Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Great Irish Pianists

OH MY GOD!! Here it is St. Paddy’s already and I’ve completely forgotten to prepare a post for the green day, as I’ve done for the last two years. And me of Irish descent…..I should be ashamed of myself (and trust me, I am, I am……).

I blame Trumpomania, the Adventures of Dolt 45 for my forgetfulness. It’s so distracting and lazy-making – why bother to dream up something imaginative when you can just turn on the TV?

Anyway, enough of that…………. having left myself short on time, I thought it would be nice to celebrate the day with a wee look at some of the great Irish jazz pianists, starting with a big favourite of mine, Tommy Flanagan. Flanagan hailed from the County Monaghan city Moughtown, which proved to be a fertile jazz breeding ground. He was very “lace-curtain”, there never was an Irish pianist who played with more grace and lilt. Here he is on his first album with mates Wilbur Little on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, playing “Relaxin’ at Camarillo”, written by Charles Byrd for the famous botanical gardens of Clare. Note the green cover:

And here with a later trio, which for ages accompanied the great Irish can belto singer, Ella Fitzgerald. Miss Fitzgerald is not present on this track, but we’ll come to her later. Here, Flanagan abandons his Fenian roots by playing a medley of two songs associated with that noted English villain, the Duke of Wellington: the first written by his associate William Strahorne, and the second by the Duke himself. Ah well, I suppose Tommy couldn’t help himself, and he sounds so grand here it’s sure we’ll have to forgive him:

And on to another wonderful ivory-tickler from the auld sod, Wynton Kelly. Kelly was from the small Dublin suburb of Brooke Lynn and developed a style that was more “thatched-roof” than Flanagan’s, with fabulous craic and gumption. Here he is joined by bassist Sam Jones and the noted Irish drummer Philly O’Jones, celebrating the two main options of Irish life on “Come Rain or Come Moonshine”:

He dances a fair jig here, exploring indigenous Celtic folk-modality with another great Irish drummer, Jimmy Cobh, from the harbour town just south of Cork.

And on to another Moughtown man, Roland Hanna, playing the old air “Like Someone in Clover” with fellow Hibernians Ben Tucker on bass and Roy Burns on drums:

Later, Hanna strayed and sold out his Irish Republican roots – the poxy royalist bastard – going so far as to accept a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II herself. After narrowly escaping a couple of knee-cappings he eventually came back to the fold, as this clip of “Lush Life” demonstrates. It was written by William Strahorne when he was just a wee wane. Not, as is often said, as a nod to his countrymen’s fondness for a drink or two, but in tribute to the verdant and pastoral Irish countryside, home to so many buried rifles over the years:

And going back a little farther, let’s not forget Ellis Larkins, from Baltimore, County Cork. He’s perhaps not as well-known as these other great pianists of Erin, owing to the fact that he spent a lot of his time accompanying the country’s many fine balladeers. Here he steps out on his own on Moon G’Lough. Note the emerald-tinged cover art:

And here’s Larkins accompanying with typical “softness” that greatest of Irish singers, the aforementioned Ella Fitzgerald, on “My One Mahoney”. She never sounded better than on this program of airs by Kersh Wynne. (Also, I’d like to point out to a certain good guitarist friend that Larkins plays the ‘Cork changes’ here, landing on the I-minor chord on bar five, rather than repeating that silly English flat-VI-seventh business yet again. As Ian Paisley used to say, “You can’t beat the Irish for harmony…..”.)

There have been Irish jazz pianists of a more modern persuasion, such as McCoy Tyner, who made his name playing with the immortal Ulster-born tenor John Coleraine. Tyner developed a rhythmically powerful attack and explored traditional Irish modality using Uilleann pipe modes and the Puntatonic scale, named after the national currency. Here he plays his own “Effendi”, written for one of the ancient Celtic kings, in a trio with bassist Arthur Davis and drummer Elvin Jones. Note Jones’ swirling use of the 6/8 rhythms found in traditional Irish dances such as jigs, reels, and hornpipes:

And against all odds, Joanne Brackeen (born Joanne Grogan) managed to break through the more hidebound strictures of traditional Irish society, demonstrating the deeply matriarchal roots of the small island, all those priests notwithstanding. Early in her career she accompanied the noted Irish tenors Stan Getts and Joe Henderson before establishing herself as a leader. Her style could be a little on the I.R.A. side – challenging and explosive – but her inventiveness could also be very lyrical and melodic, as in this example. Here she explores “I’ve Got the World On A String” with the driving Irish bass-drums team of Cecil McBee and Aloysius Foster:

As they say, everybody’s Irish today, whether they like it or not.

Earlier, I used the terms “lace-curtain” and “thatched-roof” in describing the styles of Tommy Flanagan and Wynton Kelly, respectively. For those unfamiliar with these designations, perhaps I should explain. Lace-curtain Irish are from the more moneyed and educated classes, and tend to be found in cities or country manors. They’re genteel and refined, and other Irish people refer to them with some irony as “the quality.” Thatched-roof Irish are poorer and “of the land” – farmers, labourers and such. They’re a little more lively and rough around the edges, often living in small cottages with thatched roofs, hence the name.

My old friend John Sumner explained this to me years ago and illustrated the difference between the two classes with the following joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a lace-curtain Irishman and a thatched-roof Irishman?

A: A lace-curtain Irishman takes the dirty dishes out of the sink before he pees in it.

All joking aside, here’s a lovely version of “Down By the Sally Gardens” by Clannad. It’s a musical setting of a poem by William Butler Yeats and was a favourite song of another great Irish writer, Shame’s Choice.

Sodom and Begorrah, Sláinte, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day.



© 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Great Irish Pianists

  1. There was really only ONE EVER (sadly passed, 7 months ago, and the grief hits REAL hard………………….).

    PS.: This, right now, given the gravity of the above is NO time for jokes, but you forgot McCoy Tynan – and Sarah Vaughan is as irish a name as Flanagan, or edward “Kennedy” ellington.
    You know that old joke about the jewis person and the black person fighting over NOTHING – one is driven in blind rage to utter “FUCK GOLDA MEIER”, and the jewish man says, well then, “Fuck ELLA FITGERALD”!

    To close: MORE SERIOUS AGAIN…………………….. (why can an irishman – onl only ever play SUCH BLUES, Steve?).

  2. Thanks Steve, because we should all celebrate St Ella, a patron saint in any country, and never better than when she sang with Ellis Larkins ,who’s great natural comping gift fitted her perfectly. Terry

  3. Damn Steve, you were riffin’ on that Puntatonic scale in great form! Very enjoyable and my vintage PC also let me hear a couple of Bill Maher videos where he was, as usual, shredding #45. Totally enjoyable and once again my Jazz education picked up a few kernels of wisdom… That Tullamore can sure inspire a fellows writing…….Cheers… Jack

  4. Steve, while I really enjoyed this article, I continue to be dismayed that you fail to honour the contribution of Scottish jazz artists on Robbie Burns day. While the reasons for this omission may be self evident, I still feel slighted.

    All the best … Bill

  5. I suppose you left out Armagh jO’Malley because he’s from Ulster. That probably explains why he played “Nature Boy” and “Billy Boy” but never “Danny Boy.”
    Eddie Condon said “lace-curtain Irish” are “the kind of people who have fresh fruit in the house when no one is even sick.”

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