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Archive for the 'Reels' Category



The current series of posts on the music of Fermanagh/Belfast fluter and composer James McMahon draws to a close with this beautiful reel. The notes on the tune in CRÉ vol. IV read:

"172. Iníon Mhic Aonghusa: Miss McGuinness (Donnelly II). From James McMahon, County Fermanagh. This is not the usual reel of the same title [for which see CRÉ I 121]."

It's been interesting and fun to consider some of the transcriptions of James' tunes over the last few weeks. His music certainly deserves attention if these transcriptions are any indication of his musicality... So, "many thanks!" and "good luck!" to James McMahon. I'm sure we'll all meet again somewhere on the meandering byways of Irish music's rattle bag of repertory.

I think It's nearly time to turn the attention back to Mr. McKenna.


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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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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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Moving on to track 4 of disk 1 of the John McKenna double CD...

This tune is a perfect example of the sort of classy, jaunty rhythm that McKenna could turn on in reels. Again, he's using articulation, and doing it very fast, but in a relaxed sort of way.

The tune itself is not widely played (I've never met anyone else who plays it) but, melodically, the first part seems quite close to a reel that Tommy Reck played called 'The Snow on the Hills', while the second part is close to the second part of 'The Liffey Banks'.

Besides the rhythm a couple of things that catch my attention are:

The C notes: The tune is in G major, but he's playing some Cs that sound like full C sharps, while others sound sort of in between. In the recording attached I play the Cs with the single fingered cross fingering, so they come out a bit sharp of the standard C cross fingering with two fingers.

Phrasing: ... or where he's taking breaths. Again, a very precise and tastefully chosen approach from McKenna on the CD track. One unusual thing is where he takes a big breath before the last run of the tune. He does it every time, so I approximate this in the recording.

The little 'gfe' triplet in the second last bar is nice. Quite a piping-suggestive touch to that.

I play the tune up to speed and then demonstrate the basic sort of pulse rhythm needed to get that sort of effect. It's worth noting on the original track however that McKenna varies the emphasis, and the amount of emphasis, in certain places so as to keep it fresh and interesting.




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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.




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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,



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