Cillian Vallely is one of the great names in contemporary uilleann piping.  He’s a brilliant musician whose playing is synonymous with the tradition and with modern trends in traditional Irish music.  A longtime member of the seminal group Lúnasa (www.lunasa.ie), with whom he’s recorded seven albums and toured the world to major critical acclaim, he’s played on over 60 recordings, including “Callan Bridge” with his brother Niall, “On Common Ground” with Lúnasa bandmate Kevin Crawford, and he was a guest on Bruce Springsteen’s recent “High Hopes” album, which topped the charts in 14 countries.

Vallely has recently released “The Raven’s Rock,” his long awaited solo debut.  It’s a spectacular album that features beautiful solo playing and group work that will thrill Irish music fans.  Vallely’s rich tone and exhilarating talent is very much to the fore on each of the ten tracks, and his playing is complemented by a stunning group of guest musicians, including Niall Vallely (concertina), Caoimhin Vallely (piano), Sean Óg Graham (guitar), Paul Meehan (guitar), Ryan McGiver (guitar), Brian Morrissey (bodhran), and Jeremy Kittel (fiddle, viola), who provide dynamic support.

I had an opportunity recently to chat with Vallely about “The Raven’s Rock” and I asked him why it was time for a solo album.  “I’ve played a lot on other people’s albums, and obviously with Lúnasa and Kevin [Crawford],” he explained thoughtfully, “but I just wanted to do an album on my own with some of the other people I like playing with.  It’s something I hadn’t done yet and I thought it was a good idea to chance a few tunes I like, some of which I’d written, that I hadn’t had the opportunity to use in other projects.”

I was intrigued to know what made his album different from other piping albums out there, and he described an artistic vision that not only reflected on the solo piping tradition, but put great value on ensemble work.  “I’m very much into the older solo piping,” he told me “but I’m also into this more contemporary tradition of writing tunes and arranging them for groups.  I’ve never been one to just play ‘solo pipes.’”

It’s been this way since he was young.  “Growing up in the Armagh Pipers Club [an organization his parents founded in 1966], I was always playing in groups,” he revealed.  “My mother, actually, was very into arranging tunes and setting up groups and I found myself very comfortable in that sort of environment, playing with other players and working ideas out together as opposed to just playing solo.  I like solo playing too, but it could never just be solo for me.”

Given this ensemble-oriented background, I was interested to know what this group of players brought to the project? “Well,” he laughed, “two of them [brothers Niall and Caoimhin] grew up in the same household!  But I was trying to get some people from elsewhere – and not necessarily members of Lúnasa – to make it a bit different.  A couple of the guys I first got to play with because of my brothers.  Sean Og and Brian play in Buille, so I’ve played with them as a result, and I asked them because they’re great musicians and I love their ability and music.  Jeremy [Kittel] has been living in New York for a while now and he mostly works outside the Irish music world, but I play with him a fair bit and thought the very creative harmonic sense he has would work well on the project.  I’ve toured with Ryan [McGiver] a lot.  He’s a great guitarist and the one I’ve mostly played with in the U.S. for the last couple of years.”

The thing he feels makes this album stand out is how it more completely reflects his artistic sensibility.  “With a solo album though, you can essentially do what you want.  You can try and make it a bit more unique than the other things you might do and very much play in your style.  Here, I could pick tunes that not just suit the pipes but that really suit my style and my vision for how I thought things should be arranged.”

The results are truly outstanding.  “The Raven’s Rock” will surely be a hit with Lúnasa fans, but it’s an album anyone who loves Irish music will definitely want to hear.  Vallely will launch the album in New York City on Saturday, June 11 at Pier A Harbor House (www.piera.com) with guest musicians Kevin Crawford, Colin Farrell, Shane O’Sullivan, Jason Sypher, Ryan McGiver, and Patrick Doocey – it promises to be a thrilling evening.  When he’s not on tour with Lúnasa, he can be found hosting the music at the Dead Rabbit (www.deadrabbitnyc.com) on Sunday nights, generally with Crawford, McGiver, and Sypher.  For more information about “The Raven’s Rock” and to learn how to purchase, visit www.cillianvallely.com.

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