Alasdair Fraser: Dawn Dance

This review ran first on Green Man Review.

After finishing a review of the latest Alasdair Fraser endeavour, Fire and Grace, I looked around the Estate music library to see if we had overlooked any of his other CDs. Indeed we had. Dawn Dance really should have been reviewed sometime ago, given that it says on it ‘promotional use only’. How it got overlooked is a story in itself, but we’ll let sleeping musicians that shall not be named here by me stay that way. Let’s just say that it was such an excellent CD that some of the fiddlers here kept borrowing it from the library for extended periods of time!

If you haven’t encountered Alasdair Fraser before, suffice it to say that you’ve missed hearing one of the best fiddlers that has ever existed. As his record company Web site proudly notes, ‘Master Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser is a consummate performer. His dynamic fiddling, engaging stage presence, and deep understanding of Scotland’s music have created a constant and international demand for his solo appearances and concerts with a variety of ensembles. Alasdair has been a major force behind the resurgence of traditional Scottish fiddling in his homeland and the U.S., inspiring legions of listeners and learners through his recordings, annual fiddle camps, and concerts.’ Both an outstanding musician and a talented teacher of the tradition, Alasdair is in fine form on Dawn Dance. All the tunes on Dawn Dance were written by him, but this is very much an ensemble approach to music — which will also show up later in his Skyedance ‘super band’ (see Kim Bates’ review of Skyedance at the Music Hall in Toronto for a superb look at this group live). Despite the cover art of a lone fiddler against the breaking dawn sky, there are a number of very talented musicians besides Fraser involved. The Dawn Dance page at Culburnie lists them as being Eric Rigler (Highland pipes, uilleann pipes), Tim Gorman (piano, keyboards), Chris Norman (flute, piccolo), Todd Phillips (bass), Peter Maund (percussion), Aidan Brennan (guitar), Mike Marshall (guitar), Jacqueline Schwab (piano), Sandy Wilson (bass), Brian Willis (drums) and Jarrod Kaplan (percussion). Ok, I can hear you now — Another frelling Moving Hearts New-Agey album, all lush and mellow. Well, no.

There are albums that are simply fey, that you know are blessed with something magical, something beyond merely good. This is one of them. If you’re a regular reader of our ‘zine, you’ve quite likely read Grey Walker’s review of Jennifer Stevenson’s ‘Solstice’ chapbook, in which Her Greyness says, ‘A small-time rocker named Dawn breaks up with her boyfriend in the car one winter night. Dumped off on the side of the road, she storms angrily across an icy field until she trips and falls. A jolly, round woman offers her a hand up — and shelter and a hot meal, but only if she agrees to play for a party. And what a party! Her host is as thin as the hostess is round, and he’s dressed all in yellow. There’s a roaring fire, thousands of twinkling candles and a long table groaning with food. Dawn joins an amplified fiddler, a bass player, and an indefatigable drummer in providing an eclectic mix of very loud, rollicking music for the dancing guests, including her host and hostess.’ Well, this is the music that I would expect to find at that party!

If all you had here was the fiddling of Fraser, that’d be fey in and of itself. But there’s so much more here. Just take the piping of Eric Rigler, on both Highland and uilleann pipes. If you don’t know his name, he is, not surprisingly, now a a member of Skyedance, but he played with Celtic bands as diverse as the Battlefield Band and Bad Haggis. The latter group prompted reviewer No’am Newman to say, ‘My personal feeling is that had there not been the presence of Rigler with his pipes and whistles, these discs would not have found their way to the Green Man.’ His piping is every bit as fey and lively as the fiddling of Fraser. Like Natalie Haas, who plays with Fraser on Fire and Grace, Eric hails from California, the home of Fraser these days. All I can say is there’s some bleedin’ good Celtic musicians coming from California these days!

Chris Norman on flute and piccolo adds a touch of the Lúnasa feel — see Kim Bates’ review of the Chris Norman Ensemble’s The Flower of Port William for an indepth look at this talented musician — while Jacqueline Schwab and Tim Gorman, as pianists, add just the right amount of that instrument to this musical endeavour. As Jo Morrison said of Schwab’s CD, Mad Robin, ‘Jacqueline Schwab plays with an easy-going gentility that makes her the perfect choice to record a solo piano CD of English Country Dance tunes. The tunes themselves have an air of 18th century nobility, which, when combined with Schwab’s kaleidoscopic playing style, soar to majestic heights while maintaining their melodic simplicity.’ I’m not generally thrilled by piano playing in any form, but it works very nicely here. All the players here feel as if they are enjoying the music — as I said above, all tunes were written by Fraser — and really like playing together. That is a rare thing these days, when every well-known Celtic musician seems to want his or her own band, in which he or she calls the tune, not the group.

Appropriately ‘nough, The album kicks up its heels right off with ‘First Light/Dawn Rant’, a set that fans of Aly Bain and the CD that he did with Ale Moller, Fully Rigged, will very much appreciate. That same Amor, dark feel is on this set, as it is on most of that album. I can quite easily envision the Neverending Session musicians deciding they should play ‘First Light/Dawn Rant’ (Fraser) followed by the ‘Da Day Dawn’, a traditional Shetland tune on Fully Rigged. The difference between the two albums is not as much as t’would seem — both make superb use of guest musicians, and both sound traditional, even when the material is as new as green sap running in the spring. I’d also single out ‘Sally Mo Ghràdh (Sally My Beloved)’, a tune written for Fraser’s wife’s birthday and performed here as a duet between Fraser on fiddle and Norman on flute. (The album is also dedicated to Sally for enduring the four years it took to make it!) ‘Theme for Scotland’ closes out the album in fine form — a lovely coda for a truly perfect album.

(Culburnie, 1995)

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