Saturday, April 09, 2022

Spell Songs II: Let the Light In

The drift of a leaf in autumn wind, the flutter of a moth's wings as evening fades to night. The half glimpsed movement of an animal just out of view, the call of a jay, the swirl of swifts against the sky -- these connections with nature frame our days.

Even if you have always lived in cities, you know and feel some of these things, don’t you?

Reflection on the varied connections between humankind and nature, and the ways those are changing, are part of what inspired the music of the album Spell Songs II: Let the Light In.

It is the second album from the group which has become known as the Spell Songs Singers: Jim Molyneux, Kris Drever, Beth Porter, Julie Fowlis, Rachel Newton, Seckou Keita, and Karine Polwart.

The musicians in turn drew inspiration from the art of Jackie Morris and the words of Robert Macfarlane. We’ll get to a bit of background on how that came about. First, though, consider what the musicians create on Spell Songs ii.

There are fifteen songs on the album, with each musician taking a turn or two at lead voice, and working in creative collaboration with harmony and instrument through the others.

They each play as well and sing -- Porter on cello, Molyneux on keyboards, Drever and Powart on guitar, Keita on kora, Newton on harp, Fowlis on whistles. Those are their main instruments, though each often takes out othersas well, Fowlis taking up the oboe, for instance, Newton moving over to fiddle, Polwat picking up bass.

That may begin to give you ideas of the musical complexity on offer; it is complexity in service of creativity, though. That comes through in the singing, and in the writing that formed the words and music.

Some songs come directly from Macfarlane’s poetry, others go in directions sparked by his words and Morris’s art onto different paths. Each of the artists is rooted in music which respects tradition, be that tradition of England, Scotland, or Senegal. Each of those traditions meet at points along the way in the music of Spell Songs II.

Polwart begins the journey taking lead on the slightly spooky Bramble. Nature is not always kind and often mysterious, an idea that continues as Fowlis follows with the haunting song Saint Kilda Wren, in Gaelic.

In Oak, Drever offers stories of the long lived tree, living its life for centuries as human cone and go, and connect with its wood for “the wheel that makes the seasons turn/the the beasts that shelter in the barn/the table that we sing around/ the casket we put in the ground,” and in many other ways. There is dimension from a verse from Keita’s sung in Mandinka, and from the other singers adding backing harmonies.

In each of these tracks and all others on the recording, the musician singing lead gives his or her own character to anchor the song. Spell Songs is very much a band project, though, in creation and in execution, as each musician’s work is supported and enhanced by contributions from the others.

That is true for each of the songs. One especially good place to hear it is in the song Swifts. Rachel Newton’s voice soars and swirls as do the named birds, while Drever adds second lead voice and each of the others contributes as well.

Seckou Keita brings a bluesy call and response idea to the presence of a familiar bird in Jay. Beth Porter’s lively take in the song Daisy readily evokes daisy chains and “tiny suns turned skyward,” while Jim Molyneux offers wistful, bittersweet melody and words to evoke the coming and going of swallows.

There are more such gems on the recording -- each of the songs is well worth repeated listening, in fact.

Plant life comes in for more musical discussion as Porter reflects on pushing one’s way through tangled gorse, and through challenges.

Fowlis takes lead on on the wintery, eerie Bird of the Blizzard, which evokes snow, ice, and change, and reminds that nature is facing change, some of it devastating.

Polwart gives another view of nature with the song Thrift, in which persistence of the seashore plant is a reminder to dig in and hang on as hardships arise.

That idea of nature dealing with change faces the fox, lead actor as Kris Drever sings Red Is Your Art. Working and living just as the margins of human life and the natural word change these days, the fox poses the question, when I am gone, when I am driven out, will you think it was worth it?

That is an idea that frames creativity here. As Fowlis sings in Bird of the Blizzard, there’s “a map made of wonder, that tracks what is fading” and “memory’s keeper is you.”

That is a idea that resonates with the fox’s query in Red Is Your Art, the persistence in Gorse and Thrift, the long lasting Oak.

It turns up as well as the thoughts Julie, Karine, and Seckou offer in Barn Owl, as they intertwine words in in Gaelic, Scots, and Mandinka on the themes of, as Karine sings it “Tak nae mair nor ye need (take no more than you need).” As indeed owls flying by night do in their travels.

In differing ways Moth, with Karine in lead, and Curlew from Rachel both honour and suggest change in nature and in our own lives, and in ways direct and indirect, the persistence of hope as well.

Fowlis takes lead on the closer, a song called Silver Birch, which draws together ideas from this recording and references a bit to the first Spell Songs album, as well.

Snow is falling, my silver-seeker;
soon the path will be lost to sight,
soon the day the day will give way

Fowlis sings. Later, though, she continues

The sun is rising, my silver-seeker

warms the pines, and breathes the larches
...Soon the blackbird will take her flight.

As promised, a bit more background to the Spell Songs projects and how they came to be:

Several years back, artist Jackie Morris learned that a number of words. most to do with nature, were to be dropped from a popular children’s dictionary where she lived in the UK. She decided to create a book of paintings that would honour these words and the nature they represented. She contacted nature writer Robert Macfarlane to see if he’d write an introduction for such a book. He came back withe idea, What if I wrote poems to go along with the paintings, spells to call words and nature back, so to speak?

The book the Lost Spells was born. Eventually presenters at the Folk by the Oak Festival in England had the idea to bring together artists they knew had an interest in nature to create music based on these ideas. The first Spell Songs album came to be. Later Morris and Macfarlane collaborated on a second book, called The Lost Spells. and so, a second album, Spell Songs II:Let the LIght In, came about. Morris, by the way, often joins the singers on stage, creating paintings live as they sing.

Photographs of the Spell Songs artists in performance at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall during Celtic Connections by Gaelle Beri, courtesy of Innes Campbell Communications.

You may also wish to see.
Learn about the first Spell Songs recording,
About the second book from Morris and Macfarlane, The Lost Spells
Laws of Motion from Karine Polwart
Alterum fromJulie Fowlis

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Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Scotland's Landscapes in Music, from Kenneth I. MacKenzie and Niteworks Band

Scotland’s landscapes and stories inspire many sorts of creativity. Consider two rather different aspects of that, in recordings from Kenneth I. MacKenzie and the band Niteworks.

MacKenzie’s background is in pipe bands, with which he has played in such varied locations as Hong Kong, Norway, Denmark, and the United States. Among other things, he played on one of the best selling pipe band albums of all time, Amazing Grace from the Toyota Pipes and Drums.

Kenny is also well known as a composer of tunes. That is well to the fore on his album Glendrian , where most of the tunes in the twelve set offering are original. In addition to Highland pipes, he brings in his other instruments: digital chanter, harmonica, and low whistle.

The tunes, which include reels, waltzes. slow airs, marches, hornpipes and lament, are thoughtfully sequenced and well presented. They draw on people, places, and circumstances from Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, and are in most cases named in ways to honour them... including a reel called Granny Bheag’s Pancakes.

There are dashes of humour in the playing, as well as reflective pieces.

There’s a 4/4 March in tribute to Gaelic singer Alasdair Gillies, and a slow air which Kenny composed for his wife on her first visit to his family home. You can almost see the dancers swirling across the floor to Rhona’s Waltz, or taking faster steps to Karen’s Jig.

There is that lament, the title track Gelndrian. That came from a a landscape with which Kenny has family connection. It is the named for a settlement in Ardnamurchan, in Lochaber. No one lives there now. Kenny wrote the music reflecting on lives lived there and what that may have been like.

“Music and a love of playing is at the heart of Glendrian, and it’s been a joy to play in my own style and to create and share new tunes that cherish a traditional feel,” Kenny says.

His first recording in almost twenty years, Glendrian is a collection of music by a composer and player who has a clear sighted view of what he wishes to say with his music, and how to say it best. His love of landscapes and people of the Highlands and Islands comes clear with no need for words.

MacKenzie’s vision centers the album, and he is well supported by Will Marshall on piano, accordion, and arrangement, Marie Fielding on fiddle, Donald Black on tremolo harmonica, Rory Grindlay on drums, and Tom Oakes on acoustic guitar and flute.

The men of the band Niteworks have been inspired and nutured by the dual and often contrasting landscapes and sounds of Skye, where they grew up, and the buzzing and busy city and club scne of Glasgow, to which they moved.

They have always worked to put these together in their music since they first formed the band almost fifteen years ago now.

For their third album, A’ Ghrian, they’ve really matured into their sound creatively and musically, finding the sometimes elusive balance of respecting tradition while moving it forward in connection with other styles.

Part of that has come through the years Alan MacDonald on pipes, bassist Christopher Nicholson, Innes Strachan on keys and synths, and dummer Ruairdih Graham have worked together, and part of it has come through musical challenges they’ve accepted along the way.

“With this album we’ve sought to create a more expansive sound that’s cinematic in nature,” Graham explains. They were commissioned to write music for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Farewell 2020 film. That was a project which required them to reflect and create musically on what that year had been like, a timer of hardship and unexpected change for many. “The nature of the project required broad expansive sounds, and that led to us going further in that direction in the writing and recording of this album,” Graham says.

That approach works. The music is well sequenced, too, with a mix of traditional and original adventurous tunes bracketing equally adventurous song. Niteworks have also invited along Laura Wilkie, Fiona MacAskill, and Aileen Reid of KInnaris Quintet along with Susan Applebee to add strings to the sound.

The men of Niteworks do not sing themselves, but rather invite a range of guests to contribute. They have included Gaelic singers on earlier albums, and some of the same singers return for this one. Further along the lines of expanding vision for their music, though, they have for the first time invited singers in English and Scots to join in.

The three women who make up the trio Sian return with their well honed Gaelic harmonies for a a track, while Alasdair Whyte brings strong and soulful presence to another song. Sian band member Ellen MacDonald does a solo turn joining on Gura Mise tha fo Eislein.

The men of Niteworks came across a recording of the English folk song John Riley by folk legend Joan Baez. They were taken with the melody and wanted to make it their own, inviting Beth Malcolm along to sing the song in English. It’s a song you may know, from the Joan Baez version or the many recordings and sessions in which it turns up. In the hands of Beth Malcom and Niteworks, it turns into a John Riley you’ve likely not heard before, true to the story and its tradition while taking these in new directions.

Hannah Rarity brings Scots to the mix with a graceful take on the song Gloomy Winter. There is a turn of season, so to speak, and a return to Gaelic as Kathleen MacInnes brings an equally thoughtful and graceful performance to the title track A’ Ghrian.

As much as their approaches differ, Kenneth I. MacKenzie and Niteworks share love of the landscapes and sounds of Scotland past and present, and express that through their music.

You may also wish to see
Three from Scotland, which includes Marie Fielding’s album The Spectrum Project
At Wandering Educators Music for a Month of Transitions, in which you can find a video of the title track of Glendrian
Solo from Sarah-Jane Summers, who offers another creative way to take tradition forward
Song in English and Irish as well as tunes Thar Toin/Seabourne, from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh

Photographs by Paul Edney from Pixabay, by Andrew Murray from Pixabay, and by Kerry Dexter

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Saturday, March 05, 2022

Ireland's music: Day Is Come from The Alt

Stories told through song: that is one thing the three musician who are the trio The Alt love and have in common.

They are great at telling stories through tunes -- music with no words-- as well.

As well they should be, as each of the three musicians -- John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy, and Eamon O’Leary -- have flourishing careers with other music projects. They also like the music and sound the create when they have the chance to get together. Hence, The Alt.

Day Is Come is their second recording together. On it, you will find a lively journey of song in both English and Irish, along with class tunes, some original and some drawn from traditional sources.

All three sing, and well know how to handle lead voice as well as support others. O’Leary plays bouzouki and harmonium on the recording, Doyle adds his own touch on bouzouki as well as playing guitar, mandola, keyboards, and bodhran, and Kennedy plays whistles and flutes. Guest fiddlers Marius Pibaret and Kevin Burke sit on several tracks.

Each of the ten tracks on the album is well worth repeated listening, as is the story as the artists have sequenced it. That said, several to listen out for especially include

Ta Na La/Day Is Come is an Irish language song, a cheerful drinking song at that. The trio offer it in a version known in Oriel, the ancient medieval area on the east coast of Ireland of which Nuala’s home town of Dundalk is part. As is fitting for that, Nuala’s light and lively voice leads the vocals after a short intro on the flute. The men join in on the choruses and their strings add sparkle to the vocals and join the flute for instrumental breaks framing the verses.

For the The Willow Tree, O’Leary takes lead voice. It’s a song in English by the scholar, singer, and songwriter Padraigin Ni Uallachain, whose music you have met here along the Music Road several times. It’s a reflective love song grounded in Irish landscape, which sounds as though it could have come from centuries back rather than being a contemporary piece. Harmonium and guitar weave a journey around O’Leary’s warm baritone and the graceful backing of Doyle’s tenor and Kennedy’s soprano. Kevin Burke joins on fiddle.

The Connaught Rangers has lyrics from a poem by Winifred M. Letts, set to music composed by John Doyle. The three musicians sing unaccompanied, with John’s strong tenor taking lead on lyrics which are a lament for those from Ireland who served in World War I. It is a fine way to hear just how good their harmonies are, and how well the three musicians work together.

You’ll do well to listen to each of the other tracks as well, which include a lively song in Irish which Nuala often sings to her young children, fine harmonies from Nuala and John backing Eamon’s lead on Paddy’s Land along with great playing from all three, two sets of tunes which mix originals from Kennedy and Doyle with tunes from the tradition, and a great version of the Child ballad Flower of Northumberland with Nuala on lead.

Day Is Come has no shortage of lively music, but through all that there’s a reflective, feeing, somewhat quieter in feeling than their first album. That John Doyle, Eamon O’Leary, and Nuala Kennedy created this outstanding collaboration during constraints on travel and connection is testament to their resilience and creativity as well as their musicianship.

Day Is Come is lasting music, with music to tap your feet or step along to,, to sing with, to enjoy quietly. Stories of Ireland well told in music indeed

You may also wish to see
Songs of the Scribe from Padraigin Ni Uallachain
The Path of Stones from John Doyle
The Alt, the trio’s first album, self titled
A bit about Nuala Kennedy’s album Behave the Bravest along with three other albums you may enjoy...

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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Scotland's Music: Bruce MacGregor: The Road to Tyranny

Highland landscape, history, story, family, friendship -- those are things on which Bruce MacGregor draws for the tunes he has composed for his album The Road to Tyranny. A touch of politics, too, as the title would suggest.

You may know MacGregor as founder and driving force of the top band Blazin’ Fiddles, as presenter of BBC Scotland’s Travelling Folk, as book author, as partner in MacGregor’s Bar in Inverness, as co-host of the ongoing online sessions Live at Five, and from other projects.

All that goes to explain why it has taken a while for MacGregor to get around to making his second solo album. Twenty years, in fact.

That may also explain why the first track on The Road to Tyranny is anchored in family. The tunes are called Josh’s 2 Secs/ Jo De Sylva --a force of nature/ Short and Simple/Roddy MacGregor. It’s a lively set which references MacGregor’s son Josh, his wife Jo, a joking comment from a friend about the fiddler himself, and his son Roddy’s football career.

The lively tunes allow MacGregor to show off his skill and love for the fast paced aspects of fiddle music, and to bring in equally lively contributions from musical friends who will join in elsewhere on the album as well. Anna Massie and Angus Lyon, who are also part of Blazin’ Fiddles, bring in guitar and keyboards, respectively. Duncan Lyall and Ian Sandilands hold down the rhythm section with double bass and percussion, and Ali Levack adds his whistle to the mix.

As much as MacGregor can write blazing and engaging fast pieces, he well knows how to create moving airs and waltzes as well. One such piece of music is called Essich. It is inspired, MacGregor says, by the beauty fo the area in the Highlands near Inverness where he was brought up. Another Blazin’ Fiddler, Jenna Reid, wrote the string parts, which she performs along with renown cellist Su-a Lee, with Lyon, Sandilands, and Lyall returning for the piece as well.

There’s a fine variation between faster and slower pieces through the recording. Co-producers Massie and Lyon no doubt had a hand in that sequencing.

Annie’s Waltz, written to help a fan mark her 80th birthday, is also on the album. MacGregor along with Anna Massie and Jenna Reid, play the tune at Celtic Connections. On The Road to Tyranny, Tim Edy takes the guitar part.

“The tunes have been inspired by the people, the places, and the adventures I’ve been lucky enough to experience over the years,” MacGregor says. “There’s airs, jigs, strathspeys, reels, and marches as you’d expect, but then there’s other tunes...which don’t really fit into any of the usual categories -- they’re just catchy tunes.”

That ability to hear, understand, compose, and play catchy tunes of many sorts was honed as MacGregor was growing up by study with the late Highland fiddle master player and maker Donald Riddell. MacGrgegor’s time touring, travelling, and teaching across the world with Blazin’ Fiddles and researching the varied music he presents on radio have likely played a part in those abilities as well.

On the fourteen track album one of those catchy tunes is Doddie’s Dream. It is dedicated to former Scottish rugby champion Doddie Weir, who is living with motor neurone disease, for which there is as yet no cure. The tune was recorded by Blazin’ Fiddles along with Aly Bain, Nicola Benedetti, Phil Cunningham, Sharon Shannon, and Julie Fowlis joining in for a track that was released to raise money for MND research. It raised thousands of pounds while rising to number nine rank in the UK charts. On this recording, It appears as a paired back version with just fiddle and piano, a quiet piece that evokes the beauty of the Highlands.

There are other gems to enjoy on the fourteen track album. as MacGregor and his musical companions lead what one might think of as a journey through those Highlands, from fast paced ceilidh to quiet star filled night, from jig to strathspey to waltz to air. Tom Gibbs adds clarinet on two tracks. Tim Edey brings in both box and guitar in several places, and the players named above each return to add their gifts to more tunes along the way.

It is Bruce McGregor’s presence and creativity as composer and as player which anchor the recording. As both of those, and as collaborator with gifted musical friends , he has created a project to remember and to enjoy with repeated listenings.

Photograph of moor;and above Essich by Jennifer Jones; photography of Bruce MacGregor courtey of the artist; photograph of Blazin' Fiddles at Celtic Connections by Kerry Dexter, made with permission

You may also wish to see
Bruce MacGregor website
Blazin’ Fiddles website
Learn about an album from another Scottish fiddle player and composer who also studied with Donald Riddell Solo from Sarah-Jane Summers
More fiddle music to explore: Now More Than Ever from the Katie McNally Trio,

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Saturday, January 08, 2022

Music and Mystery: Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra and Salt House

At this writing it is the turning of the year. That is a good time to have a listen of recordings from Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra and the trio Salt House. Different as they are from one another, they each offer ways to think about change, story, and hope. Those are good subjects for exploration and reflection, too, in whatever season you may be reading this.

Composer, keyboard and accordion player, researcher ethnomusicologist, and band leader Jennifer Cutting draws from Celtic strands as well as classical music and the varied folk musics of North America and at times other places in her work. For the project The Turning Year she calls on the talents of members of her Maryland based Ocean Orchestra along with occasional guests to create six tracks which weave together contemporary and traditional sources.

Stories told through voice, instrument, lyric, melody, and harmony invite listeners to consider the sort of thought often present at a year’s turning. Reckoning with pain and loss is present, as are ideas of renewal, resilience, and hope.

Those strands are especially well woven through the title track, The Turning Year: A New year’s Toast. It opens the recording, with Steve Winick, Lisa Moscatiello, and Jennifer Cutting of Ocean joined by New England based quartet Windborne who are Lynn Mahoney Rowan, Will Thomas Rowan, Lauren Breunig, and Jeremy Carter-Gordon. On this track, the strength, beauty, and nuance come from joining of voices, as they sing unaccompanied.

Steve Winick sings lead on an exploration of the story of Robin Hood, the first completed track of an album of Robin songs Winick has planned, and a nod to springtime, as Robin Hood was often associated with that time of year. The song, which is called The Birth of Robin Hood, is Winick’s version of a traditional piece, with Ocean members adding in their own touches to the arrangement.

Themes of adventure, springtime, and music drawing on traditional sources inform the next three tracks as well, albeit in very different ways.

Je Me Ferai Une Maîtresse [I Will Take Me A Mistress] has its origins in a Breton tune which Jennifer loved and for which she wanted to write lyrics. For that she chose to rework a tale of a sailor drawn by the wiles of a lover to a sunken city off the coast of Brittany. That is a place where, legend has it, on certain days you can still hear bells of churches rising from the waves.

For Springtime’s Message, Cutting thought of the tradition of May carols, of singing to celebrate springtime. She drew on ideas from medieval times for the composition, which is meant to mark and celebrate triumph of warmth over cold and light over darkness.

Celtic music is often a source for Jennifer Cutting’s work. Weaving together of music from seventeenth century Irish harp player Turlough O'Carolan along with music of her own composition and some further bits of O’ Carolan’s work she created a song with words from Irish poet Thomas Moore to make Planxty Drew/Planxty Wilkinson/Wreath the Bowl, for a piece which appears in Ocean’s Saint Patrick’s Day events.

The Turning Year from Ocean Orchestra and their selected guests makes for adventurous, thoughful, and detailed music. To bring the set to a close, Cutting chooses a simpler focus with an intimate take on the song which opened this project, the title track The Turning Year. For this take on a song which acknowledges loss and reminds of hope, it is Moscatiello on voice and Cutting on piano.

The trio of artists who make up Salt House are masters as creating music which both stands within tradition and moves it forward. Ewan MacPherson and Lauren MacColl are based in the north Highlands of Scotland. Jenny Sturgeon lives in Shetland. Usually they’d get together to write and record, but as circumstances have required, they have collaborated at distance, and indeed, made creative use of bringing in guest artists from distance.

The project they have created is called Working for Zeus.

Through the tracks, MacPherson and Sturgeon trade lead voices. MacPherson also plays acoustic and electric guitars and banjo. Surgeon plays guitar as well, along with harmonium. MacColl brings in fiddle, viola, and glockespiel and adds harmony vocals. Each brings a wealth of creativity and experience to their collaboration. MacPherson has been part of the top bands Fribo and Shooglenifty. Sturgeon has her own well received solo projects and collaborative work with Inge Thompson and others, always with a strong element of the natural world. MacColl draws on landscape and history of her native Highlands for her solo albums as well as for her work including the quartet RANT and the duo project Heal and Harrow.

All tracks are originals composed by the artists. If there’s one idea that pulls through it would be that of mystery heading over toward mystical.

In their lyrics Salt House create stories which are complete in themselves but just as likely could be parts of continuing conversations -- conversations in which each song stands on its own while encouraging wonderment about what came before and what comes after. The music carries that sort of conversational idea as well, from the opening title track Working for Zeus through to the concluding one, Sawdust.

Contemplative in general tone, the stories told through music and word are varied and engaging.

In the title track MacPherson sings of “There is a whisper in the wind there is a silence in the mist...” and a landscape of eagles soaring as the singer looks out over the landscape from his workshop, setting images which will last. The sound of kantele, a plucked string instrument from Finland played by Maija Kauhanen, adds to the sea mist and mystical atmosphere.

Ideas of distance are an elements of Under the Same Moon, for which Sturgeon takes lead vocal. MacPherson and guest Cahalen Morrison drive forward the enigmatic story told in The Day We Made a Wood with voice and banjo.

In Wood of Dreams Sturgeon’s lead is thoughtfully backed by MacColl’s’ harmony, and there is an especially powerful interchange between guest Peter Frost Fadnes’s bass clarinet and MacColl on fiddle.

The album comes to a close with Sturgeon singing “the sawdust falls like snowflakes...” with MacCool’s fiddle and Olav Luksengard Mjelva on hardanger fiddle adding to that image, on the song Sawdust.

The Turning Year from Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra, at six tracks, and Working for Zeus from Salt House, with five, are shorter projects to be sure. Each project and each track on both, though, offer much to enjoy and much to explore in repeated listening.

You may also wish to see
A few thoughts on Silence and music
Ocean Orchestra’s album Song of Solstice
Jenny Sturgeon’s song Air & Light is part of this story about Music for Connection and Celebration at Wandering Educators
Lauren MacColl’s album Srewn with Ribbons is aprt of this story about Music for Saint Andrew’s Day

Photograph of Jennifer Cutting by Irene Young

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Friday, December 31, 2021

New Year's Eve

Wishing you a bright and happy new year filled with music.

To help you celebrate, here are

Carrie Newcomer with her song Lean In Toward the Light, which you will find on her album The Beautiful Not Yet

Cathie Ryan with Walk the Road, written by Kate Rusby. You will find it recorded on Cathie’s album Through Wind and Rain

Eddi Reader from her album Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns... with Auld Lang Syne

Thank you for your company here along the music road. I hope you will continue to join in the journey.

Image from the Pentland Hills in Scotland by Andrew Murray from Pixabay

You may also wish to see
The Lost Words: Spell Songs about the music and the book which inspired it
More about Cathie Ryan’s album Through Wind and Rain
At Wandering Educators, more music for winter reflection

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Friday, December 17, 2021

Gifts of Winter: 5 recordings to explore

Reflection and creativity are both part of winter, and of the Advent season.

With those two things in mind, here is a bit about several long time favorite recordings which go along with winter time.

Seasonal music not your thing? No worries, there will be more to come of non seasonal new releases and old favorites, good for holiday gift lists as well. Also check out the links toward the end of this piece...

The title track of Cara Dillon’s album Upon a Winter’s Night was written by Cara’s musical partner and husband, Sam Lakeman, and their son Noah. It’s a piece which evokes, among other things, the ideas of changes and celebration which go along with the Christmas story. It has a lively chorus to which you may find yourself singing along, as well. There is also outstanding uillean pipe contribution from Jarlath Henderson.

There are two more original tracks along with a selection of well known and perhaps lesser known songs on the recording. There is one piece in Irish, Rug Muire Mhac Do Dhia, and a fine take on O Holy Night for which Cara is joined by her sister Mary Dillon. Sam plays guitar or piano or bodhran on most tracks and several other musical friends sit in, including Niall Murphy on fiddle and James Fagan on bouzouki. Cara Dillon brings to this music a bit of the stillness and the joy of winter in her native Northern Ireland.

Matt and Shannon Heaton make their music at places where the music of Ireland and the folk traditions of North American music intersect.

On their album Fine Winter’s Night this is well in evidence with song and tune both reflective and upbeat. Both Heatons song and both write songs; hearing them trade lead and harmony on songs both traditional and original is one of the things to enjoy about this recording. Each is a fine player and a composer of tunes as well, which you will hear, for example, on Dust of Snow, and in their version of the Shetland tune Da Day Dawn. Shannon’s principal instrument is the flute, Matt’s are guitar and bouzouki.

You hear those on the tunes of course, and they well know how to weave their gifts on their instruments into songs as well. Shannon’s title track Fine Winter’s Night is a fine recognition of the brilliance of cold winter nights and the welcome of warmth within. In First Snowfall of December Matt draws listeners in to a tale of Victorian era New England Christmas time. The duo offer well known songs too. While keeping to the spirit of the season, they give carols including O Little Town of Bethlehem and It Came Upon the Midnight Clear a fresh dusting of creative ideas.

Kathy Mattea has two wintery albums out. Good News and Joy for Christmas Day.

On Good News, there are two songs form the tradition, Christ Child Lullabye from Scotland (with Scottish troubadour Dougie Maclean joining in) and and Brightest and Best. The eight contemporary cuts include Mattea’s own memorable Somebody Talkin’ About Jesus, along with the haunting title track written by Ron Mahes. and perhaps the best known songs from the album: Mary Did You Know? and New Kid in Town.

On Joy for Christmas Day, Mattea puts her own thoughtful stamp on O Come O Come Emmanuel, and offers a Christmas Collage of carols, featuring the guitar and arranging skill of her longtime guitarist, Bill Cooley. The eleven tracks are a mix of traditional and contemporary music for Advent and Christmas time. Among them are When the Baby Grew Up, O Come, All Ye Faithful, and the reflective Straw Against the Chill

Emily Smith chose a mix of traditional and contemporary music for her album Songs for Christmas, too. Smith comes from Scotland and is a fine songwriter as well as a singer and player of accordion, piano, and guitar. She’s joined by her musical partner and husband Jamie McClennan who plays guitar, fiddle, and is a singer and songwriter as well. Their musical journey winds from historic carols to contemporary Americana to Scotland based stories. All are well worth repeated listening. That said, listen out especially for Little Road to Bethlehem, Christ Has My Hairt, Ay, and Smith’s originals Find Hope and Winter Song.

Each of these albums is a winter season classic, well worth your listening for musicianship, creativity and, indeed, grace of the season.

Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay

You may also enjoy
Three more albums of winter, from Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, Hanneke Cassel, and April Verch and Joe Newberry.
First story of this season’s holiday gift ideas: Albums from Sarah McQuaid, the Spell Songs Singers, and the band Staran
A story about A candle in the window, at Perceptive Travel
Music for Starry Winter Nights, at Wandering Educators
Second in this season’s holiday gift ideas: music from Graham Rorie, David Milligan, Karine Polwart
Advent: music, silence, and winter

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