Tony McManus | Ceol More
Compass Records 11 Tracks 50 minutes

Tony McManus, considered ‘the greatest Celtic guitarist in the world’, chose to name this third solo album of his Ceol More, which translates as ‘big music’, referring to the piobaireachd tradition of the highland bagpipes. Not surprising that McManus’ guitar has a very big sound in which the skirl o’ the pipes can sometimes be heard.

The fascinating liner notes tell us the tunes he plays come from seemingly different musical traditions, including those of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, French-Canada, America and Eastern Europe. But these traditions do not appear so different if we reflect that the ‘Kelts’ or ‘barbarians who wear plaid clothing', spread themselves from Eastern Europe to Rome, Gaul — the north of France (Brittany, whence they migrated to Canada) — and the so-called British Isles.

Celtic is the origin of the music of the Canadian Acadians who were moved to Louisiana, but the American piece McManus plays is not from there. It is the jazz classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a ‘slow air’ composed by Charlie Mingus on the death of tenorman Lester Young. Why is it included in this collection? My guess is because it’s a kind of blues, which is not so far in feeling from the ‘lament’ of the ‘big music’ tradition’. McManus’ arrangement is bang-on gorgeous with harmonic highlights worthy of Lennie Breau. The Eastern European track also owes no visible debt to the Kelts, being a Hebrew hymn, but we know that the Jews had the Blues. This arrangement gives the melody a very unusual single-voiced slow treatment, which builds from chorus to chorus towards a rich choral effect, appropriate to a family song welcoming the Sabbath. Innovative and good.

The liner notes make great reading, being full of lore about the origin of the tunes and the obscure or unknown master fiddlers and other acoustic musicians McManus has met and learned from on his travels around the world. Many of the tunes are jigs, reels, and hornpipes, which remind us this is foot-tapping music composed for fast dancing, and therefore repetitive in structure and hypnotic in effect. McManus’ guitar work sparkles and dances and is so precise and colourful there’s no chance it will put you in a trance.

He is accompanied and well-supported by Ewen Vernal on Bass throughout, and on two tracks by Guy Nicolson on, of all things, Tablas, which sounds not so far from the Irish bodhrum. This is an album for your permanent collection. The only thing better would be to hear him live when he comes to a venue near you.

Stanley Fefferman for The Live Music Report

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