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Joe O’Donnell

Gael’s Vision - 40th Anniversary Edition

by Ian Mann

January 20, 2021


A great deal of care and attention has obviously gone into sprucing up the original recording and the standard of both the production and the playing is excellent throughout.

Joe O’Donnell

“Gael’s Vision”

(P & Q Celtic Arts)

We don’t normally deal with re-issues on the Jazzmann but this package from multi-instrumentalist and composer Joe O’Donnell features both archive and more recent material.

Best known as a violinist Joe O’Donnell was born in Limerick in 1948 but is now based in Coventry in the English Midlands, from where he leads Shkayla, a quintet that blends Celtic music with jazz and rock. A review copy of this album was forwarded to me by Shkayla’s bassist, Adrian Litvinoff, who lives in nearby Leamington Spa.

Litvinoff is a talented composer and bandleader in his own right and leads his own ‘world jazz’ quintet Interplay, a group that includes saxophonist Alan Wakeman. A review of a live performance by Interplay at Warwick Arts Centre in 2014 appears here;

Litvinoff is also involved with a number of other groups across a variety of genres on the Midlands music scene, with one of his most important engagements being his employment with Shkayla.

Shkayla (the Irish word for ‘stories’) is now O’ O’Donnell’s primary creative outlet. Originally formed in 1998 as a trio the group has undergone a number of line up changes before arriving at its current line up. Alongside regular live work the band has recorded three albums, “Shkayla” (1998), “Celtic Cargo” (2008) and “Into The Becoming” (2013).

O’Donnell’s musical career dates back to the 1970s and spans a variety of genres, including folk and rock. Among those with whom he has worked are East of Eden, Rory Gallagher and Gail and Terry Woods.

He has also fronted his own bands and in 1977 recorded the ambitious concept album “Gaodhal’s Vision”, which traced the legend of the migration of the Milesian people from the Middle East to Ireland. Settling in Ireland the Milesians effectively become the ‘first Celts’, and their descendants the modern Irish people of today.

In 2017, on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary, O’Donnell decided to revisit this work, re-mixing and expanding the original studio recording and also presenting a live version of the album at the Belgrave Theatre in Coventry, which was recorded and filmed for release on the DVD that also forms part of this package.

The theatre show featured the members of Interplay (O’Donnell, Litvinoff, Martin Barter (keyboards), Si Hayden (guitar), Karen Milne (drums)), plus guest musicians Ben Haines (percussion) and Aidan O’Brien (uillean pipes). The production also included visual projections and both ‘fusion’ (predominately Indian) and Irish dancing. The full package was eventually released in 2020 but as I don’t have a functioning DVD player at the moment I’ll be concentrating on the music of the audio recording only.

Now re-titled “Gael’s Vision” the 2017 re-master is based around the original studio recording but also includes enhanced arrangements, previously unheard contributions from guitarists Rory Gallagher and Jim Litherland and four tracks omitted from the original vinyl album due to lack of space. Additional instrumentation is provided by the members of Shkayla and by Haines on percussion and O’Brien on uillean pipes.  Haines and Hayden are both involved in the engineering and production process, alongside O’Donnell.

The original “Gaodhal’s Vision” album appeared on Polydor Records and was produced by flautist and multi-instrumentalist Jon Field, one half of the much missed and still greatly undervalued Jade Warrior (alongside the late guitarist Tony Duhig), a band that released an excellent series of albums for Island in the 1970s. O’ O’Donnell contributed to the Jade Warrior album “Kites” (1976).

Field plays flutes as part of a core line up that includes;

Joe O’Donnell – violin, violectra, mandolin, bodhran

Steve Bolton – guitars

Dave Lennox – keyboards

Bill Smith – bass

Theodore Thunder – drums

O’Donnell describes Shkayla’s music as “Celtic fusion”, and that’s a phrase that can equally be applied to “Gael’s Vision”. The fifteen part suite embraces styles ranging from folk to rock to jazz, with a smattering of classical flourishes thrown in as well. Originally recorded at the end of the prog rock era there’s definitely an element of that style and aesthetic in the music, but overall the work doesn’t sound dated and, as this is an all instrumental affair there are mercifully no pretentious vocals and lyrics to worry about.

The album liner notes explain the inspirations behind the individual movements and the journey commences with “The Vision”, in which Gaodhal, the leader of the Egyptian tribe the Milesians, hears directly from Moses that his descendants would “inherit the far western isle, a land without snakes” - i.e. Ireland or Eire. Led by O’Donnell’s violin the piece has a sense of wistfulness and an unmistakable air of Celtic mysticism about it, and acts as an affecting and effective overture for what is to come.

“The Exodus” depicts the falling out of the Milesians with the Pharaoh and their subsequent expulsion from Egypt in a fulfilment of Moses’ prophesy. One half of the tribe journey west across North Africa, while the other group travel the northern, or European, shores of the Mediterranean.
Following a brief solo violin introduction parts of this are pure jazz-rock fusion. As a violinist O’Donnell presumably absorbed something of the influence of players like Jean Luc Ponty and Jerry Goodman. Quick-fire metric changes, electrified violin, multiple keyboard sounds and some dynamic drumming all suggest the influence of fusion and prog rock, and the music sounds none the worse for that. It’s actually highly exhilarating and surprisingly refreshing.

The wanderings of the Milesian tribes saw them picking up musical influences and instruments en route, including percussion from North Africa and stringed instruments from the Mediterranean. Coming together again in Spain the Milesians made their plans for their final migration to Ireland.
“Caravan” represents the musical depiction of these wanderings, with massed strings combining with the rumble of percussion, alongside the more modern fusion influences. O’Donnell is a writer of strong melodies and these, combined to his evocative arrangements, help to give the music a real sense of place.

Sea Crossing And Storm” depicts the crossing to Ireland and the storms that the Milesian fleet encountered. Field’s flutes are allied to a powerful and grandiose orchestral arrangement to depict the swirling winds as the fleet is scattered.

The Milesians believed the storm to have been summoned up against them by the De Danaan tribe of magicians, but they were eventually able to make land and defeat the De Danaan in battle. The surviving Irish magicians were rumoured to have ‘miniaturised’ themselves, retreating to to the Tuath De or ‘underworld’, thus giving rise to the legend of leprechauns. Musically the piece “The Battle and Retreat Underground” is another powerful piece of violin led ‘Celtic fusion’ depicting the violence of the battle.

“Tara” is named for the ancient Irish capital or “Seat of the High King”, nowadays a 5,500 year old earthwork located in the modern county of Meath. With its lush orchestral arrangement the piece represents the ‘calm after the storm’ in the wake of the earlier battle.

“The Feish” (or ‘fair’) represents a period of reconciliation, something that finds musical expression in the form of an uplifting melody and a luminous orchestral arrangement. Eventually the music erupts into something more powerful and fusion-esque, but still ultimately celebratory, the grandiose fanfares eventually giving way to a closing jig.

“The Provincial Kings” was one of the tracks that was omitted from the original album and was only completed in 2017. The piece depicts the dividing of Ireland into the provinces that we till know today, Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht, with the four provincial kings all retaining residencies at Tara. There’s a sense of mediaeval pageantry about an arrangement that features O’Donnell on mandolin, plus the nimble acoustic guitar picking of Hayden, the percussion of Haines and the cajon of Karen Milne.

“The House of Hostages” is a sturdy slice of Celtic rock featuring electrified violin, powerful electric guitar chording and the surge of electric keyboards, all driven by some propulsive drumming from the wonderfully named Theodore Thunder (aka John Dentith), a ‘70s session veteran who had briefly worked with Field in Jade Warrior and with Smith and Litherland in the Manchester band Wide Open. Thunder’s contribution is excellent throughout the “Gael’s Vision” suite.

“For Trades and Hospitality” sees the Milesians increasing their influence across the island of Ireland from their base in Tara, sending tradesmen into the districts and establishing hospitality houses at major crossroads, presumably the forerunners of the Irish pub. Musically the piece is another gentle, pastoral string / orchestral interlude.

This acts as a prelude to the dynamic, high energy “House of Warriors”, introduced with a salvo of Thunder from the drums. Theodore helps to drive a tune that combines fiery fiddling with malevolent guitar chording in a musical embodiment of Tara’s garrison of one thousand warriors, plus a further elite force of one hundred and fifty solely dedicated to defending the High King.

“The Great Banqueting Hall” represents another pastoral interlude and paves the way for “Poets and Storytellers”. In those times artists such as these were held in high esteem throughout the land – very different to in the UK during the current pandemic, it would seem. Musicians are very much the modern troubadours, and one such was the late, great Rory Gallagher whose electric guitar features on this track, trading solos and melody lines with O’Donnell’s violin. Gallagher is best known as a hard edged, virtuoso blues player but he demonstrates his versatility here, soaring like Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour on the first part of the track, before getting down alongside the leader’s wah wah violin in the vibrant and unexpectedly funky second half.

The melancholic Celtic lilt of “Lament For Coire Sainne”  presents a gentler, rarely heard side of Gallagher as he features on acoustic guitar, alongside the leader’s violin and the emotive sound of O’Brien’s pipes.

The closing “Tribes” is a celebration of the Milesians’ settlement in Ireland and their division into a number of ‘sub tribes’. Their cultural values led to Ireland becoming renowned as “the Isle of Saints and Scholars”. The mood is vibrant, energetic and celebratory, but somehow manages to squeeze in Litherland’s acoustic guitar amid the powerful, sometimes funky grooves, the soaring violin and the swirling Hammond.

The DVD presents the “Gael’s Vision” suite in its entirety, plus an encore of “Swaggering”, combined with the traditional “Dever The Dancer”. It would have been great to have seen the expanded version of Shkayla’s performance of the suite, but I seem to recall that circumstances at the time prevented my attendance. Shamefully I’ve still never the seen the group live – maybe one day…

The audio half of this package is undeniably impressive. With its combination of musical styles “Gael’s Vision” is an excellent example of the qualities of adventurousness, ambitiousness and inquisitiveness that informed the best of that most maligned of genres – prog rock.

A great deal of care and attention has obviously gone into sprucing up the original recording and the standard of both the production and the playing is excellent throughout, congratulations are due to O’Donnell and to his teams of collaborators from both 1977 and 2017.

Although of its time the music doesn’t really sound dated, and as John O’Regan’s introductory essay notes the theme of this epic story of mass migration suddenly seems startlingly even more relevant in 2021.

Although it’s now over forty years old O’Donnell clearly stands by “Gael’s Vision” and in many respects the work stands as his crowning achievement. His work with Shkayla over the last twenty or so years has also helped to keep the spirit of the original “Gaodhal’s Vision” alive and will doubtless continue to do so.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this album. My thanks once again to Adrian Litvinoff for sending it my way.

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