Friday, December 05, 2014

Best Music 2014

Music is about story, told through words and notes, rhythm and harmony and tone and timbre and all these things together. It is about journeys real and spiritual and imaginary. It is about connection, conversation, exploration, discovery, and trust. Take a listen to this music, the best music of 2014.

Music is conversation: conversation between artist and audience, between musicians, between those who listen and think and create music all along the way from early idea to performance to recording. Matt and Shannon Heaton decided to focus on conversation as dialogue in the songs they chose and created for the album Tell You in Earnest You will find songs from the Celtic tradition adjusted a bit, contemporary covers, a very funny original piece with an ideas from the tradition as its spark. There’s a song with a motorbike in it and a song from Thailand. Murder ballads to love songs, stories told in, well, conversation, it’s a fine project well worth your listening for the stories alone. You’ll also enjoy fine singing and great harmony work, as well as Matt’s skill on guitar and Shannon’s on flute.

Nicola Benedetti is a classical violinist, a musician in demand by concert halls across the world for her art. A musician who loves challenging herself, she is known for her mastery of music from Shostakovich to Taverner to film composer Korngold. Benendetti is also a Scot. While her musical path took her in a different direction than the jigs and reels and ballads and Burns songs of her native country, she’s always loved them.Homecoming, A Scottish Fantasy finds Benedetti pairing the Scottish Fantasy of Max Bruch -- a classical piece which draws on tunes of Scotland’s tradition and which gives the subtitle to the album -- with sets of music from Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns and tunes by iconic fiddle player James Scott Skinner along with a set of Gaelic puirt a beul and tunes, music by contemporary Scottish folk musician Phil Cunningham, a ballad from the Gaelic tradition, and to close things out, the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond. Benedetti is not alone in her journey: for the Bruch and other sections she is joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The folk music finds her joining up with talented players including Phil Cunningham on accordion, Aly Bain on fiddle, Eamon Doorley on bouzouki, Duncan Chisholm on fiddle, Tony Byrne on guitar, James Macintosh on percussion, Michael McGoldrick on flute, Ewan Vernal on double bass, and Julie Fowlis on vocals and whistles. Every bit of it is brilliantly done, a true exploration of the music and of musicians joining together to add colors and ideas in service of tradition and collaboration. “This album comes from a very deep. personal place,” Benedetti has said, and that passion shows through clearly in service to the music.

The idea of being present to what moves you and calls your attention -- those things that led Benedetti to choose that sort of project -- are very present in Carrie Newcomer’s most recent recording A Permeable Life as well. Newcomer is a poet of the American heartland, drawing on the landscapes and stories of her native Indiana as well as what she brings of those to her world wide travels with her music. “Finding the sacred in the every day, that is one of the themes that draws me,” Newcomer says, “that, and being present, really present in each moment. On this album, too, there’s the idea of thresholds.” You will find those ideas spun out in the moment of bringing a cup of water to a friend, in the many meanings left by an empty chair, in thoughts on a rainy afternoon spent putting up dill beans and spiced peach jam, in a promise made on shifting light of an autumn morning, in connections and hope found in a night drive home through along a snowy road. Newcomer knows what she’s talking about; she knows how to ask good questions; she has a poet’s sense of image, and a thoughtful, beautiful way of singing as well.

Julie Fowlis also has the gift of telling story and making connection through the tools of music. I her case there’s an added element: she sings most often in Scottish Gaelic, a language that’s not widely spoken even in Scotland. Fowlis grew up with it the Outer Hebrides, and found herself increasingly drawn to learning the stories people who spoke this language told. Her interest and her passion, and her understanding come through on Gach Sgeul / Every Story. There are tunes for dance, stories of legend, work songs, traveling songs, songs of connection and kinship and place. You’ll understand, even if you do not understand the words. Fowlis is joined on the album by members of her regular touring band Eamon Doorley, Tony Byrne, and Duncan Chisholm, as well as guests including Donald Shaw and Sarah-Jane Summers.

Cara Dillon also knows well how to express story in song. Her album A Thousand Hearts includes a range of songs in English and Irish that consider aspects of love and connection. from sadness to laughter to romance to questions to trust. There are songs from the tradition -- Dillon is from Northern Ireland -- as well as contemporary pieces. Her voice anchors and guides a team of talented backing musicians to illuminate stories including The Shores of Lough Bran, My Donald, and Bright Morning Star.

Rosanne Cash has a story of journeys to tell on her recording The River & The Thread. A family connection -- the restoration of her father’s house by Arkansas State University -- drew Cash, long resident in New York, back to the south, to travels through Alabama, Mississippi, and back to Memphis where she was born. In her songs onThe River & The Thread there are people and places, stories and melodies, as haunting and as true, as real and as imagined as you may find along the deep back roads of the American south, in the past and yet today. The Long Way Home, Tell Heaven, Money Road: with titles like that, you know you have to listen. Along the way, Cash will take you on travels through words and through music, paying respect to the sources while adding her own visions. Listen...

It’s a hard road, but it fits your shoes
Son of rhythm, brother of the blues...

Lizzy Hoyt draws on landscape and family in her music, as well. In her case that’s the landscape of Alberta, in western Canada, and of Ireland, from whence her family came. An award winning songwriter, step dancer, and player of fiddle, harp, and mandolin, Hoyt focuses these talents in New Lady On the Prairie with a title song which honors the journey of emigration her great aunt made. There’s the fast paced song from French Canada, V’la l’bon vent, and from the Celtic tradition The , and original pieces which stand up alongside these. Hoyt is a singer of clarity and precision who brings these tunes to vibrant life, as she does with fiddle tunes including the original piece Jubilee Reel as well. She also takes on the often overworked song Danny Boy, giving it an understated treatment that well serves the song and adds her own stamp to it. Joining Hoyt are several musicians whose names will be familiar if you have walked the music road here before including John Reischman, Christine Hanson, and Jeremiah McDade.

The stories Christine Albert has to tell on Everything's Beautiful Now are ones of loss, change, hope, and resilience. The title track takes its words and them from things Christine’s mother in law spoke of to her in her last hours. Reflecting on this, and on other losses of friends and family in recent years. Albert has written and chosen a group of songs that recognizes pain in such changes as well as the joy and hope that come along the way through them. Austin, Texas based Albert has a a warm, inviting way with singing as well as writing: all these together make the recording one that reveals more to reflect on and enjoy with each listening.

Tony Duncan and Darrin Yazzie come from the west, too -- the southwest, of the United States. They are of the First Peoples, Apache and Navajo respectively. Tony plays flutes and Darrin is a guitarist. Drawing on Native stories and legends, the landscapes of the southwest, the rhythms and moves Tony experiences as a traditional hoop dancer, and the lives of their families for inspiration, for Singing Lights they have created a dozen pieces of instrumental music which invites both engagement and contemplation. Coyote, Dances, Singing Lights, Together We Danced, Sedona Sunrise, Nakai (Whippoorwill), Where the Wind Blows: the title themselves offer an invitation to enter this dialogue among flute, guitar, landscape, and spirit.

Engagement and contemplation are two aspects of what Hanneke Cassel offers on her album Dot the Dragons Eyes as well. Her instrument is the fiddle, and her style is that of Scotland with touches of Cape Breton and Americana now and then -- a thoroughly respectful and focused and original take on Scottish tradition, you might say. Time in China with her music led her to compose and name the title track; there’s a set of tunes from the tradition, a tunes dedicated to young people she met in Kenya, and all manner of other creative takes on the traditions of Scotland’s fiddle heritage, including The Captain, Jig for Christina, The Marathon (for Boston), and Lissa and Corey/The Sunrise.

You might guess from title of Claire Lynch’s album Holiday! that is has a seasonal winter theme. That is so, but odds are you’ll want to keep it playing at other times of year too. Lynch’s graceful, gentle yet strong soprano is a natural fit to give holiday chestnuts including Home for the Holidays, White Christmas, and Scarlet Ribbons a fresh sparkle, and this time out her band members step forward to sing lead on two songs as well, to good effect --check out Snow Day and the Hanukah song In the Window. Lynch is a gifted songwriter as well, and that talent plays in to Holiday! also. Rooted in bluegrass but equally at home in folk, swing, and country, Claire Lynch and her band offer a gathering of songs which may well become a seasonal classic.

Jerry Douglas delved deep into the roots of Americana, country, and folk with his project called Earls of Leicester. It is a tribute of sorts to bluegrass icons Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, done by a dream team band of American roots musicians comprising Tim O’Brien, Charlie Cushman, Shawn Camp, Barry Bales, and Douglas. “Flatt and Scruggs were the major influence on me when I was growing up,” Douglas says. “I was around seven year old when I first saw them... It had a huge impact on me. I remember the warmth of the auditorium, I remember the smell of the popcorn, I remember the outfits they were wearing. It’s all very vivid to me, and it’s still influencing me fifty years later.” The band takes on fourteen classics from the Flatt and Scruggs songbag, some well known, some a bit less well remembered, and infuse each of them with new energy and timeless respect for tradition. They also make a showcase as do Benedetti and friends, above, for the varied ways top notch musicians with their own careers can collaborate to brilliant effect.

Kyle Carey names the music she does Gaelic Americana. On her album North Star she draws on the American folk songbag for style with her song Casey Jones Whistle Blow, a song of dreams for a better day, and a slightly eerie song connecting Ireland and the American west and immigration called Wind Through Casper. Northern Lights, North Star, Winter Fever, June Day -- many of Carey’s original songs have to do with change, and coming to terms with that. She holds a storyteller’s line and gift in the singing of these as well as the writing, leaving space of the listener to make his or her own way into the stories. There’s also a fine cover of Across the Great Divide, and a lovely take on Sios Dhan an Abhainn/ Down to the River to Pray which Carey sings in Scottish Gaelic. Musicians who support Carey on the project include many whose names will be know if you walked along the music road before, among them Seamus Eagan, Katie McNally, and Natalie Haas.

Emily Smith is a musician who connects present day and tradition in her work as well. She is from the southwest of Scotland, and often chooses and writes songs with a connection to her home ground. Smith finds that this deep connection to landscape and history sparks ideas as she follows her career as an internationally touring musician, as well. For her album Echoes she has chosen songs ranging from the traditional ballads My Darling Boy and The Twa Sisters to the contemporary song John o’ Dreams. Jamie McClennan, Kris Drever, and Jerry Dougals are among those who sit in with Smith, whose warm, inviting voice and gift for phrasing draw the listener in to the journey.

The Alt is a project of John Doyle, Eamon O’Leary, and Nuala Kennedy each have more than enough to do with other musical involvements, but the three decided they really liked what they came up with when played together, too, and this recording is a result. It is quite a bit like sitting in on a session of an evening with three very talented and creative friends. Each of them sings, Doyle plays guitar, mandola, and bouzouki, O’Leary plays guitar and bouzouki, and Kennedy plays whistles and flutes. It’s an inviting combination of talents, well matched and met as they move among murder ballads, love songs, quiet tunes and lively ones, fine trading of lead voicing and graceful support on harmonies, through track including. The Geese in the Bog/Covering the Ground, One Morning in May, and Lovely Nancy.

Song and story, connection and conversation through music, have been part of Mary Black’s life since she was growing up in Dublin, long before she became internationally respected for her fine voice and fine song selection. You’ll find out more about that background should you read her memoir, for whichDown the Crooked Road (The Soundtrack) is, as it says a soundtrack -- of sorts. It’s a generous eighteen tracks, including many songs you may know well and several you may not have thought of for a time. As Black herself mentions it would not have been possible to include all the songs she mentioned in the book in one album, so if you know her work well, it is interesting to see what she did choose. If you are not familiar with Mary Black, this could be an excellent starting point, and certainly it makes a fine companion to reading the book. Among the songs included are Faith in Fate, Past the Point of Rescue, Colcannon (with the Black Family), Carolina Rua, I Live Not Where I Love, and Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

You could consider Chris Smither’s two disc set Still on the Levee a soundtrack of sorts, too: the twenty four track project is issued to celebrate Smither’s five decades of a life in music as a songwriters and touring musician. Long resident in New England, he returned to his native New Orleans to record new versions of some of his favorite songs. Fifty years on the road or not, Smither is in fine voice and guitar (and his trademark tapping foot) as he travels through Leave the Light On, Song About Rosalie, Another Way to Find You, and other selections that weave blues, folk, American, and country into stories that show why artists including Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris have chosen to cover his songs and sing them nightly on the road. Smither does too: fifty years on, he can still be found playing his music from Portland to Boston, from Amsterdam to London. It’s a story well told, and still in the telling.

Note: some of these artists and albums you have met here before along the music road; others you will meet in future. Most of the links here take you Amazon US or UK, where, in most cases, you will be able to hear excerpts from the music. Music Road is an Amazon affiliate: if you purchase anything on your visit after following one of these links, your price does not increase but Music Road will receive a small commission, which helps keep this small business going. Thank you for that!

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Music and Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer

“Writers have themes they return to -- I mean we write about all kinds of stuff, but there are things we return to, because they continue to fascinate.” Singer and songwriter Carrie Newcomer is talking about her recording A Permeable Life. “There are a couple of threads running through this album. The idea of finding something extraordinary in the ordinary, finding something sacred in the everyday and quotidian -- that’s a theme that has continued to call my attention personally and artistically, and that’s definitely present on this album.

“There’s the idea of presence, that we’re not encouraged in our culture to be present in our own lives, that we have to think about that and it’s a decision we have to make -- it’s very easy to be caught up in the current of our busy culture. We don’t want to get to the end of our day and say dang, I missed it. Those two threads will be familiar to those who know my work,” Newcomer says. “I think I have new ponderings on them and ways of looking at them, but those themes do continue to fascinate me.”

On A Permeable Life, you will meet a man who collects statues and a woman haunted by day to day aftermath tragedy, you’ll encounter the idea of loss as a threshold of change framed in a story hung on poetic images from the history of Newcomer’s native Indiana, you’ll consider the losses and gains of traveling and the ways we mark spiritual revelations and events, you’ll share share in an invitation to be very present in time and likely get singing along to an invitation to include people you hadn’t thought of in that circle of presence, you enter a kitchen where the work of putting up beans is going on, and you’ll join Newcomer as she takes a quiet drive along a snowy winter road with a revelation along the way.

Those are just hints of what happens as Newcomer, a storyteller and musician with a poet’s gift of insight and a gorgeous alto voice, invites you on the journey through these stories. Old friends and new musical collaborators join her voice and guitar with their contributions on keyboards, percussion, cello, and other acoustic sounds.

Working together, they all make space for the ideas, and for the listener. “There is less production on this album than on some of my others,” she says. “I wanted it to feel as though we were sitting across the kitchen table from each other, rather than me being up on a stage.”

That sort of across the kitchen table intimacy makes space for another idea that Newcomer sees running through the songs she’s written for A Permeable Life. “There’s the thread -- it may be a little more particular to this album -- of the idea of going through thresholds, that through out our lives we’re going to encounter thresholds where what is old is passed away, not that it was bad, it’s just done -- and that what’s new has not come into focus yet, so we stand at the threshold. It’s scary and it exciting but it’s pretty human.” It follows on with another idea that has run through many of Newcomer’s earlier songs, that of life not being so much about finding answers as it is about asking good questions.

The song Ten O’Clock Line is based on a bit of Indiana and Native American history, a treaty where territory was marked by a shadow which fell at ten o’clock on a certain day in September. From that idea Newcomer spins out poetic images of love and loss and of making space and of loss perhaps being meant to be something else

There’s a hole in the world
Maybe it’s only a space
For something that’s been waiting
Until I turned my face

she sings as part of the chorus of Ten O’Clock Line.

“The way I look at it, “ Newcomer says, “there’s always something mystical happening, even in the most practical situations. Ah, here’s a hole in my life-- or maybe it’s a space. What has been waiting to get my attention, to step into that space with me? Maybe there’s something that has been longing for my attention, tapping me on the shoulder -- at these thresholds, there is that question. There’s a lot of image to the song, shadow and light -- because at those moments there is goodness and light, there’s fear -- you’re dealing with a shift, sometimes a seismic shift -- and what do you do with it and how do you frame it?”

A journey of asking good questions indeed. Here at Music Road, there will be more of this conversation with Carrie Newcomer about the songs and stories and ideas of A Permeable Life.

In the meanwhile, you may wish to think about that idea of presence as you listen to the video above and you may also wish to see

Newcomer has published a book A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays More on that to come here in future as well.
Carrie Newcomer: Kindred Spirits
Carrie Newcomer: India to Indiana in song and image
At the turning of the year: music and change

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Friday, October 03, 2014

Cape Breton and Music: Celtic Colours

Cape Breton is a place of silence and music, of quiet solitude and deep community. It is a place where mountain meets sea, and where home place is vital and stranger always given warm welcome. All of these are part of the mosaic of life on Cape Breton which is celebrated each autumn during the Celtic Colours International Festival.

Music is at the heart Celtic Colours, music that Cape Breton’s sons and daughters have drawn from deep Celtic roots taken across the world as well as songs and tunes and dance from across Canada, from Scotland where many Cape Breton traditions began, from the United States, from Ireland, and from other communities whose lives have intertwined with the landscape of Cape Breton, including the First Peoples of the Mi’kmaq and those who have come from Ukraine to live in Atlantic Canada.

This year, Celtic Colours begins on 10 October and winds through nine days and nights of music, fun, family, food, and community. Things begin this year in Port Hawkesbury at the southern tip of Cape Breton, with a concert celebrating The Ties That Bind, from family to friendship to tradition. It is an evening which will include music from Scotland’s Phil Cunningham on accordion and Aly Bain on fiddle, step dance and sean nos dance from this year’s festival artists in residence, Mac Morin of Cape Breton and Nic Gareiss from the United States, Gaelic song from The Campbell Family of Scotland, fiery fiddling from cousins Ashley and Wendy MacIsaac of Cape Breton.

As the festival time unfolds. there will be community events including meals, talks, nature walks, art exhibits, craft fairs, music sessions, blacksmiths, weavers fisher folk and historians all sharing their passions, and ceilidhs in addition to a full schedule of concerts across the island each night. Highlights include

a farmers’ market at Sydney River, and a community market with crafts and produce on offer as Isle Madame

Dusty Slippers, a class which invites former step and highland dancers to get back ion the swing of things, at Port Hawkesbury

a show of art along the waterfront at Whycocomaugh and an exhibit of colorful and whimsical folk art called Art for the Soul at the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney

a family square dance at Glencoe Mills, an advanced fiddle class at Saint Peter’s, the Buddy Macmaster School of Fiddling classes at Judique, a traditional tunes session at Cape Breton University in Sydney, a Gaelic song workshop at the Highland Village Museum, the Aboriginal Art at Cultural Festival at Wagmatcook

and those community meals:

a celebration of Acadian food and music at Cheticamp

a taste of Ukraine at Holy Ghost Ukrainian Church Hall in Sydney

roast beef dinner in Port Morien, and fishcakes and beans for supper in D’Ecousse

corn chowder, fresh caught fish, crab, mussels, salmon, lobster, fish chowder and more fishcakes in all sort of locations from Bay Saint Lawrence to L’Ardoise to Mabou

a lighthouse sandwich for breakfast, a ceilidh along with your lunch, roast turkey and fixings for supper as Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada...

This year the festival is supported by Presenting Sponsor the Chronicle Herald, as well as Nova Scotia Tourism Agency, Seaside Communications Inc., Vibe Creative Group, TD Bank Group, and Enterprise Rent-a-Car, who are joining the festival’s ongoing sponsors, businesses which support the festival year after year. They, along with hundreds of volunteers, help make the range of festival events possible.

Evening concerts -- more than forty of them in venues all across Cape Breton-- remain the heart of these events. Most concerts at Celtic Colours, just as with that opener in Port Hawkesbury, are set up to feature three or more acts on a bill, who do sets on their own and then gather for a finale. This autumn, the concerts include

In Inverness, an evening featuring sister musicians, among them Brittany and Natalie Haas and Dawn and Margie Beaton

a tribute to iconic fiddle player Buddy MacMaster, who would have turned 90 during the festival, in his longtime hometown of Judique with musicians from across Cape Breton as well as musical friends from Scotland and the US, including top fiddler and composer Alasdair Fraser

Irish, Creole, and Acadian music intertwine on an evening in D’Ecousse, while musicians with a Touch of the Irish join up at the town of Lower River Inhabitants, and connections of traditional music and dance are the highlight at Mabou in a gig called Close to the Floor, featuring Nic Gareiss, Mary Ann Kennedy, Mac Morin, Mairi Rankin, and Dannsa Morin will spotlight his other love, piano, another night in Mabou when he’s joined by Erin Leahy, Troy MacGillvray, Tracey Dares MacNeil and others to celebrate Cape Breton piano

Ireland, Ontario, Cape Breton, and Scotland meet at Louisbourg Crossroads in the theatre in that city for song and tune from Tony McManus, Laura Smith and others while historic Fortress Louisbourg hosts several Celtic Colours events, among them Music of the Night. On that evening pub, dance hall, drawing room and street scene feature music at it might have been in 1745

Back in contemporary Cape Breton, Roots and Rhythms finds Irish multi instrumentalist Sharon Shannon sharing tunes with Quebecois trio De Temps Antan and Cape Breton Gaelic singers, fiddlers, and step dancers Anita MacDonald and Ben Miller. At another stage further north on the island family and friends gather to pay tribute to and play along with renown Cape Breton piano player Maybelle Chisholm McQueen

There’s more, of course -- on Cape Breton there is always more music and welcome. The formal concerts finish up on the evening of 18 October, though, with Together Again: Natalie’s Reunion.

Natalie MacMaster, who has taken Cape Breton music across the world and into collaborations from bluegrass to classical, comes home to share an evening of music with top musicians from Ireland, Scotland, and her own Cape Breton, on a bill that includes Sharon Shannon, JP Cormier, Tim Edey, and Beolach. It should be an evening, and a festival, to remember.

Not making it to Cape Breton in time for the festival? In past years several concerts have been available on the internet, usually announced quite close to performance dates. Keep an eye on the Celtic Colours web site to see if that will be happening this year.

You may also wish to see
sounds of Cape Breton: Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac
Music road trip: Cape Breton
another view of Celtic Colours, with video, at Wandering Educators
Natalie MacMaster's recent recording, Cape Breton Girl

Photographs of autumn leaves, Wendy MacIsaac, and Alasdair Fraser with Tony McManus are by Kerry Dexter and are copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.

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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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posted by Kerry Dexter at 6 Comments Links to this post