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Archive for the 'McKenna Project' Category

This setting of the popular song air is the tune that James Morrison and McKenna place before the more commonly played "Trippin' on the Mountain".

It makes for a nice dance tune, and McKenna achieves a really solid tone and a nice buoyant rhythmic momentum that brings it out well.

In the clip below I play a bit of the sort breath articulation that I used, and then I play the melody.

There are a couple of nice turns that are a little different from the standard song version such as the first few notes of the first part and McKenna's hopping down to the B from the high Es in the 2nd and 6th bars of the second part.



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John McKenna was quite fond of putting slip jigs after jigs on his recordings. Unfortunately, the change in phrasing from double jig to slip jig on this track completely throws an already struggling piano accompanist. The piano's ham-fisted sonic and rhythmic brutality renders the melody quite hard to follow, which is a pity, because it's a nice tune with some unusual features... and this from someone who is very used to 'unhearing' ropey accompaniment on old recordings.

McKenna plays this on an F flute with a remarkably clear and focused tone. He gets a great pace and emphasis going despite the piano's best efforts to rugby tackle him to the floor of the studio and jump on his ear.

He's doing some interesting things on the low G 'rolls' of the second part: Sometimes he sounds like he's playing a short roll, then it sounds like he's articulating the G notes with his breath and tapping out a grace note or two for a different effect.

In the clip below I play a bit of the rhythmic pulse of slip jig rhythm and phrasing as it might be used in the first part of this tune,then I play 

the melody slowly and up to speed.

The double jig on this track is a very nice setting of the common tune 'Behind the Haystack' but with only 2 parts and in G. He has some great turns in it.

The slip jig is one of the lesser know McKenna tunes however. I've never met anyone else who plays it.



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To shake things up a bit I've decided to break from the running order of the CDs and hop forward to a few of the less well known McKenna tunes.

This track is a duet with banjoist Michael Gaffney.

McKenna's playing of this reel does not display the more energetic/emphatic rhythmic drive and pace of some other reel tracks; he goes for a relatively laid back bouncy momentum here but turns on some nice choppy articulation in places, particularly at the downward run at the end of the first phrase of the first part where he's varying the melody by alternating bouncing up to A notes while bumping the lower notes up to the second octave.

His rolls are very nicely articulated with pushes from the breath.

Another nice touch is the shneaky triplet on the E he slips in on the last run of the second part. Doing things with the E is all the talk here in drug-crazed pre-Paddy's Day Ireland at the moment.

I play the sort of breath emphasis employed, then the basic melody slowed down, and then I play both speeded up.

I got a bit excited by revisiting this tune, so my attempt at it below is quite a bit more boisterous than McKenna's fine take on it. It's a tasty one on the flute!



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This is a lovely version of the famous reel.

McKenna hits on a great melodic take on it with some very nice rhythmic 'flutey' devices in the second part where he's hoping between low Bs and second octave notes. He's also playing very fast while maintaining a great pattern of articulation that carries it all along. His rolls are brilliantly articulated and percussive.

Clearly, this version is different than the session-grade standard as, among other features, it doesn't go to the long F sharp at the start of the second part thereby bringing it into the key of D major. In this way it is similar to a few of the old piping versions as played by Seamus Ennis and Tommy Reck.

Going from the F sharps to the high A in the fourth bar of the second part is nice and distinctive, as is his hopping the last runs of the first and second parts up to the high octave. There's a wealth of great melodic intelligence and experience in his couple of minute's music.

In the clip below I play the sort of pulse McKenna employs to lay down the rhythm, then I play an approximation of the basic melody slowly then speeded up. Again, bear in mind that I tend to play more emphatically and with a different tone from McKenna in this regard.


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As for the first polka of this set, in the clip below I play the sort of rhythmic pulse pattern that McKenna employs to get his distinctive rhythm going through the melody as it might be done for the first part of this tune.

In the second bar of the second part we can hear how he pulses through the long, high F sharp. The effect is almost like a triplet in places, and he brings this out further on occasion with a tap of the finger.

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Fig.1: Lassie.

McKenna plays this at an easy going pace with a slight bouncy breath pulse to help it along. I play the sort of pulse employed at the start of the clip below. This is how it might be used to match the melody in the first part of this tune.

Again, he's playing with a great tone here. I like what he does with the long high G in the 4th bar of the second part: he really draws it out and plays it expressively.

The little triplet runs down from the high G elsewhere are also a nice, distinctive touch.


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This is another famous track where McKenna alternates flute with lilting... good crack! This first tune of track 6 is otherwise know as 'Johnny With the Queer Thing' ... the sailor lads above seem to be enjoying themselves.

What's apparent on this track is that the tone he's getting is really classy: clear as a bell and very consistent (I don't aspire to that sort of tone, so the difference will be apparent in my effort below).

This version is a bit different to standard session settings of the melody. The A rolls and the little drop to the C sharp are nice touches in the first two bars of the second part, and he throws in a surprise variation on the final run of the second part in his third time round on the flute.

In the clip below I play a slowed down example of the sort of articulated breath pulse that he employs to get a nice, jaunty rhythm, then I play the melody slowly then up to speed.


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This is the second reel in the Rollicking Irishman set.

McKenna leans into a bit more of a swing rhythm on this, and it's a tune that lends itself very nicely to that on the flute.

His breaths stick almost exclusively to the ends of the four bar phrases of the melody in contrast to the last one where he avoided doing that so as to have the first and second parts flow into each other.

As in some other tracks he's playing C natural quite sharp, an effect that I've approximated by playing the C natural cross-fingering with just one finger instead of two. He does consistently play C naturals in other places, so the sharp C naturals are likely just a feature of an intonation that he preferred in certain tunes.

Again, this is played on a flute pitched in F made by Tom Aebi.


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...Now, there's a right decent rollicking Irish chap for you.

This is McKenna's setting of a reel which seems quite related to big reels like 'The Merry Harriers' and 'The Merry Sisters' (it's all very merry).

Couple of things that my lug notes here:

1. McKenna is not playing this with the vigourous swing rhythm that he employs in other reel performances. He's playing more straight to the down beat (ONE two ONE two ONE two...) I play a bit of that sort of pulse at the start of the clip below.

2.Phrasing (i.e. both the melodic phrases of the melody AND the places where he takes breaths): He avoids taking breaths at the ends of the parts so as to retain the nice dynamic thing in the melody where the parts are propelled into each other. Also, he does his 'big dramatic pause/breath' thing at the end of the second part every time round of the tune. He does this in other reels too. He doesn't really need to take a breath that long, so it's likely just a quirky feature of how he phrased things, and it serves to announce the end of one round of the melody and propel it into the next round after the stop.

BTW, McKenna plays this on a flute pitched around F so, for a change, I play the clip below on an F flute made by Tom Aebi.




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Here's the second tune of track 4, a reel more popularly known as 'Miss Thorntons'.

A few things I note:

The Cs in this tune generally sound closer to C sharp, rather than the C naturals one might expect of a tune in G major. This emphasises the slightly different melody that McKenna plays at the end of both 4-bar phrases of the first part.

The way he plays the start of the 2-bar phrases of the second part is nice... bg g(roll) agbg... and he reverts to the more standard melodic bit there for the third 2-bar phrase... bg g(roll) bgag... He varies that a bit though.

Some of the rolls on high G that he's doing in bars 4 and 8 of the second part sound very like double-cut rolls, that is, rolls with (at least) two upper grace notes instead of one. These almost sound like trills in a couple of places.

He lashes into a very articulated rhythm in places in the more notey and dynamic first part. I've tried to demonstrate something like that breath pattern at the end of the track below, but do bear in mind that I can't yet do this with anything like the fluency, speed, and seeming effortlessness, of McKenna.

Some people think McKenna's music is sort of wild and huffy. It's not. It is highly thought out and he is doing specific things for specific effects. Some people seem to think what he was doing was sort of primitive and easy. It's not. It is highly technical and he had developed techniques that a majority of contemporary players just don't have a clue about so as to be able to recognise and appreciate them.




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