THE collection on this album is no more, nor no less, than Ronnie Drew's musical epitaph, the music he wanted the public to hear after a lifetime of playing and recording in the world-renowned style of the Dubliners and their associates.
This album is different. The musicians backing Ronnie are jazz players, the duets are with some of our leading singers in a diversity of styles, including classical, and Hugh Buckley's inspired arrangements place Ronnie in a setting he has never had before.
It is also something of great historical importance -- Ronnie Drew's last record, made between November 2007, and May 2008, three months before he died. The idea was born from an interview Aengus Fanning did with Ronnie for the Sunday Independent in August 2007, not long after his wife Deirdre's death, also from cancer, a few months earlier.
Ronnie had over the years been a frequent caller to jazz gigs at JJ Smyth's in Dublin where he sat in with Hugh and Richie Buckley, and Myles Drennan. Around the same time, he frequently came to the late Peter O'Brien's gigs and did shows with him at the NCH in jazz style.
He loved the idiom and on more than one occasion he lamented the fact that he had spent most of his life playing what he called "diddly aye" music.
After that heart-breaking interview, Aengus suggested to Ronnie that, if he could get sponsorship, they might enlist Hugh Buckley's musical genius and get a record done in that style. Michael Fingleton of the Irish Nationwide Building Society came up with €25,000 and the show which became The Last Session was on the road.
On a cold morning in November, 2007, Aengus picked Ronnie up at his Greystones home to drive to Gavin Ralston's studio in Newtownmountkennnedy.
"I'm f***ed," said Ronnie as he sat into the car. "In the long run, we're all f***ed," said Aengus.
An hour later, Ronnie was as happy as Larry in Gavin's studio, surrounded by his friends Hugh, Myles, and Dave Fleming, working with dedication, love and fun on Kurt Weill's September Song.
Over the following seven months, there were eight sessions in all with the initial band being joined by Richie, Paul Sweeney, and Ciaran Wilde, and singers as contrasting as Damien Dempsey, Mary Coughlan and Emmanuel Lawlor.
Hugh recalled the unique atmosphere in the intimate studio during the sessions. "We were all friends and there was a great vibe of mutual respect in the air.
"Each day in the studio was full of that wonderful feeling that something special was happening."
All the guest singers loved the project and were honoured to record with Ronnie.
Damien said, "Now I've finally made it. I've recorded with Ronnie Drew." Emmanuel said afterwards, "This was one of the very best days of my life." Mary said, "It was a once in a lifetime thrill."
The choice of songs was Ronnie's. September Song, the great jazz standard Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, Shane MacGowan's A Rainy Night in Soho, Mikey Hanrahan's The Best of Times, The Auld Triangle, Love's Old Sweet Song, The Last Wave and Molly Malone.
Hugh Buckley's brilliant and sensitive arrangements breathe new life into even the best-known of these songs, and the musicianship of Richie Buckley, Myles Drennan, Dave Fleming, Hugh Buckley, Paul Sweeney and Ciaran Wilde imbues the album with a unique quality, a quality that Ronnie loved when he heard the playbacks.
Gavin Ralston's technical genius in the studio and his feel for the project as a fine musician himself are evident in the superb engineering that ensured state-of-the-art quality.
For Ronnie and Deirdre's children, Phelim and Cliodhna, it was heartbreaking to lose both parents within such a short time.
Phelim Drew says, "Making this album meant a lot to Dad. He was very ill but he was determined to do it. And what we have on record as a result is a real treasure. Among the best things he has ever done."
Cliodhna Drew adds, "I was in the house on those Thursday mornings when Aengus called for Dad to make the short journey from Greystones to Newtownmountkennedy. As always, he dressed immaculately and, after a cup of coffee at home, set out in good spirits for the work and camaraderie of the studio. For Dad, it was a very happy enterprise."
'The Last Session: A Fond Farewell' on the Celtic Collections label (€15) is in record stores now, including Extravision and Tesco, and on download from iTunes. The Cancer research Programme at St Vincent's Hospital will benefit from sales of the CD