As a flute player, a double bass player and a composer, Clare-born musician Neil Ó Lochlainn has a natural a foothold in several radically different traditions, especially in his role as leader of Ensemble Ériu, the enchanting acoustic septet he co-founded in 2011 with concertina player Jack Talty. By drawing a connection between the circular patterns of traditional Irish music, the repetitive nature of contemporary classical minimalism and jazz improvisation, Ensemble Ériu have broken impressive new ground over three albums to date.

Neil Ó Lochlainn dug deeper into his blended approach of marrying written sections with improvisation by forming Cuar, a new acoustic chamber/jazz trio with Matthew Berrill on clarinet and Aoife Ní Bhriain on fiddle. The resulting five-part suite Roscanna was released in 2017.

Self-released on 25 November 2022 last and recorded live with an entirely new line-up including Ultan O’Brien (Slow Moving Clouds & as a duo with Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin) on fiddle and viola, Sam Comerford (Saxophone and Clarinet), Colm O’Hara (trombone) and guest musician Pádraic Keane (uilleann pipes), Umhaill “takes its name from a suite of music written by Ó Lochlainn while resident at the Heinrich Böll cottage on Achill Island in September 2019”.

Neil Ó Lochlainn & Cuar - Umhaill (2022)
Neil Ó Lochlainn & Cuar – Umhaill (2022)

The importance of place names and their origins has always been a strong feature of the oral traditions associated with Celtic languages. The Dinnshenchas in Ireland for instance refer to early Irish texts dating back to the 11th and 12th century which compile origin legends about well-known places and how these were named in the first place. More recently, writer and cartographer Tim Robinson dedicated his lifetime documenting the intricacies of the West Coast of Ireland – in particular Connemara, the Aran Islands and the Burren – often reviving stories and myths gathered from conversations with locals and uncovering minute topographical details about the landscape in the process. By the same token, countless traditional and newly-composed tunes in Irish music are associated with place names and features of the local landscape.

Released last November and underpinned by the same creative process permeating the present record, Mapaí agus Finscéalta – Maps and Legends is a short film “probing the links between poetry, placename, landscape and mythology” with a soundtrack composed by Neil Ó Lochlainn.

Adopting a similar approach, the music on Umhaill is rooted in the rugged landscape of Achill Island in County Mayo. Umhaill refers to the name of the Gaelic territory around Clew Bay as it was called between the 8th and the 16th century.

Apart from “Johnny Seoighe”, every song title is named after locations and townlands on Achill Island – “An Sliabh Mor”, “Dumha Goirt Thoir” etc. “Johnny Seoighe” is the instrumental version of a traditional sean-nós famine song whose performance on the record was inspired by the deserted village at the foot of Slieve More. The ruined small stone houses abandoned in the years following the famine still stand to this day, and the cover artwork on the CD is an archival photograph of the deserted village taken in the 1940s.

The meditative compositions and improvisations on Umhaill are grounded in the structures and phrasing of slow airs or traditional tunes from which melodic offshoots constantly emerge, while the final section on “An Sliabh Mor” almost plays like a field recording or an audio archive captured on the side of the titular peak. Ultan O’Brien’s fiddle or viola often lead while saxophone, bass clarinet or trombone provide the droning backdrop to the slower pieces.

While some of the compositions are quite detailed in the writing, some are just short sketches. This gives the music a feeling of urgency and unpredictability. I wanted to create a sort of organic sound which has a certain looseness and structurelessness to it.

On the opening “Gob a’Choire”, saxophone and trombone converse freely against the majestic drone of bowed double bass and viola whose combined timbre evokes the drone of the uilleann pipes. Yet, the traditional instrument only features on the concluding track of the album.

The double bass takes on a rhythmic role on “B​é​al an Átha Salaigh”, thus introducing a fresh improvisational slant to the proceedings. “Dumha Acha” and the majestic 12mn long finale “Cuan na Coime ” both feature Neil Ó Lochlainn on flute. Nested within improvised sections whereby Ultan O’Brien’s fiddle and Sam Comerford’s saxophone intertwine, “R​í​l Elba​/​R​í​l Sotta” are fabulous compositions teasing the familiar structures of the traditional reel.

With a superb ensemble cast of like-minded musicians, all of whom are part of a wider network of working traditional, jazz and contemporary collectives in Ireland and further afield, Neil Ó Lochlainn’s Umhaill elicits a fantastic and spontaneous new musical mapping of Achill Island which resonates far beyond its regional borders.