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(Above: John McKenna's flute as recently worked on by Hammy Hamilton)

 

This is McKenna's version of the jig commonly called The Butcher's March.

This setting is very nice indeed and makes for more dynamic playing than the popular session version, particularly in the second part. The EF#G in the second bar of the second part is lovely, as is the fact that McKenna is playing it in the low octave in the first phrase and then bumping it up to the high octave when it repeats in the next phrase.

The first part is melodically more interesting than the standard setting to my ear. The F# to the G in the fourth bar is great, as is the DC#B A. of the sixth bar.

Needless to say the brilliant, seemingly effortless articulation is carried over from the first tune. My effort is a bit edgy by comparison... horses for courses!

In the clip below I start by playing slowly more-or-less what McKenna is doing melodically, then I play it up to speed, and then to finish I play an example of the sort of breath pattern I used to put a bit of welly into it.

Regards,

Harry.

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[Track numbers refer to the new Double CD of John McKenna's complete recordings. The cover above is of a previous audio cassette format release of a selection of his recorded output] 

This is McKenna's two part version of the jig commonly called The Wandering Minstrel. Packie Duignan played it like this, and this is the way it's still played in South Roscommon and Leitrim.

A few things I note here are:

1) McKenna's bottom D - he gets a great tone out of it even though he's hitting it with really fast articulations: If you want to improve your tone all over then just learn to do that (it takes time, focus and plenty of playing).

2) He's doing something odd on the high F sharp of the first bar of the second part and its repeats: a contemporary player might be inclined to put in a roll there, but McKenna is articulating the F notes and separating the last two with a grace note (sounds like a tap to me). He's varying it too, so it's not always exactly the same, but whatever it is it seems to rely on his articulation from the breath. I try it on the recording but don't achieve the fluency McKenna did it with.

3) From the start of the third time round of the tune he starts to put in a nice little variation on the first bars of the first part: ADD BAF# becomes DF#F# BAF. I do this going into the second time round of the tune in the recording below.

4) He's playing a VERY throat-articulated jig rhythm; very crisp and pronounced and precise. He's also doing it EXTREMELY FAST and with uncanny fluency: it never sounds forced from McKenna. This is not at all easy to do and is the hallmark of a very accomplished player (particularly in that the listener might not even realise he's doing much... a good indication of mastery).

Again, I've played the tune slow with some bit of the breath pulse rhythm through it, then I play it faster a couple of times, and then I play the rhythmic pulses on their own on the note A. When I speed up I'm playing the pulses as I'd employ them for the first part of this jig.

Regards,

Harry.

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Hear this track on Youtube HERE.

This second reel of track 1 on the new John McKenna double CD is still pretty commonly played. There's not an awful lot to distinguish it melodically from popularly played versions except maybe the long C natural and B at the end of the second part, which lend it a somewhat plaintive quality.

A few things that stand out to me in this one are: 1) McKenna's precise, and sometimes very emphatic, articulation of the DG G roll G of the first bar 2) the fact that he doesn't use cuts to accentuate the high Gs of the first couple of bars of the second part (he relies instead on the great precision of his breath articulation for emphasis) and 3) the brilliant phrasing and rhythm generally!

Again, McKenna is deviating slightly from what Morrison is doing in a few places, but it is hard to distinguish exactly what he is doing behind the fiddle there. The version I play here is my take on the gist of what he's at.

As in the previous posting, I've played the tune slowly with some estimation of the breath pattern throughout; then I play it up to speed; then I play the pattern of breath pulses I used first slowly and then up to speed.

Regards,

Harry.

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Well, here's the first in the McKenna series of posts. I'll 'start from the start' I suppose, so this is the first tune on the first track of the new double CD of the McKenna recordings. You can buy the package HERE.

This is one of the more well-known tracks, a very fine duet with fiddler James Morrison, that has appeared in several reissue compilations. You can also listen to it on Youtube HERE.

There are a couple of interesting points regarding the melody as played by the dynamic duo. First is that McKenna doesn't do exactly what Morrison does in the first part, or vice versa. In the third bar, McKenna does not repeat the roll on the A as Morrison does; he plays AABA instead. Another unusual feature is the DC#D at the ends of the phrases of the second part which give it nice distinction from how it is generally played in sessions these days. I include both these features in the clip attached below.

Possibly the most defining feature of the track however is the accented rhythm that the duet achieve. McKenna played with accented rhythms anyway, but Morrison played with even more of a swagger, and the two of them together make dynamite! McKenna is accenting the melody with breath pulses to get that relentless, forward skip that is so nice to listen to in his playing.

In the clip below I initially play the tune slowly, but with an approximation of the breath pulses throughout. This is achieved by articulation from the throat. It's important not to overdo it (I tend to play a bit stronger than McKenna did in this regards) particularly not to make it too staccato or 'spiky': It's a pulse, not somebody hitting a snare drum. I do this with throat articulation... a sort of 'huh' sound in the throat, a little push from there. It SHOULD NOT stop the air stream, so it is not a 'stop', but a pulse in the continuing tone.

That's the way I do it anyway. I demonstrate this in a bit of 'pulsing' on the A note after I play the melody on the attached MP3 clip. The pattern I play represents the pattern of pulses I would employ in the playing the first part of the tune, first slow and then up to speed. In this way every note gets pronounced/articulated.

The principle of that articulation technique is very easy, but it can take a lot of practice to get it working so that it sounds good and coordinated with what your fingers are doing. In fact, it might sound like shit for a while. So, give yourself some months/years to internalise it, and I recommend that anyone interested in playing like that practice making the rhythm on one note, as in the clip I recorded.

I think the folks involved have made a great job of the double CD release BTW, so needless to say I recommend you buy it if at all interested.

Until next tune,

Harry.

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Well, I was up to my blow pipe in exams and assignments there for a few months, so there was little elbow room for error, and now there is something important about to happen in the parallel universe of flute playing that is demanding my attention...

 

To celebrate the immanent release of the Complete Recordings of John McKenna I'm going to be giving my elbows even more of a rest and posting a few McKenna-inspired flute playing efforts here.

 

I'll be looking at some of the distinctive features of a clatter of my favourite recordings of his, particularly rhythm and how his rhythmic approach affected his sense of melody. The point is to enjoy the recordings and get inspired by and learn a bit from them. It's not my intention to just copy them for the sake of it: McKenna already did McKenna much better than I ever could.

 

It may be of interest to anyone who'd like to bring a bit of his approach into their own flute playing. Pipers are also invited, if they behave themselves. I may also sneak in the odd piping track now and again if I find time. You have been warned.

 

The double CD of 'The Complete Recordings' will soon be available to buy. I'll post links when it's up online.

 

Regards,

Harry.

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