A version of this article first appeared in Irish Music Magazine, June 2012.
Who knows what it was that drew him to the tiny toy accordion in the toy store? “I didn’t want to leave without it,” recalls Dan, still boyish at 25. His Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion came out in 2011, and consists of 15 sets, accompanied by Brian McGrath on piano. It’s a confident piece of work. The arrangements are simple, with the music and tunes speaking for themselves. They take jaunty turns and have an accent that mixes Irish nuance with Dan’s own shy certainty.
Seven-year old Dan did go home without the toy accordion that day, but only because it was just before Christmas and his parents already had one waiting for him at home. “I don’t know how they managed to figure that out,” he says with a laugh. Amazingly, it was a toy button accordion. “It’s got little metal keys,” he remembers fondly. He soon upgraded to a real instrument.
“That’s all I wanted to play. Something clicked. Now that I’ve been playing it for a while, I can have a little more perspective. I think it’s interesting that it’s a mechanical instrument and there only certain notes that you can play, and yet you can still get some really interesting music out of it.”
He has also played jazz, and the tenor saxophone, but, he says, he “always comes back to Irish music.”
Dan had fallen in love with the music when his parents began taking him to Father (now Monsignor) Charlie Coen’s concerts at the Rhinecliff Hotel, a town over from where he grew up in Rhinebeck, New York. There, at what Dan describes as a “rundown little bar right on the Hudson river,” Dan got to see Joanie Madden, Seamus Connolly, Mick Moloney. Father Charlie, says Dan, would “get everybody up from the city to play a concert and have a session afterwards.”
Dan’s own parents were not Irish musicians, and though there’s an Irish ancestor somewhere, he says, he wasn’t brought up in that community. “I grew up half Italian, and it was definitely not Irish culture.” His parents learned about the concerts run by Father Charlie, born in East Galway, from a family friend.
Over the years, his teachers have included Billy McComiskey, John Whelan, John Nolan, and of course, Father Charlie, who plays concertina, flute and whistles. In the 12–page booklet that accompanies the CD, Billy recalls giving a seven–year old Dan his first lesson on the B/C box him up at the Catskills Irish Arts Week. “As Sean McGlynn would have said, he was like a sponge,” Billy writes. Monsignor Charlie Coen writes that the seven–year old Dan began showing up to the twice–monthly sessions “he would come back each time having mastered some new tunes all on his own.” Earle Hitchner, formerly the music columnist for the “Irish Echo,” describes writing about him for “The Wall Street Journal” when Dan was just 11.
The album was recorded in Ireland in August 2011, at the studio of Paul Gurney (no relation) in Longford. Dan says that his playing changed dramatically when he lived in Galway after graduating from college in 2009. You have to push him a little to admit that the college was Harvard University, where he majored in music, and that his trip was a result of winning the Henry Russell Shaw Fellowship.
“Somehow I convinced them to give me money to go over there and play music.”
“I was lucky enough to get to hang out with people like Brian McGrath, and Johnny ‘Ringo’ McDonagh, and they educated me on certain music I should be listening to. I started listening to Michael Coleman records, John Joe Gordon, Seamus Tansey.”
All of this changed the way he thought about the music.
“Irish music has a lot in it. The tunes are simple, but there’s a lot of subtlety the way you play the tunes. Everybody plays it a little differently. At a certain point when you listen to the music you can tell a lot about their personality, where they might be from, or whatever mood they’re in at the time they are playing.”
For example, he says, someone might push the rhythm a little bit, or play a little slow on purpose.
The whole recording session took just a few hours.
“I didn’t want to over practice. We sat down, and it went really well.”
The tunes include some leared from Boston flute player, Jimmy Noonan, including “The Brook;” some he’d played at Tigh Coli, such as “Contentment is Wealth;” hornpipes learned from Boston box player, Joe Derrane, including “The Eclipse,” and several from Father Charlie, including “Driving the Cows Home” and “The Humors of Bandon.”
Today, Dan lives in New York, and can be found at sessions at Lillie’s, 11th Street, and the Brass Monkey. But his day job is to be one of the creators of Concert Window, a start–up internet service to stream live music concerts all over the world. The site features folk and bluegrass concerts, and includes such top venues as Club Passim, (Le) Poisson Rouge, Freight and Salvage. To watch a concert costs viewers just a few dollars, and profits are shared between the club and the artist.
Concert Window, he says, helps keep a community tight-knit that can be thousands of miles apart. Writing code is “mechanical, like the accordion,” says Dan.
He can’t keep from mentioning it. It must be love.