Bagpipes player Matthew Welch was introduced to followers of the Leo label in 2001 on Anthony Braxton's Composition N. 247. Ceol Nua, released a year later, is his first CD as a leader. Welch works in a highly distinctive and largely uncharted field, the only other bagpipes player in avant-garde/free improv music at the turn of the millennium being Paul Dunmall. The three pieces presented here illustrate as many different contexts. In "Cherede Otroenhe," Welch plays with the Janacek Conservatory Orchestra. Solemn and introspective, it breaks a few prejudicial concepts about the instrument. "Traversing Mad-Hatten" is a solo piece sounding closer to the bagpipes' folk roots, even though its complex modular architecture shows the composer's debt to Braxton. But the highlight of the album is "Symphony of Drones," a 40-minute extravaganza for 15 musicians: seven saxophones, four electric guitars, two double basses, and a drummer, plus the composer who conducts and plays bagpipes and soprano saxophone. The orchestra, all musicians based at Wesleyan University, includes Kevin O'Neill, Steve Lehman, Jackson Moore, and Jonathan Zorn. The piece explores the contrasts between soft drones and episodes of feverish activity verging on rock. Welch's bagpipes occasionally get buried by the brass section and he might have been a little overconfident in the duration of the composition, but his attempt to integrate the tradition of the instrument into modern big-band music is fascinating. Recommended, unless you can't stand the instrument of course.
AllMusic Review by François Couture