Flautists take solo flight

The Arts: They were already members of successful groups, but two renowned flute players, Liam Kelly and John Wynne, have enjoyed…

The Arts:They were already members of successful groups, but two renowned flute players, Liam Kelly and John Wynne, have enjoyed the challenges posed by recording on their own

THE SOLO instrument has returned to the limelight in recent times, having surrendered its identity to the greater demands of the ensemble for much of the previous decade. Traditional music has produced its share of virtuoso bands from Planxty and the Bothy Band in the 1970s to Dervish, Lúnasa, Danú, Beoga, Téada and Altan in more recent years, but lately there’s been a healthy resurgence in the soloist – and flute players haven’t been shy about sharing the spotlight.

Conal Ó Gráda and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh are two flute players who have released impressive solo recordings in recent years. Now the flute music of north Connaught (and beyond) has found purchase in the solo releases of Sligo’s Liam Kelly and Roscommon’s John Wynne, both natives of a region well-known for its affinity with both flute and fiddle music.

Both Kelly and Wynne have forged their identities in the company of others (Kelly with Dervish and Wynne with Providence, and more recently as a duo with fiddler John McEvoy), and John Wynne has been tentatively etching out a solo career for almost a decade now, having released his first solo recording, With Every Breath, in 2000. Liam Kelly has been more reticent about occupying centre stage, happily admitting that his solo debut, Sweetwood, has been much longer in gestation than he had intended it to be.

Still, as Conal Ó Gráda says in Wynne’s sleeve notes, “in flute playing, the elemental link between music and breath creates a dynamic tension of its own” and perhaps it’s this deliciously primal quality that’s at the heart of the appeal of both men’s recordings.

Kelly has spent the past 20 years on the road with Dervish, criss-crossing the globe from New York to Rio de Janeiro and producing an album every two years along the way. It has been a hectic schedule that absorbed almost all of his musical appetite, but somewhere deep within he always had a hankering to record a solo CD. His genteel, unforced musical style epitomises the man’s self-effacing demeanour, and maybe it’s that diffidence that kept him from stepping out into the light on his own for so long.

“I suppose I could come up with all kinds of excuses,” Kelly offers, “but sometimes the right time is the right time, and it just seems to be the right time now. I don’t think age has caught up with me yet, and hopefully I’m playing as well now as I did 10 years ago, and that I haven’t lost anything – yet! So maybe now is the right time.”

Despite Dervish’s many triumphs over the years (notwithstanding the debacle of their Eurovision foray), Kelly makes no attempt to talk up the advantages of band membership to a musician’s solo playing style.

“Sometimes playing in a band can make your solo playing worse. You can go back to playing on your own and feel ‘I thought I could do this a little bit better’, because when you’re in an ensemble, you can bounce off of other musicians and sometimes playing with better musicians makes you play better too. But when you isolate yourself, the pressure is on and I have to admit that when I went into the studio on my own, I found it much harder than I thought it would be. It was a little bit of a shock to me in the beginning.”

KELLY HAD TOwork at extracting his own musical identity from that of the band, having had that comfort zone to bask in for some two decades. Still, all the evidence is there in his solo debut, Sweetwood, that once he found his feet in the studio, sparks began to fly across an eclectic collection of tunes drawn not just from his native Sligo and from his father's Leitrim home place of Sweetwood, but from contemporary composers such as Tommy Peoples and Liz Carroll. Kelly has contributed a pair of uncluttered tunes of his own to the mix too.

"I have to admit it was a bit of journey of self-discovery," he says with a smile. "I'm always a bit wary of bringing new tunes into the tradition, and there are so many reels and jigs already there that I didn't want to just add to that. I was reluctant at first to include Sweetwood, but it's actually grown on me now that it's there. It's hard to admit to yourself that you really like a tune when you wrote it yourself! There are some great composers out there, like Charlie Lennon, but maybe it's a talent that you can learn the more you do it, so I'm hoping I won't be so nervous about writing tunes on my own in the future." On Sweetwood, Kelly chose to present his solo debut with the barest of accompaniment, in the form of bouzouki from his Dervish band mate Michael Holmes and bodhrán from Danú's Donnchadh Gough. It's a decision that lets the flute float free, unconcerned with the clutter of complex instrumental combinations, and delighting in the chance to explore its own air space.

Kelly is quick to acknowledge the influence of whistle player Mary Bergin and The Chieftains’ flute maestro, Matt Molloy, in his choice of tune settings and arrangements on Sweetwood. “They set the bar for flute and whistle playing, and still do, in many ways,” he says. “I don’t think they’ve been surpassed still. When I was growing up, I would listen to them on the radio, and I was completely in awe of them. They were – and are – legendary.”

JOHN WYNNE'S SOLO CDoffers another perspective on the flute. His vibrant, rhythmic style underscores his Roscommon roots, where flute playing is a native pursuit, as much second nature to many of the local inhabitants as breathing itself. Like Kelly, Wynne wasn't in any rush to showcase his solo playing, having made his debut in 2000. In fact, he's been enjoying duetting with fiddler John McEvoy in recent times, and their critically acclaimed 2007 release, Pride Of The West, has kept him busy on the gigging front. In some ways, it has also fulfilled many of his creative needs, with both musicians bouncing off one another with the energy of a pair in thrall to their shared repertoire.

“It’s great to be tight in a duo or a trio,” Wynne offers, “and to explore what you can do with arrangements. And then again, it’s also great to let the music float free too and to let the instrument breathe on its own. There can be so much happening in terms of exploring nice chords, that sometimes that’s enough, and you have to be careful not to drown it in too many arrangements.” Stylistically, Wynne’s sound is rooted in north Connaught, but his taste is as catholic as Liam Kelly’s. He makes no secret of his need to simply delve beneath the skin of a tune, regardless of how a regional style might suggest he should treat it. Striking a balance between paying due respect to the tradition in which he learned the music and remaining true to his need to express himself as a musician brings its own challenges, Wynne acknowledges.

“I enjoy experimenting with different variations and different runs on a tune,” he says, “but I like to keep the local foundation there too, the rhythmic flow of the Roscommon style. But if you’re on form, I think it’s fine to move around and be more individualistic. When I play with John McEvoy, we’re very conscious of the regional style.

“Maybe at some unconscious level, I was keen to bring out my own individual style on this CD. It’s not that I’m looking to get out of the Sligo/Roscommon style, but when you record a solo album, you have to be able to put your individual stamp on it. I had ideas about getting a bounce and drive into the record, to make it flow. It was a chance for me to signal that side of the music, and I really enjoyed doing it.”

John Wynne’s CD,

Ar Nós Na Gaoithe

and Liam Kelly’s


, are both out on the Cló Iar Chonnachta label