Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion is 24-year-old Dan Gurney’s debut album, a collection of tunes – 33 of them on 15 cuts – that are traditional and clearly reminiscent of the Old Country, whether that be Ireland, Scotland or the emigrant neighborhoods of New York a half-century ago. He describes it as music to which people listen and dance, the kind of music that was originally played on ships and in kitchens after a day of working on the farm: a common way of relaxing and enjoying life. Indeed, Gurney has spent a lot of his young life hanging around in neighborhood haunts here and abroad, playing with the likes of Dolores Keane, Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, Mick Conneely and Ronan O’Flaherty during his yearlong stay in Galway.
The story is that he started playing accordion as a lad in a toy store and hasn’t stopped since. His instruction in Irish music came from Woodford-born concertina-player monsignor Charlie Coen, who was an important influence on Gurney’s development since the age of seven, when he’d show up twice a month to play at the old Rhinecliff Hotel. Seventeen years later, Gurney has graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Music, won a postgraduate fellowship to immerse himself in Ireland for a year of playing gigs, learning tunes and working in a music shop, and has now come back a virtuoso.
Traditional Irish Music was recorded in one unrehearsed, three-hour sitting with pianist Brian McGrath, an in-demand studio musician and a current member of Irish supergroup De Dannan and, coincidentally, a co-worker at that Galway music shop. “I knew him well, but I had never played with him on piano before. We went into the studio hoping for the best, and something just clicked.” Gurney went back to Ireland last summer to produce the album, saying, “I wanted to approach the recording in a way similar to the experience I had playing music in Galway. That’s why I traveled back to Ireland to do the album. I wanted the music to be laid-back, not rehearsed; because if it’s too rehearsed, the tunes don’t have as much life in them or as much spontaneity.”
Gurney and McGrath laid down tracks of reels and jigs as if they were playing in someone’s front room, without high-tech manipulation or editing. “The first note you hear on the album is the first note I recorded with Brian. It’s more cohesive, because it was recorded in such a short period of time. I think it comes through in the music.” He expresses pride in having accomplished this feat, which has recently been named one of the Top Ten Albums of 2011 by the Irish Echo. And he expresses due gratitude to musicians whom he counts as his greatest influences: Billy McComiskey, Jimmy Noonan, John Whelan, Joe Derrane and John Nolan, among many others.
He career continues to expand with appearances on Public Radio International, at the International Accordion Festival and various Fleadh Cheoil music competitions, where Gurney has nabbed no fewer than nine medals. Recently he did a gig at an Ancient Order of Hibernians ceili in Albany and held a CD launch in White Plains. When not playing, he runs a Web startup called Concert Window: a site that streams high-definition video of live musical performance at venues around the US. Check out www.concertwindow.com.
And mark your calendars for an album launch at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, Gurney’s hometown, on Saturday, March 3 at 8 p.m. Meanwhile, check www.dangurney.net for local engagements and updates. Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion, with photography from Danny Diamond and liner notes by Earle Hitchner, Monsignor Coen, Billy McComiskey and Don Meade, is available at Gurney’s website and at all major music retailers.