. The tunes are mostly well known: Mrs Crotty's Hornpipe, Hardiman the Fiddler, Ormond Sound and the like - but the playing is rich and intoxicating. The two pipers mix and match perfectly, complementing and exhorting each other on The Arra Mountains and a wonderfully impromptu version of The Connaught Heifers.

Highlights? Too many to list. The blaring Bs on Redican's Mother, those opening jigs starting with Paddy From Portlaw and ending with the fabulously titled I Love You Not And I Care Not, presumably an early draft of What's Love Got To Do With It? Only one third of Fort of the Jewels is given over to reels, leaving plenty of room for pieces like The Humours of Glynn and the hornpipe The Not So Bashful Bachelor which ends this most enjoyable and satisfying album. The reels, when they come, are all the better for the wait: a sumptuous version of Patsy Touhey's Favourite, the swaggering Spike Island Lasses with percussive chanter and singing regulators, and a gentle build-up to the sparkling Sandy Over The Lea on the flat pipes.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 58 of The Living Tradition magazine.