Monday, September 08, 2014

Abundance: Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas

Abundance: that is the name Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas have chosen for their most recent recording. It is also an idea which informs the tunes they have composed, selected, and gathered for the project.

Fraser plays the fiddle: Haas is a cellist -- the wee fiddle and the big fiddle, as they sometimes call it.

The tunes encompass both traditional pieces and original ones. All are based in the music that flows from Scotland, with, at times, hints and flavours of other lands and other styles included, from jazz to classical to Cape Breton (which, yes, flows from Scotland too, but has its own voice).

What’s especially engaging here is the level of musical conversation between the bright lines of the fiddle and the dark rhythms of the cello, balanced always, turning and dancing and leading down paths expected and unexpected. The opening track, called The Corrie Man, is a tune from Arran which invites visions of lively step dancers, while the pairing of Neil Gow’s Wife and The Old Reel brings in a tinge of classical ideas. There are four tunes which are part of Connie’s Suite -- a commission for a long time friend's birthday which included elements of dance and place important to the honoree, including the intriguingly titled -- and played -- Ouagadougou Boogie. This turns out to be a really fine mix of Celtic, jazz, and African elements, a suggestion of a not so Scottish place place in Africa that’s near Timbuktu.

This is followed on by Braigh Lochiall, which evokes the heart of the Highlands of Scotland, Another tune, The Referendum was composed by Fraser to celebrate the upcoming vote (the referendum vote on Scotland;s independence is about ten days away at this writing) and in honour of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond’s visit to his fiddle course at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye.

The musical conversations between Fraser on fiddle and Haas on cello center of the music on Abundance. They have invited friends into the story too, though -- several of them musicians you have met here before along the music road. Hanneke Cassel is on piano, James Macintosh handles percussion, Corey DiMario is on bass, Donald Shaw adds accordion, Brittany Haas joins in on fiddle Stefan Amidon is also percussion, Kai Welch and Oscar Utterström sit in on horns. This varied grouping of talents is particularly in evidence on the closing track of the sixteen on the disc, called The Kelburn Brewer.

In their notes, Fraser and Haas remark on the collaboration and community they’ve encountered as they follow the big fiddle and the wee one in their travels. Musical connection is, they suggest, part of the true idea of abundance,. They conclude with this wish: “So here’s to a healthy flourishing of new ideas amongst an open, questioning, listening synergistic group of people that honour the acts of creating and sharing. This album is both a tribute and a thank you to the people we meet along the way. It is a celebration of music and community and possibilities. To the spirit of Abundance!

Photographs of Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas are by Kerry Dexter. They were made at the Celtic Connections Festival with permission of the festival, the artists, and the venue, and are copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.

You may also wish to see
Highlander's Farewell: Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas
Hanneke Cassel: For Reasons Unseen
Scotland's Music: Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming -- A Scottish Fantasy

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Monday, August 18, 2014

music, time, memory: Mary Black

“I'll never actually stop singing,” Mary Black says. The Irish musician does find herself, after more than thirty years of taking her music to places as diverse as Chicago and Tokyo, Australia and Amsterdam, ready to give up the road, though. To mark and celebrate that, Black is in the midst of a year long run of gigs that takes her back to many of her favourite places. She’s calling it The Last Call Tour.

It’s good to know that she’ll not be giving up singing -- indeed that’s been a part of her life since her earliest memories, and something she has always loved.

“My father was born and reared on Rathlin Island, off the north east coast of Ireland, within the six counties, so it’s not under Irish rule. It’s an incredibly beautiful place, a place of great magical memories for us growing up. We were born and reared in the heart of Dublin city, in a business street with a shop, Black’s General Grocers, and to be whisked away every summer from that kind of environment to this wild kind of place that had no electricity, no running water, all the things that people take for granted in the big city but yet had this lifestyle that was so exciting to us as kids -- it was a magical place. It holds a special place. It’s very much a part of who we are, as a family,” Black says.

Black’s father, Kevin, was a fiddle player steeped in the traditional music of this remote place halfway between Ireland and Scotland. To this was added the musical tastes and love of singing of her mother, Patty, who grew up in the Liberties area in the heart of Dublin City and loved popular music and show tunes. The couple instilled a love of music in their children, so much so that brothers Shay, Michael, and Martin, and sister Frances as well as Mary have all worked professionally in music. At times, all five have performed and recorded together as well.

Though at first she struggled with the idea of being on stage, by her late teens Black joined up with the band General Humbert. It also caused her to add a dimension to her stage work. “It was a traditional Irish band, and it was like they were the musicians and I was the singer. When they were playing tunes, I felt like, what’ll I do with myself? So, I picked up the bodhran.” That’s a traditional Irish frame drum, an instrument Black plays still. ”I was lovely to be a part of what they were doing, and not just be the singer,” she says, and she still enjoys that.

Black began her international touring career in the early 1980s when she was invited to join the long running band De Dannan. The first song she recorded with them, Song for Ireland, is a favorite with her audiences still. It’s a contemporary song, one that honors tradition while bringing it forward. From her earliest days of recording, Black has been as master of choosing songs which do that, and which allow her room to put her own stamp on them. “I always want to choose strong material,” she says, “and something I feel I can work with and interpret and express something, and add something to the song.”

So she has. After three years (“three amazing years -- we packed so much into them it seems like more even when I look back,” she recalls) touring with De Dannan and learning about the music business, during which she recorded several well received solo albums, Black decided it was time to take the risk of going out on her own and exploring more deeply the direction in which her own musical tastes were calling her.

By the Time it Gets Dark, released in 1987, found Black drawing on folk, pop, and singer songwriter styles in an elegant combination that introduced her to audiences beyond Ireland as a solo artist, and continued the threads of musical exploration and adventurous taste in material that have lasted on in her recordings. A few years later, she was part of a project of a different scope which also found wide international audiences. Black’s record company was working on a compilation project featuring Irish artists. “So many of them came out to be women,” Black recalls, “that I said, why not keep it just to women? And I think the lovely thing about it is that people might know Maura O'Connell, or they might know me, and they’d buy the record on that, and they get to hear all these other artists, so it was great for everyone.” The first album sparked two more, resulting in A Woman's Heart: Trilogy and subsequent recordings building on the idea as well.

Though she often includes songs in Irish on her albums and in her concerts, Black did not grow up grow up speaking Irish, other than as required in school. Over the years, though, she’s increasingly come to hold the language as part of ireland’s way of life, of its music. “That's why I’ve chosen to have a holiday home down in an Irish speaking area,” she says. “I love the language, and I love the fact that it’s alive and kicking!”

But what about this Last Call Tour business? "I've been touring for thirty years and all that travelling does take it out of you, so I just felt it was the right time," she told the Irish Independent. “I'll never actually stop singing, I'm not ready to give that up yet, but I just don't want to do that hard slog any more; it's grueling.” Black has grandchildren at home to enjoy now, and she’s also just completed work on a memoir. It is called Down the Crooked Road and is expected to be published in October. Black’s daughter Roisin worked on the book with her.

Black, as ever, is looking forward. “I'd like to pick and choose what I want to do,” says Mary Black. “It's another chapter for me and my family and it's exciting."

photograph courtesy of Mary Black

You may also wish to see
Mary Black and Steve Cooney: Just a Journey
Mary Black: By the Time It Gets Dark
Mary Black: 25 years 25 songs

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Music, connection, education: Nicola Benedetti

“Your sound is what you speak through. It should be like telling a story. Be as present as you can be -- and make it sound like you’re making things up as you go, like a painter painting a story.” That's classical violinist Nicola Benedetti speaking, during a master class she taught for students at Florida State University. As with any such class, quite a bit of the time was devoted to specific and detailed comment and explanation on technique. As a natural part of this part of things, though, Benedetti continued to remind students that techniques -- and understanding of techniques -- are tools, at the service of the spirit and ideas of music.

“It’s up to you,” she continued, “it’s up to your imagination to dig deep into the music and come up with a story the way you want to tell it. People can suggest things, but it is completely up to you.” That may involve as much reflection as it does time with instrument in hand, she added. “ If you were to listen outside my practice room, what you’d hear is a lot of silence. You have to slow your thought processes down...”

Benedetti is passionately convinced of the power of music, as a means of expression, a means of connection, and a way of centering, and a way of learning about one’s self in the world. She began finding all these thing early in her own life. At the age of four, growing up in Ayrshire in Scotland, she followed her older sister into studying the violin. A dozen or so years later, on winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award, she found many opportunities offered her. Some of them, it turned out, were not leading her in ways she felt honored the music she was called to make. She went more deeply into the music she was called to play to renew and refresh her perspective, to guide her focus as she made decisions going forward.

Benedetti speaks about this, and directions resulting from her choices

Part of her calling is going deep into the heart of music, and part of it is sharing her passion for the importance of music -- not classical music alone -- in life and education. On the education side, she is Big Sister with Sistema Scotland, which helps bring music to children, especially those who might not otherwise have a chance to encounter it, she gives master classes as her concert schedule takes her across the world, and she’s recently begun and another educational initiative called The Benedetti Sessions, which allows children to work together in a concentrated period of time of learning what it’s like to play music, about the value of practice and focus, and about working together and alone to make music.

Then there’s that concert and recording schedule. Benedetti has a clear-- and it’s apparent from her choices -- adventurous focus on what sort of music she’s called upon to create and share, and a clear view too of the fact that interpretation is as creative and demanding a music practice as is composition.

In addition to classical repertoire including Tchaikovsky, Tavener, and Vivaldi, she has recorded an album of film music, The Silver Violin (you may find the piece she plays in the video above included there) and, honoring her native land, an album called Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy, in which Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy appears alongside music from contemporary Scottish composer Phil Cunningham, songs from the Gaelic tradition with Julie Fowlis as singer, melodies from Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns, and a fresh and graceful take on the well loved piece The Banks of Loch Lomond. A beautiful and creative joining of musical talents from the classical nd folk traditions, Homecoming is a project which is likely to open both to new audiences -- and indeed at present is in the top twenty and climbing in pop charts in the UK, an unusual feat for a classical album.

A gifted and creative musician, an artist with passion for sharing her own creativity and opening doors for others to experience their own gifts: that is Nicola Benedetti.

In an interview with The Spectator she said: “I’m absolutely convinced – and I want the world to know what I know – that there is something in the music itself that can bring you to a place of substance. And from that place, I truly believe that anything is possible.”

photograph of Nicola Benedetti and Phil Cunningham at Celtic Connections is by Kerry Dexter, and is copyrighted. It was made with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue..

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis: Every Story
Scotland's Music: Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming -- A Scottish Fantasy
Celtic and classical: Tony McManus

Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy [US link]

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

Scotland's Music: Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming -- A Scottish Fantasy

Folk music and classical music: both traditions go back long into the work and life of Scotland, yet rarely are they heard together. That happened at the opening concert of the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow in 2014, when top classical violinist Nicola Benedetti and top folk musicians including Phil Cunningham, Julie Fowlis, Duncan Chisholm, Aly Bain, and Eamon Doorley shared parts of a project they ahd been working on, a project which has now become Benedetti’s recording Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy. Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy [US link]

Though she’s a native Scot, from West Kilbride in Ayrshire, Benedetti’s gift and passion for classical music took her away from the west of Scotland to study in London by the age of ten. Her music training took her in other directions than traditional jigs and reels, too, but Benedetti has always had Scotland in the back of her mind. She’s recorded top albums of classical music from Taverner to Tchaikovsky to Vivaldi as well as an album of film music which made pop as well as classical charts, and played her music with orchestras, in recitals, and in chamber music configurations from India to Hong Kong to South America -- and often back in her native Scotland.

Benedetti always receives a warm welcome when she plays in Scotland, whether she is appearing in concert or following another aspect of her musical passion, sharing her work with younger players as part of the program Sistema Scotland and in other educational settings, including her emerging program of master classes called the Benedetti Sessions

It was time to for her to bring classical and traditional music of her native land together. Drawing on emerging friendships in the traditional music scene in Scotland (“I think the sense of togetherness that traditional musicians have is one things I’ll take away from this, and hope to repeat,” she says) she came up with a program which deftly intertwines the classical (Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, part of which is based on four Scottish folk tunes), well known and loved traditional music of Scotland with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as backing band (the Robert Burns tune My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond), and traditional and contemporary folk music including tunes composed by Phil Cunningham (Aberlady, The Gentle Light that Wakes Me), a traditional hornpipe, a set of tunes from Scottish folk icon James Scott Skinner, variations on Auld Lang Syne, and a Gaelic song from the Hebrides with Julie Fowlis as vocalist.

Whatever your taste in music, it’s worth the cost of the disc just to hear these musicians, all at the very top of their game and from very differing points of the musical compass, collaborate on music they all hold as vibrant and important. They bring thoughtful, powerful, and fresh interpretations to the well known and often played pieces and weave them gracefully with the ideas and sounds of those less widely known.

You will feel the mist rising off the water at Loch Lomond in Benedetti’s interpretation, and hear the connections, as well, among the sounds of Gaelic as Julie Fowlis sings it, the classical forms of Bruch compositions, and the melody of another Burns song, Ae Fond Kiss. Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy is a well done, beautifully thought out and brilliantly played collaboration. If you love Scotland you’ll certainly want it, and if you don’t, Homecoming might just inspire a visit.

“I have a constant yearning for Scotland,” Nicola Benedetti told an interviewer for the Telegraph newspaper. “The music on this album comes from a very deep, emotional place. Recording it was a very moving experience.”

Photograph of Nicola Benedetti at Celtic Connections is by Kerry Dexter, and was made with permission of the festival, the artist, and the venue.

Stay tuned here at Music Road for more on each of the musicians mentioned in this story

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis: Every Story
Celtic Connections 2014
Phil Cunningham and Scott-Land at Celtic Connections
Scotland's Highlands in music: Duncan Chisholm
Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy [US link]

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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ireland's music: Cara Dillon: Lass of Glenshee

Cara Dillon is from Dungiven in Northern Ireland, a town just near the Sperrins and just west of Derry. She has a fine new album out, A Thousand Hearts, about which there will be more here along the music road presently. Meanwhile, though, take a listen and a look at Dillon and friends perfoming a haunting take on The Lass of Glenshee at Fleadh Cheoil 2013 in Derry.

Dillon has recorded the song on her album Hill of Thieves.

You may also wish to see
Ireland's music: two voices in which you'll learn about a fine album from Cara's sister Mary
Celtic Connections 2013: Images
Radio Ballads: Northern Ireland

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

celtic connections: seeing music

Celtic Connections, a celebration of music held in Glasgow, Scotland every January, is one of the world’s great music festivals. Artists from across the realm of Celtic connection come to share their music. One of the great things about such festivals is the chance to be present with the musicians and the music, to be part of that connection which occurs when music is shared in person.

At Celtic Connections, that connection is fostered in places ranging from the main concert hall -- which despite being, as you might think, a large place, still offers and air of welcome and intimacy -- to the church turned pub that is Oran Mor. From the down home feeling at the National Piping Centre to the elegance of City Halls, from the Old Fruitmarket -- which is actually that, it did used to be a fruit market -- to the classic and classy Georgian former church that is Saint Andrews in the Square and at many sites between, music finds its place in Glasgow in January.

Here is a bit of what that looked like this year.

American songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, who has been spending time in Scotland working on her music lately, invited Scottish singer Julie Fowlis, on the left in this photograph, to join in with her for a song during opening night festivities

This year, as Celtic Connections was turning twenty one, the band Capercaillie was marking thirty years since high school friends Donald Shaw and Karen Matheson started the band off in Oban, and they were also celebrating the release of their album At the Heart of It All with a concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

You’ll most often find Nicola Benedetti and her violin sharing stage with orchestras and chamber musicians, but on this might the native Scot and home town favorite (she is from nearby Ayrshire) joined up with folk artists Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham, Julie Fowlis and others for tunes and songs and stories from a project they’ve been working on which will be Benedetti’s next recording. It’s meant to be released this summer.

Karen Matheson and Michael McGoldrick of Capercaillie

Over at the National Piping Centre, Irishman Eamonn Coyne and Kris Drever, from Orkney, offered a warm, intimate set of tunes and songs and lively bits of banter too, featuring music from their latest collaboration, an album called Story Map

At the Old Fruitmarket, a creative joining of musical talents found Parween Khan as the opening act, with music from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland following on. Parween is from Rajahstan, where she is carrying on ancient tradition of song called maanda, which might sound a bit like sean nos to those familiar with that Celtic style.

The following act was Rant fiddles, four women whose energy and creativity speak of musical connections from the Highlands to the Black Isle to the Nordic influenced style of Shetland. That Highland flavour comes from Sarah-Jane Summers, who is pictured above. Julie Fowlis closed the evening, introducing her new album of songs in Scottish Gaelic, Every Story.

Photographs are by Kerry Dexter and were made with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venues involved. They are copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.

You may also wish to see
Collaborations: Music from the Heart
Celtic Connections 2014: reflections, part one

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Bluegrass and country: Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent grew up in the heartland of North America, in Missouri, surrounded by music and diving into it herself as soon as she could..

"Every day when I got home from school, my father and grandfather were waiting, and we'd sing 'til dinner. After dinner other friends came around and we literally played every night of my life while I was growing up," Rhonda Vincent recalls. Though she did sometimes miss taking part in school activities when she got to be a teenager, "music was so important to me -- it really was a way of life. School was just something I did, I had to do, but I'd be thinking okay, now that's over for the day and I can run home and get to the music," she says.

It’s a love that’s lasted, taking Vincent through time playing with her family band, the Sally Mountain Show, to early solo albums in bluegrass, through several years in Nashville working on a career in mainstream country music. It was bluegrass that called her though, back to what has become an award winning career, a joyful embrace of the music she loves, and a commitment to making America’s heartland music in a way that is distinctively her own.

All that comes through on her album Only Me. “There are six bluegrass songs and six country songs on the album, ” she says. The idea of this way to present the songs, and which songs to choose, came together when Vincent was asked to sing at a tribute to country icon George Jones at the Grand Ole Opry. “They asked everyone to sing a George Jones song, so I picked When the Grass Grows Over Me. As I’m singing this, I’m thinking how cool it would be to do a traditional country music project -- I love these old songs and I don’t hear anybody singing them, and I’d love to record them.

“We had already started on a bluegrass project so I thought, maybe we could merge these. You know, it was kind of a gamble,” she continues, “but I felt it was an illustration I’d been wanting to make for some time.” Going back to her days growing up in northern Missouri with the Sally Mountain Show, Vincent was at home with the music of bluegrass musicians including Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin and equally at home with the songs of country stars such as Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

Before that performance at the Opry, Vincent was singing country music classics as part of her appearances on The Country Family Reunion Show, and had been including several in her bluegrass touring gigs. "Beneath Still Waters, just because of that appearance on The Country Family Reunion, became our most requested song --at our shows we‘ve just started doing it no matter what, because if we don’t people will just start yelling it out.” That is one of the songs on the country disc of Only Me, along with with the fast paced Drivin’ Nails and the honky tonk classic Bright Lights & Country Music. “I find that these songs are still new for a lot of people,” Vincent says. She is also finding that these listeners, as well as those who have loved these country standards for decades, are embracing the ways Vincent makes these songs her own.

You might think to find country legend Willie Nelson sitting in on one of the country songs, but instead, Vincent asked him to take a bluegrass turn as her duet partner on the title track of the album. Members of Diamond Rio and singer Daryle Singletary join in as guests, and for each group of six songs, Vincent chose a different set of band members. “My road band, ny regular guys, they could’ve easily played all the country songs,” Vincent says, “but I wanted to make more of a distinction, so I got different musicians for that.” Her road band, including fiddler Hunter Berry, Josh Williams on acoustic guitar and Aaron McDaris on banjo with Vincent herself on mandolin handles the bluegrass side of things . On the country songs, musicians include Carl Jackson on acoustic guitar, Tim Crouch on fiddles, and Catherine Marx on piano.

It is Vincent’s voice and vision which focus the material, though. She sees bluegrass and country both as parts of the music of the heart of America. “When I came back to bluegrass after being in country music for several years, I didn’t know how people would take me,” Vincent says, and at that time she herself was wondering if music was really her future. “We did some shows opening for George Jones,” she says, “and when we came off stage people came up said we love your country music. And I thought --wow! because that’s exactky how I see it.”

That encouragement not only called her on to a career that gives her joy, carries on family tradition, and has seen her and her band members win the recognition of dozens of top level awards, it fanned the spark which would years on turn into the class project that is Only Me. From her early days with the Sally Mountain Show to her current career as an internationally touring musician at the top of her game, Vincent has seen connections between bluegrass and country music, and the things their audiences hold in common. The music Vincent makes is music from the heart and heartland of America. As she was putting together Only Me it seemed the right time and the right way for her to point up and share these connections on record. “This is an illustration I’ve ben wanting to make for some time,” she says again. “Whether I sing with a banjo or with pedal steel, it’s still -- only me.” You couldn’t ask for a better guide to connecting with and celebrating the connections between the soul of country and the heart of bluegrass.

You may also wish to

keep up with Rhonda Vincent’s tour schedule at her web site
and connect with her FaceBook page where she often shares personal notes and thoughts from the road

you may also wish to see
Sunday Mornin Singin’
Rhonda Vincent: Beautiful Star
Julie Fowlis: Every Story

photograph courtesy of the artist

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