The Rowsome Tradition - Five Generations of Uillean Piping
The title of this album by uilleann piper Kevin Rowsome refers to the fact that he is the latest in a line of five successive generations of pipe playing and making tradition in the Rowsome family. Kevin's great, great grandfather, Samuel Rowsome, a farmer from Ballintore in Co Wexford had the reputation of being an excellent piper like his friend John Cash (whose descendants included Johnny and Felix Doran) and their teacher the legendary 'Jemmy' Byrne. Samuel had three sons who also had the reputation of being great pipers. When one son, William, moved to Dublin, he in turn had three sons who all became pipers of high renown. One of these, Leo, came to prominence around the time when the first recordings of traditional Irish music were being made so we have more than mere reputation to rely on for evidence of his genius as the great man recorded extensively right up to his death in 1970. Leo was also a highly admired and influential teacher and passed on his extensive knowledge of pipe playing and making to many illustrious pipers including his son Leon who inherited his father's job as pipes teacher at Dublin's College of Music.
So finally we come to Kevin Rowsome, Leon's son, who bears the rather daunting responsibility of living up to the potentially overwhelming reputation of his family's tradition. At this point I have to 'come clean' and admit that I cannot claim that this review is totally impartial as Kevin and I have been good friends and musical sparring partners for many years. We have played together at festivals for days at a time, deconstructed and reconstructed tunes in the wee hours of the morning, discussed issues of music through the night in each others houses and so on. In the time that I have known Kevin, I have watched him gradually develop resistance to the strain of the family reputation and evolve from a young man, nervous of his ability to do the family name justice, into a mature musician of such skill and taste that he is at ease with his place in this most distinguished dynasty of master pipers and carries the family banner with justifiable pride.
A couple of years back I began to notice that Kevin no longer sat awkwardly or seemed to be fighting the 'plumbing' of his pipes as he played. Instead, he now sits, holds and plays his pipes with graceful movement and elegant poise as if instrument and player were one combined entity, as has invariably been the case with every great piper I have seen perform. This grace and elegance were now also to be heard in his playing which had always been good but was now great.
Not surprisingly, this is not Kevin's first attempt at recording. Not long after he contributed to my Home Fire album, we tried recording some tracks for a pipes album, but soon realised that he was simply not quite ready for the task. Thankfully, he chose not to rush the process and waited until he felt the time was right. The result is a beautifully played and conceived CD which is a credit to the Rowsome tradition.
To my ears, Kevin's playing, which is superb throughout, is only reminiscent of his famous grandfather in so far as it is generally in an open style and includes a few pieces associated with Leo - The Wexford Hornpipe and Staker Wallace - and even then, referring to the latter, he tells us "I learnt this setting from my late father, Leon". Overall, I find Kevin's sound and style much closer to the restraint of say Ennis or O'Flynn than the wide open piping of Leo. His use, for example, of the regulators on the two slow airs or Fraher's Jig is much more gentle. Some might say they are less effective for their lack of force but the subtle impression of harnessed power is often much more effective than full throttle playing. Not that Kevin isn't capable of letting rip when he feels like it as his version of The College Groves demonstrates by 'rocking' with the kind of power and rhythmic drive so loved and admired in Paddy Keenan. His playing is at its most traditional on the classic slow air Blind Mary ("a particular favourite of my late uncle Liam's") which he plays on the gorgeous-sounding 'C' pitched set with little or no embellishment: simple, sparse and exquisitely beautiful.
Accompaniment, when used, is tastefully played and mixed throughout the album and is particularly effective when Pat Marsh's Bouzouki and Noel Ryan's guitar combine to give a Bothy flavour to tracks 3 and 7. Kevin's partner, Lorraine Hickey, contributes fiddle on several tracks to great effect: try Kilcooley Woods for a fine example of a delightful duet.
So there you have it, the latest chapter of the Rowsome story, twelve superb tracks of excellent playing, interesting material and fine arrangements, what more could you ask for? Well, what you get is a wonderful bonus of no less than six archive tracks featuring the two previous generations of the Rowsome clan. The first four of these tracks were recorded in 1957 when Liam Rowsome was eighteen, Leon was twenty-one and Leo was fifty-four. Track 13 is a pipes duet by Leo and Leon, 14 is a hornpipe by Leo with piano backing from Leon, on 15 Leo plays alone, while 16 features all three. The final two tracks, recorded in 1969, feature Liam's solo fiddle on two beautifully performed airs An raibh tu ag an gCarraig and The Coolin - fine momentos of this great and vastly underrated musician who passed away just two years before these tracks finally made it on to CD.
Incidentally, A baby girl was born to Kevin and Lorraine since the release of this album. It's a little early yet to predict whether or not this will mean another generation of magical Rowsome music making, but I certainly hope so.
Ruarai O Caomhanach (Alias Ron Kavana) - 14.5.00
Over the last forty years, at least, as Irish piping has recovered from beggary, you could not encounter the world of piping without mention of the Rowsome family in both their playing and pipe-making capacities. Here we have another link in this extraordinary saga which, generally, does its work well in providing a context for Kevin Rowsome's playing without diminishing his individuality by the weight of a family legacy. Throughout the CD there are references to father, grandfather, uncle and others in respect of repertoire and through reminiscence and tribute, and the evidence is reinforced by six recordings made of father, Leon, and uncle, Liam, during the nineteen-fifties. The bulk of the CD, twelve tracks, comes from Kevin himself but the title itself indicates how he is placing himself in a line of musicianship.
There is an introduction from Seamus Connolly and notes on the older generations from Mick O'Connor, both testimony to the wider impact of the family line that Kevin Rowsome concentrates on. Further interest still may be added if you can get hold of recordings made of Leo, Ri na bpiobairi (from Claddagh [CC1] in 1969, now on CD from Shanachie 34001), briefly on The Drones and the Chanters (Claddagh, 1971, now CC11CD) and on the two Topic reissues (12T259 & 12T322) of material played by Leo Rowsome which came out in 1976 and 1977 with a valuable introduction on the first album by Sean Reid. The interest would be most in terms of style of piping. However, as far as repertoire is concerned, by design or accident, Kevin has not reproduced the music found there except on three tracks here: The Wexford Hornpipe ; The Death of Staker Wallace ; and Kitty's Rambles . His own selection of music is, throughout, fascinating, and reveals an expected immersion in family traditions since the tunes on track four - The Wexford Hornpipe and Murphy's - 'remind me of my father who often played them at concerts and sessions' and the air, Blind Mary, 'was a particular favourite of my late uncle Liam's'. Yet Kevin has also gone out and got his own music - from published volumes such as the ubiquitous O'Neill's, from other pipers such as Paddy Keenan and, as indication at least of some other of the ripples of Irish music-making, from one recording made in 1985 by Sean Keane, Matt Molloy and Artie McGlynn, Contentment is Wealth (actually put out by Green Linnet). Kevin's selection contains some fine tunes: notably the jig The Woodcock , from manuscripts in the possession of Viola Preston, who played with the Eamon Ceannt Ceili Band and who has sourced other tunes here; and the two Paddy O'Brien (Nenagh) jigs, Trip to Bantry and The Coming of Spring . It is easy enough, as well, to forget 'standard' tunes and it's pleasing to find the reel, The Limestone Rock, opening the CD in steady fashion and the jig, Kitty's Rambles, receiving some excellent ensemble attention with Lorraine Hickey (niece, as it happens, of Viola Preston) on fiddle .
At risk of parading spurious knowledge and with a genuine intent to indicate how the convolutions of transmission operate, I was intrigued by the notes to track nine listed here, the reel, Dublin Lasses, and a 'highland', Docherty's. Kevin refers to his version of the first tune as coming from The Roche Collection of Irish Traditional Music and to its appearance in Treoir as The Maids of Galway and Treoir is worth mentioning because one of the best things that the magazine ever did was to include versions of tunes currently being played. Now, I couldn't actually locate the tune in my own Treoir archives though there's a tune named as The Piper's Chanter in a 1971 edition which is, I'd have thought, almost a double; and I haven't access to the complete Roche (so can anyone supply chapter and verse?); but the tune nagged at me as being familiar and, sure enough, I found it in Breathnach's first volume as Dublin Lasses with an alternative title of Murtough Molloy which, he indicates, is also to be found in O'Neill (No. 741, as it turns out) and a reference to his own immediate source as being Tommy Potts. So what? And what's in a name? Well, this is a long-winded way of suggesting that the tune is not as remote as it might appear here (Breathnach's volume dates from 1963) though I would add, first, that I can't recall if I did ever hear the tune played in a million sessions attended and that, second, I don't, in any case, remember an instance of it being recorded before.
Kevin gives his source for the second tune as Johnny Docherty and also cites an Altan version which they, in turn, traced back to Neil Gow. Well, there you go again: the point about wide possibilities for source-ing, some of them contemporary, which Kevin Rowsome's own experiences underlines, is made. Yet - the tune is certainly not played as a highland on this CD but takes its place as a reel and that is how I've always heard it, entitled The Watchmaker, again to be found in O'Neill (No. 755), for instance, and - wait for it - in a 1972 edition of Treoir and is a contemporary favourite, would you believe, in up-town Totnes. The tentacles reach out.
Of kind, it may be said that Kevin Rowsome's playing is powerful in the open style with a consistent but not overwhelming exploration of how the regulators (for example) may be employed to an extent not always found in other musicians' playing: sustained use in the third playing of Old Man Dillon (track six: another great old standard, favoured by Lucy Farr amongst others, and one most welcome); a pippitty use at the end of Fraher's Jig  … This would certainly reflect Leo Rowsome's playing, known for its virtuosity in this regard as Sean Reid noted:
His command of the regulators … was, like his father's quite phenomenal and he fully explored the possibilities in all kinds of music, slow or fast, and used them to back up and the character and rhythm of the melody. If he used the regulators more than other pipers, it was because he liked the sound of sweet harmonies and because of the sheer exuberance and joy that rose in his heart as he played …In terms of ornament - and but one or two aspects are selected here - Kevin's use of the staccato triplet is clearly demonstrated especially in tracks one and two, legato triplet and a swaying through a series of notes in track four, Murphy's Hornpipe … he switches octaves fluidly in the same track. The grace note and the long note feature extensively throughout the CD: listen out for the latter in College Groves at the start of the second playing of the tune which usage, as a device, is not simply repeated but finds a place elsewhere in the melodic line. There are individual touches like the startling drop into a new key in the same tune and a yelp in the first part of it; a neat flick up in the second bar of the first half of the second playing of The Dublin Lasses - tedious, I'm well aware, in enumeration but very much the stuff of delights that yield themselves at second, third or later hearings. Generally, Kevin varies his musical phrasing without losing the thread of the melodic line as in track six, second tune, Old Man Dillon. Indeed, that line is very flexible right from the start of the CD but, conversely, there are one or two tunes where flexibility is abjured. I'd say that in the first tune of track three some variation would not have come amiss.
Most of the tracks - including this one - are played very steadily with a consistent rhythmic impulse and there are few signs of the speeding which implies lack of control over the instrument and a loss of shape to the tune (perhaps there is a touch of it in, for instance, track six, first tune, Up and About in the Morning).
Overall, then, there is a full range of technique and of musical shape shown. What is sometime lacking is an absolute crispness of articulation … This is evident at points in track two with the first tune, the hornpipe, The Woods of Kilkenny (it's still pleasing to hear the tune played), say, or in Murphy's Hornpipe and track six, the jig, Up and About in the Morning. The suggestion is of marginal irregularities and some reasoning for them may lie in the open nature of the piping. The converse of this is to appreciate that there is a human being playing: we're not dealing simply with a mechanical reproduction. I always remember Jackie Daly (as a musician, I would say, supremely conscious of quality in playing) telling me, when he was recording his Topic album in 1977, that he was, on occasion, content to accept a track that might be slightly flawed technically in favour of one where the whole spirit was palpably evident. Overall, Kevin Rowsome exemplifies this. Indeed, I'd say that one of the hallmarks of the CD is the very soul that Jackie, by implication, was referring to.
However, Fraher's Jig (track eleven), with a musical structure well suited to display the art of cranning, is not, I think, played to best advantage.
Kevin has varied the pitch of the pipes - C, C sharp, D - and is at pains to describe the instruments, the C sharp from the hands of his great grandfather, William (c. 1898) and used on tracks two, five, ten and eleven, a concert pitch set made by his grandfather, Leo (c. 1948) and used on tracks nine and twelve, the flat pitch set by Harrington and another concert pitch set of unknown make used on tracks three and seven. If you then wanted an example of the international flavour in Irish musical circles, it is well to note that 'All three full sets were restored by pipemaker, Andreas Roggee, Germany'.
As is the modern way Kevin uses accompaniment from Pat Marsh (bouzouki) on tracks three and seven with Noel Ryan on guitar on the same tracks and Mark Lysaght on guitar for tracks one, two, five, six, nine and twelve. Generally, the combination works though I'd question the very beginning of the CD where it's guitar that hits the ear first. There are certain times, too, when the guitarist does not quite seem to understand the movement - one might almost say mode - of the tune: there is, for example, an unconvincing accompaniment to the hornpipe, The First of May, whose root key is somewhat indeterminate anyway. Sometimes the instruments are not finely tuned, most blatantly on track six. There is one duff ending (track seven) where the accompanists seems surprised. Once or twice, too, the guitar runs away with its own ideas - on track three, for instance; but here, the ensemble with Lorraine Hickey on fiddle is exemplary as it is on tracks nine and twelve as compensation. This last track provides me with something of a highlight in the comfortable way in which all three musicians, Kevin, Lorraine and Mark Lysaght, ease through the tunes. It's a track which suggests less a case of solo instrument and accompaniment than of full musical integration.
The two airs, Blind Mary and The Death of Staker Wallace, might go some way to reveal the heart of Kevin Rowsome's playing. The first, a relatively simple Carolan tune in outline (track eight), is kept simple but has immense passion in the playing. The second (track ten) is also engaging in this full-bodied way - not to everyone's taste but there's no mistaking the quality of tour de force. Largely, it is played on exposed chanter with an underlying drone. It compares well with Matt Molloy's version on Mulligan's 1976 album and, of course, has to be set alongside Leo Rowsome' own playing of it on Ri na bpiobairi. In each case, the florid ornamentation has rather a special aura since it occurs almost as a matter of accepted positioning within the structure of the tune rather than, as in some cases of playing of airs, more spontaneously. Kevin attributes his version to his father, Leon (by the way, a transcription of the tune can also be found in Roche's collection …)
It might also be of interest - and I introduce the subject and the categories with the greatest respect to all concerned - to compare Kevin's playing with that of other young-ish bloods. By now the likes of Liam O'Floinn have achieved a majority but the Michael O'Briens of the world are, perhaps, still just about in the second - maybe a third - seven years of apprenticeship. So listening to such near-contemporaries of Kevin Rowsome indicates in what ways piping techniques differ, in what ways repertoire changes or solidifies and how a personal approach is made manifest. Try Padraic MacMathuna for a more restrained sound; Robbie Hannan for a more furious attack (both have recorded material available). You will, doubtless, have encountered your own particular pipers ... I think of Maire ni Gradha, for instance, and Tommy Keane, the latter of whom, I know, came under the tutelage of the very neat piper, Tommy Kearney, in Waterford. All the latterday musicians are out of their piping teens, as it were, well-established, well-respected in their own ways but, obviously, have not attained the veneration of the Clancys and Ennises of the piping fraternity; both, of course, contemporary with Leo Rowsome. You are certainly able to assess the variety and health of piping in this way and the network of teacher and pupil, friend and example, that tie pipers together; and thus to appreciate the contribution made by the Rowsome family.
I do find it necessary to comment on a somewhat curious lack of planning in the balance of tracks here. Reels are followed by reels, jigs by jigs and, in the family tracks, an air by an air. You might, instead, have expected a sense of contrast (no slides, slip jigs or polkas, by the way, in this regard). Whatever, the best response to this is that, in listening, this does not impose itself as an urgent requirement because the individual track retains sufficient interest. Following on, though, the recorded tracks from Kevin's family are a little disappointing in some ways. Perhaps we gain an insight into the everyday nature of their playing - no necessarily 'big' ideas but some rollicking common marches - O'Donnell Abu and The Boys of Wexford, played by Leo and Leon, both on pipes, the second tune also having been played by Leo on Topic's first volume; a dexterous, skippy version of The Liverpool Hornpipe played by Leo with piano accompaniment from Leon; some generic polkas which Kevin introduced for their implication of mood and spontaneity … There is certainly much fun apparent. Finally, the fiddle (Liam) is bent round notes in an emotional rendering of An raibh tu ag an gCarraig (and, for good measure, you might compare another fiddle version, this time from Matt Cranitch on his 1984 Gael-Linn album) but The Coolin (Liam again) is rather more in the nature of milking (the tune is also played by Leo Rowsome on Ri na bpiobairi). The earlier volumes cited give a better sense of the Rowsome trademarks.
There is, at the end, no doubting the accomplishment on this CD: of its kind well judged in setting Kevin Rowsome's own contribution in the grand line which he is at pains to emphasise at all points, finishing with a dedication to his parents.
Roly Brown - 5.5.00
(Available through Copperplate Distribution, 68 Belleville Road, London, SW11 6PP
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