Scotland's Music: Hanneke Cassel, The Paul McKenna Bnad, Alba's Edge
Hanneke Cassel is a fiddle player and composer whose base in the music of Scotland also encompasses her love for bluegrass and what she’s learning from her travels to share her music in places as diverse as China, India, Kenya, her home state of Oregon and her longtime home base in New England. The Paul McKenna Band fuse the energy of their own explorations of Scotland’s traditions with their own travels to North America and beyond and their love for stories of journey told in word and melody. Alba’s Edge combines elements of the music of Cape Breton and Scotland with flavors of the vibrant New England jazz scene in a debut album that proves engaging and thought provoking. Listen to their differing takes on creating new music and interpreting older pieces that grow out of their shared love for the sounds and stories of Scotland, and where those stories have traveled.
Hanneke Cassel’s recording Dot the Dragons Eyes takes its title, and the inspiration for its title tune, from time she has spent in China.There she learned the idea that when an artist puts the last bits of color in the eyes of a dragon it brings the art work to life. As a woman of faith and imagination, Cassel saw the parallel with with the Biblical story of God bringing man to life from an image in clay -- and she went to create lively and uplifting tune that works just fine whether you know or believe anything about either of those ideas. It makes a fine introduction to a set of tunes, almost all of Cassel’s own composition, that range from waltz to jig and take inspiration from family members, friends, the Boston Marathon, and the students at One Home Many Hopes in Kenya, where Cassel has often traveled to share her music. Cassel has been a US National champion in Scottish style fiddle playing, studied with Alasdair Fraser and the late Buddy MacMaster, and worked with musicians from Irish American singer and songwriter Cathie Ryan to early music group Ensemble Galillie. Through all that and with all that, she has a distinctive tone in her playing as well as a gift for composition that is rooted in and respectful of the varied elements of Scottish tradition, while speaking entorely in her own voice on her instrument. Really you should listen to the whole of Dot the Dragons Eyes as it is sequenced -- every track is a keeper. If you are just wanting a taste, though, listen out for The Captain, Lissa and Corey/The Sunrise, and Jig for Christina.
The Paul McKenna Band is a high energy bunch, anchored by McKenna’s voice and often driving guitar. With bandmates Davis McNee on bouzouki, Sean Grey on flutes and whistles, and Ewan Baird on percussion including bodhran (they each sing too) and aided by guests including Mike Vass on fiddle and banjo and Jarlath Henderson, on Elements they offer songs and tunes from the tradition, from their own writing, and several maybe not so expected covers, creating a fine mix that proves engaging from first to last. One of those covers is of Canadian writer James Keelghan’s Cold Missouri Waters, which the band makes entirely their own with fine lead and harmony. Fast paced Mickey Dam, a song from the tradition, shows off their ability with songs from the past, while the Flying Through Flanders set, comprising tunes from Vass and Grey, proves their taste and prowess with instrumental pieces. The band can handle slower songs with finesse as well, evidence of which is offered on the returning to home in Scotland song Indiana.
The four members of Alba’s Edge -- Neil Pearlman on piano and vocals, Lilly Pearlman on fiddle and vocals, Doug Berns on bass and background vocals, and Jacob Cole on percussion and background vocals -- like the idea that the world alba in the band’s name means Scotland in Gaelic and dawn in Spanish. Playing a bit off that, they open and close their debut recording Run to Fly with short pieces called Rising and Setting, which serve, respectively, to set a mood of anticipation and quietly to draw things to a close and bid farewell. The eight tracks in between offer thoughtful engaging, intelligent music that weaves in the Scotland and Cape breton backgrounds of the Pearlmans (they are brother and sister) with their explorations of Latin, irish, Americana and other genres. Their fiddle and piano lines are framed by low end work from Burns and Cole, who bring respectively, backgrounds in playing Latin, funk, and Afro beat music and jazz and ska to the table. That said, such fusions often don’t work, or at least, don’t work out well enough to inspire interest. These four have that covered, though -- you don’t have to know anything about the background of any of this music to enjoy it as works that’s at times lively, at times soothing, at times thought provoking. At just the right moment, too, they draw the strands of tradition together by singing the traditional Scottish song of the sea, The Diamond. Run to Fly was produced by top class Scottish fiddle Player Aidan O’Rourke, who has worked with the innovative Scottish group Lau as well as the traditional stalwarts Blazin’ Fiddles.
Aside: should you ever have the chance to see any of these artists play live, take it. They all tour internationally, so that may come your way -- Alba’s Edge, for example, will be part of the Boston Celtic Music Festival in January, and the Paul McKenna Band will be appearing at Celtic Connections, while Cassel is doing several holiday appearances with Ensemble Galilie and appears at festival, teaches at fiddle camps and does concerts with her own trio as well.
Photograph by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.