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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1703

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The Olllam: The Olllam
by George Graham

(Compass 4584 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/31/2012)

Eclecticism in Celtic music is nothing new. Back in the early 1990s, there was the innovative group Mouth Music that combined Celtic influence with African pop sounds and synthesizer driven dance beats. Since then, there have been a number of other performers and groups to take a very non-traditional approach to Celtic music such as Eileen Ivers, Shooglenifty, and the late Martyn Bennett, whose CDs we also featured in this review series. And some of the long-time traditional artists, most significantly the Chieftains, have also done their share of cross-cultural musical collaborations. More often than not, there is a geographical diversity to these groups, sometimes crossing the Atlantic. This week we have another very good example: a trio of two Americans and an Irishman, who bring together jazz backgrounds, in the case of the Americans, and impressive credentials as a player of the Uillean pipes. The group calls themselves the Olllam, spelled with three "L's." And their CD, also called The Olllam is their debut.

John McSherry is the Uillean piper. He's a native of Belfast, and developed a wide reputation performing with the Irish Band Lunasa, and his band biography says that he has performed with jazz innovator Ornette Coleman, as well as singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith. The Americans are both from the Detroit area. Tyler Duncan plays guitar, keyboards and also some Irish pipes and whistles. Michael Shimmin plays drums and percussion. Both Duncan and Shimmin are also involved with a Celtic crossover group called Millish. McSherry and the Americans apparently hit it off while touring on the festival scene, and wanted to work together. But it was difficult given their schedules geographical separation. So they began collaborating via the Internet, using Skype hookups to get together virtually for exchanges of ideas. They also exchanged files via e-mail. It's not clear whether the trio were actually physically together for the recording, or whether it was all done through file exchange, but the result is a rather fascinating all-instrumental recording that is less electronic-sounding than some previous Celtic fusion projects. On the CD, the trio is joined on several tracks by electric bassist Joe Dart. Their music often features electric piano evoking the sound of 1970s jazz-rock fusion, rhythms that are a blend of jazz-rock fusion with some alternative rock, with the Irish flutes and pipes generally riding over the top of the arrangements. The music can be subtle and easy-going at times, and at others break into some loud rock passages.

Unlike some of the other eclectic Celtic groups, the Olllam does not base its music on traditional compositions; the music is all original. They also avoid the standard Celtic rhythms, the jigs and reels. Instead, sometimes they take the six-beat meter of a jig and divide it in different ways. And because a couple of the guys came from a jazz background, there are some tracks in more unconventional rhythms, such as seven beats to a bar. The material, by all three members, is well-written, though in many cases riff-based. But they develop the music into more elaborate arrangements. Most of it though, is fairly melodic and not overly challenging to the listener.

Most of the seven tracks are fairly lengthy and go though a number of phases. After short prelude the CD leads off with a piece called The Belll, which like the band's same, is spelled with three L's. The piece is based on a fairly easy-going rhythmic groove that seems far from traditional Celtic. <<>> But then the pennywhistles and pipes come in, superimposing an Irish figure on top, and it becomes satisfyingly eclectic. <<>>

Also showing a lot of imagination is a piece called Three Signs of a Bad Man. The standard time signature for a jig is 6/8, arranged as two groups of three in quick succession. But the Olllam take the six-beat rhythm and put the accents in unusual spots and give it a completely different texture. <<>>

The Olllam again plays games with the time signatures on a piece called The Devilll for My Hurt, which gets into a somewhat Eastern-European-sounding 15-beat rhythm that is not exactly what you would dance the jig to. It's quite creative in combining the diverse influences. <<>>

There is something of an alternative rock texture to The Follly of Wisdom. It's also an interesting mix of influences and sonic textures. <<>>

A piece called The Tryst After Death is a bit more reminiscent of previous eclectic Celtic blends, with more of the rock beat. Still it develops nicely with creative and interesting sonic colors. <<>>

The Olllam excels with this kind of instrumental music by keeping their arrangements interesting. One of the best examples of the band's being able to blend fusion, rock and Celtic in an appealing way is Bridge of Glllass. <<>>

The CD ends with Prayer for Tears a slower, more contemplative-sounding piece that gradually builds to a kind of laid-back climax. <<>>

Irish piper John McSherry and American fusion musicians Tyler Duncan and Michael Shimmin's new joint album The Olllam is another interesting project taking Celtic influence and combining it with very non-traditional styles, in this case a mix of jazz-rock fusion and sometimes dark ambient-style instrumental music with the Uillean pipes and pennywhistles of the Irish heritage. While others have often built on the rhythms of jigs and reels, the Olllam approach it from more of a fusion direction and apply the Celtic influence more as a sonic color, or as a kind of counterpoint. It works well and proves to be appealing and will probably find an audience from among jam band and fusion fans as much as from Celtic music enthusiasts. The group's was drawn from some legendary Irish bards called the Ollam, though they add an extra third "L" and spell several of their titles with triple "L's," perhaps because of their status as a trio.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-plus. They collaborated on both sides of the Atlantic through the Internet, and the liner notes say the recording was made in both Belfast, Northern Ireland and in residential studios in Michigan. Sometimes the pieces fit together better than others, but overall, the sound is fairly clean and well-mixed. Dynamic range -- how well the recording reproduces the degrees of loudness and softness, is a bit better than average.

Those who lament music that does not follow strictly traditional Celtic style will probably not have much use for the debut CD by the Olllam. But the musicianship and creativity are there in abundance for those who take pleasure in stylistic eclecticism.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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