Joe McKenna - "The Irish Low Whistle" - Shanachie 78043

Joe McKenna's might not be the first name you associate with the low whistle: he's probably better known as a piper, and even as a manager and promoter of traditional Irish musicians. Those of you who have heard him play live recently, or are familiar with his group Slua Nua, will know that his exhuberant piping is complemented by deft and tasteful whistle playing, and a quick listen to this CD will confirm that Joe McKenna is a top-flight performer on the low whistle. The release of this recording, Joe's first solo credit, should establish his whistling credentials beyond any doubt.

More leisurely listening shows that Joe is a master of several styles on the low whistle. On some tracks he transfers piping technique directly onto the whistle, which is not always successful (something about the volume velocity, or the source characteristics, probably) but which makes for exciting and fluid dance music. Faster tunes such as Colonel Fraser and Tommy Peoples' Reel with its abrupt ending show both the possibilities and the limitations of this challenging instrument. It's interesting to compare the Stone in the Field set, the only piping track on this CD, with the following set of reels on the low whistle.

The misty, moody, sometimes mushy aspect of big whistles is more well known. Joe provides some fine examples, avoiding the trap of new-age vacuousness. On two of his own compositions he indulges in world-music accompaniments, but both tunes are robust enough to take it and it works well, especially behind the monster Bb low whistle used for Behind the Trees in the Forest: this 7-minute track is one of the highlights. Sister Antoinette's air When Evening Comes Around and the currently popular Caoimeadh Eoghain Rua are more traditional in feel, and more like previous McKenna albums.

Among several other medium-paced tracks, the two which stand out are Joe's duets with Mary Bergin. The combination of low and high whistles is extremely effective, and Mary's instantly recognisable brilliance is the perfect complement to the earthier tones of the big instrument. In the Mooncoin Jig set, the use of two mid-pitched whistles is a lovely innovation.

This a well-thought-out recording, full of fine music. It's also a superb showcase for the low whistle and for Joe's considerable talents as a composer and performer of Irish music. Well worth a listen, I'd say, especially if you're a whistle player. At 44 minutes there would have been room for a couple more tracks of Joe's world-class piping, but I suppose we'll have to make do with the eleven tracks here until he gets round to making another CD.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 44 of The Living Tradition magazine.