A kaleidoscope of notes introduces the effervescent playing of Donna Long on this, her debut solo recording. Here are 14 tracks on which she presents not only the beauty of the tunes and the power of the rhythms, but also her own deep imagination and dynamism. For over two decades, Californian Long has been part of the Baltimore/Washington Irish music scene.
She was a member of Cherish the Ladies for a number of years. She is regarded as one of the foremost keyboard players in the world of Irish music and this album goes a long way to explaining why. Her inventive, innovative and inviting approach fits well as she blurs the distinctions between lead and accompaniment playing.
She understands the tunes and the style and the part her chosen instrument plays the scheme of things. Using her musical background in classical, jazz and other genres to great effect, she is not content to provide the driving keyboard accompaniment so often found with the instrument. Instead, she introduces textures and layers along with ornamentation and dexterity which develop to the full the atmosphere each tune suggests.
Her understanding and appreciation of melody come to the fore not just on the airs such as "My Lagan Love" or "Bridget Cruise," which she plays alone, but also on the up-tempo tracks. On the Circus Hornpipe set, she is joined by her son Jesse Smith and his wife Yvonne Kane on fiddles. While Smith and Kane's fiddles dance through the tunes, Long weaves in and out, at times playing in unison, at times in harmony, while constantly holding the rhythm with series of bass runs and chord progressions.
She plays "Maguire's March" as a duet with fiddler James Kelly, its compulsive melody lending itself well to their interpretation: first time through as a piano solo and the second with the pair playing in unison. From the hypnotic to the driving, she then leads into a faster "Kerry Jig", constantly elaborating her piano part before Kelly returns for the second time through. The set ends with Peadar O'Riada's sprightly but intensive "Sport", where Kelly holds the tune while Long moves in a variety of directions, elaborating the accompaniment.
Johnny Allen starts with her playing just the melody line. Slowly, she builds up the accompaniment, gradually increasing the tension. It leads into a second, much darker reel, "Tuttle's", in which her inventive playing leaves you wondering how it's possible to develop so many ideas all of which fit so perfectly, until she ends with a majestic "Imelda Roland's".
The album comes to a close with "Luna", an air written by Long. For this, she is joined by two more guests, Liz Knowles (fiddle, viola) and Billy McComiskey (accordion). It is an image-laden piece written for Julia Butterfly Hill whose efforts have gone a long way to helping save old-wood forests.
Perhaps recording most of the album in her own home is also part of the reason for its warm ambiance. Donna produced the album. Together with engineer (and husband) Paul McKeown, she has exquisitely captured the sounds of the instruments and drawn them together in a spontaneous way.
There is a distinctly personal element to the atmosphere, making you feel it is being played there live, in front of you. Forty-five minutes pass far too quickly. With four airs, four sets of reels, two of jigs and a hornpipe set, she whets the appetite and leaves you longing for more. Whether playing alone or collaborating with fellow musicians, she is a pleasure to listen to.
Handprints gives Donna Long a chance to step into the limelight and display her artistry and skills.BACK TO TOP
Cherish the Ladies pianist Donna Long's solo debut, "Handprints" (Long Lost Music 1198), is no ivory coast. Blithely riding the keys or indiscriminately vamping is not what this recording is about. Forget neutral, forget rote rhythm, forget cheerless chording. This is as focused and fruitful a statement of piano playing as I've heard since"Down the Ivory Stairs," the solo CD by Corofin, Clare's Padraic O'Reilly in 2001.
But Long's style reflects far more diverse and intriguing keyboard influences than O'Reilly's. She combines the spatial sensitivity of John Lewis, Tommy Flanagan, and Keith Jarrett in jazz, the textural elegance of Arthur Rubinstein in classical music, and the fresh-breeze swing and harmonics tucked in the mold-breaking Irish traditional melody playing of Eleanor Kane Neary and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin.
Another formative influence on Long was her father, Byron, who still plays piano with the Harry James Orchestra. Born in Los Angeles, classically trained Donna Long took up Irish traditional music in earnest after moving to Baltimore in 1980. Her progress was rapid, and her keyboard reputation spread internationally after joining the globe trotting Cherish the Ladies in 1995.
"Handprints" should hoist her reputation even higher. A radiant achievement recorded almost entirely at her Baltimore home,the album may put Irish keyboard buffs in mind of the liberating nimbleness heard on Ó Súilleabháin's "The Dolphin's Way" in 1987.
"Handprints," however, is no homage or clone. It is resolutely her vision, imagination, and talent on display here, full of subtle or sly inventiveness, a masterly tone, and embedded epiphanies that all reward close listening.
Long's melody playing on "McMahon's/The Pinch of Snuff" reveals an assured tempo and a fondness for risk without recklessness. The ornamentation is served with artful wit, and the change from the first to second reel is executed with a tight burst of notes that heightens expectation. She also employs her uncanny command of dynamics to provide an unexpected coda, much like a world-class runner suddenly slowing his stride to savor crossing the finish line first.Long never reverts to the bruising swagger of so-called "piano drivers" or the awkward thump chording relied on by less skilled keyboardists in Irish music. Instead, a flair for small, deft embellishments and steady, tasty syncopation percolates throughout her accompaniment, a heady blend of rhythm and melody that manages to increase the pleasure of all the instruments. Those attributes especially shine through her piano playing on "The Circus Hornpipe/Fitzgerald's/Jackie Tar" and "The Woman of the House/Johnny's Wedding."
The album ends with "Luna," a lovely, contemplative composition by Long that was inspired by Julia Butterfly Hill's attempt to spare a redwood tree called Luna from the lumberjack's ax by sitting up in its branches for two years.
Even the slight tubbiness detectable in the bottom register of the piano on "Maguire's March/The Kerry Jig/Sport" and the brief, unintended background noise after the actual playing of "JohnnyAllen/ Tuttle's/ Imelda Roland's" can't distract from the spirited, supple beauty of Donna Long's keyboard performance on both tracks.
"Handprints" is, hands down, a knockout and a must for anyone remotely interested in state-of-the-art piano playing within Irish music.
The CD is available at Cherish the Ladies' website
Earle HitchnerBACK TO TOP
A remarkable solo album from Cherish The Ladies’ pianist, Handprints’ impact grows with each listen. Rarely have we come across an album which so perfectly and precisely captures the epic grandeur and simultaneous subtlety of the piano. It’s a cliché to say that if you close your eyes you could imagine you were in Long’s living room as she plays. But cliché or not, the quality of the recording is such that if you close your eyes, you could
So 10/10 to Long and to Paul McKeown who mixed, mastered and engineered the recording for exemplary production values and exquisite skill. The true traditional artist has the ability to put across a tune in such a way that their playing remains true to the tune itself and yet, at the same time, makes the tune their own, with their own inflections, ornaments offering us a glimpse into their soul. (Whereas the mere musician is often content merely to be able to play all the right dots in the right order and fairly much in time!) Long confirms her status as an artist throughout the album, but if you want to shortcut to a tune which typifies her artistry, then look no further than her version of McMahon’s. A session staple, often subjected to the slash-and-burn treatment of the frenetic pub melee, McMahon’s is nevertheless a glorious reel. Long makes the tune shimmer and glow; her touch is light, but brimming with confidence and her instinctive, personal and inspired ornaments enhance the sense of joy which this bright reel conveys.
Elsewhere, playing solo (and without the aid of a safety net!) she imbues airs such as Bridget Cruise and My Lagan Love, reel sets such as the magnificent Johnny Allen/Tuttle’s/Imelda Roland’s and The Lass Of Carracastle/Ballinasloe Fair and jig sets such as the album’s opener As Old As The Hills/The Blarney Pilgrim with the same sense of passion, spirit and conviction.
The album’s final track, an air, is one of Long’s own compositions. Accompanied by Billy McComiskey and Liz Knowles, Luna is testament not just to Long’s accomplishments as a musician, but as a composer of thoughtful and powerful music to boot! This compelling air could just become the new "Inisheer" such is its infectious melancholy.
On the monumental Maguire’s March/The Kerry Jig/Sport, Long has an opportunity to duet with James Kelly. Kelly’s fiddling is a phenomenon to match that of Long’s playing and the result is a fiery, feisty set which draws to an end with a muscular, energised, lingering piece of bowing by Kelly.
On The Lark In The Clear Air, Long begins and ends the piece with a recording of a lark singing. In other people’s hands such a decision might appear a little contrived, a tad artificial, tricksy, distracting. However, yet again, Long’s impeccable taste comes to the fore and the decision to overlay the birdsong works perfectly (and charmingly!).
An album which you’ll want to return to time and again.
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Chicago (sic!) is well known for its Irish piano players, and Donna Long is one of the best. Whether she's tackling a big reel like The Pinch Of Snuff, or tickling a slow air like My Lagan Love, there's a brilliance in her playing which is rare indeed.
Donna is no stranger to recordings and audiences worldwide, through her part in Cherish The Ladies and her duet albums with Martin Mulvihill. For her solo debut she's enlisted the fine mixing and photographic skills of husband Paul McKeown.
Most of the music on Handprints is traditional and arranged for solo piano, but there are a few exceptions. Donna is joined by her son Jesse Smith on fiddle for two tracks: the Circus Hornpipe set is a jaunty ramble through three lovely tunes with Yvonne Kane adding a second fiddle, and Jesse's authentic touch is crystal clear on the pair of Irish American reels Bean a'Tigh and Johnny's Wedding.
James Kelly brings his exiled Dublin fiddle to bear on a set of grand jigs, closing with Peadar O Riada's sparkling Sport. Donna's own slow air Luna ends the album enchantingly, with beautiful counterpoint on Billy McComiskey's button box and bowed harmonies by Liz Knowles.
Donna's solo performance is first class, from the opening jig As Old As The Hills to the trio of reels ending with the dreamy Imelda Roland's. Her lightness of touch in the right hand, coupled with a solid bouncy bass, is Irish piano at its best. The guest musicians here are the icing on an exceedingly good cake.
As part of the band Cherish the Ladies. Donna Long's spirited piano is just a part of the larger (though wonderful) whole. On Handprints, her first solo CD, it’s nothing but her, a piano and some wondcrful traditional lrish music. (In all fairness. there is just a smidge of fiddle and accordion but just a smidge)
Long is a tremendously accomplished player her hands move with skill and agility whether pounding out a feverish jig or gently coaxing the notes from a mournful ballad.
What I like best about this recording is that jigs and reels, at least to my ears, grow tiresome and just this side of annoying when played by nothing but pipes, fiddles, and accordions; shrill is what I’m thinking. However, the piano presents these tunes in a much more full-bodied way. For a change of tonal pace with all the melodic appeal of traditional Celtic music, this debut recording by Donna Long is near perfect.