Monday, November 13, 2017

Travels in Music: Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, and Hanneke Cassel

Ports of Call is an appropriate name for a recording by Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. Both their personal histories and their work as a duo include many points of the compass.

Fraser is a fiddle player, composer, and master teacher, a native of Scotland who has been long resident in California. Haas, whose instrument is the cello, grew up in California, studied in New York, lived for some years in Quebec, and is based in the Boston area.

That all comes into play through the music they have chosen and composed for Ports of Call. They explore tunes from Sweden, Norway, Galicia, Scotland, Finland, and France. There are original compositions by both of them, as well.

The Silver and Stuff set includes the title tune, a Norwegian bridal march, as well as a Swedish polska and a Norwegian hailing. A departure, you might think, for a pair best known for their interpretations and compositions of the music of Scotland? There are Celtic connections through long history of trade and travel between the Celtic lands and the Nordic ones, though, and Fraser and Haas are both always adventurous travelers across the world of music as well. These march into dance melodies and and then into another sort of dance in will have dancers twirling in your imagination. The music works both in idea and in melody.

That is also true of the reflective piece Walzska for Su-a, which Haas composed for friend and fellow cellist Su-a Lee while Lee was on a visit to Montreal. There’s a hint of love for the dark tones of Nordic cello in this piece, as well as, just maybe, a trace of Quebecois dance.

Lively melodies fill the Keeping Up with Christine set, which includes a tune Fraser wrote while in Adelaide, Australia, and named for that city. The second tune honors Fraser’s sister, who, Fraser writes in the album’s notes, “has achieved so much as a leader and instigator in the field of education and beyond.”

It is to the familiar place of Scotland they return for the Freedom Come All Ye set, in which that well known song of political comment by Hamish Henderson is imagined anew as an instrumental piece, and paired with an original jig by Haas.

There are more adventures in music to be found on Ports of Call, all of them part of the continuing conversation Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas create with their instruments. They chose these pieces to convey stories both original and traditional, which they do with understanding, clarity, and grace.

Hanneke Cassel knows well how to bring the qualities of clarity, understanding, and grace to her music, as well. A native of the US west coast, Cassel began her fiddling days in western swing. Before long, though, she was drawn into the music of Scotland. One of her teachers along her way into the tunes of Scotland and other Celtic musics was Alasdair Fraser.

Long a resident of the Boston area, Cassel has chosen to call her most recent recording Trip to Walden Pond. There’s a personal connection to that place for Cassel, and there are tunes on the album that connect to Kenya, China, Cape Breton, Scotland, and other places too. Cassel loves to compose tunes, and she also loves the work and the people of Many Hopes. That is a place in Kenya which, as she explains in her notes for the album, “rescues children from poverty and abuse, educating them to lead the next generation with justice and love.” To assist in raising funds to support Many Hopes, Cassel offered to compose tunes in return for donations. She asked donors to tell her their stories. Many of the tunes for Trip to Walden Pond arose from those stories.

Trip to Walden Pond is an adventure in contemporary Scottish American music. Cassel is known as much for her joyful personality and quick wit as she is for her thoughtful and reflective side: all of this comes in to her composing and playing. The Conchas Chinas set brings together three pieces whose melodies flow one into another with quiet strength. Coilsfield House is a tune from Scotland’s tradition: it was composed by famed late eighteenth century fiddler Nathaniel Gow. Cassel dedicates the tune to Carol Ann Wheeler, the teacher back in Oregon from whom she first heard it and the woman who, she says, first taught her to love the fiddle.

The Buddy’s Strathspey set is, as you might think if you know of strathspeys, a lively set which may have you dancing yourself or at least tapping your toes. The title tune of the set is one Cassel composed in honor of the late Buddy MacMaster, a legend in Cape Breton fiddle playing with whom she studied. The set includes two tunes she learned from another top class Cape Breton fiddle player, Jerry Holland. A set that celebrates an intricate dialogue between fiddle and piano, These 30 Years (for Jennifer) frame Cassel’s fiddle with piano played by longtime musical collaborator Dave Wiesler.

There are many more tunes on Trip to Walden Pond, ones that will take you from celebrating to dancing to reflecting. Cassel does not sing or speak a word yet the voice of her fiddle speaks eloquently of all these stories. Among them is the one inspired by that trip to Walden Pond.

That is a favorite place for this New England based artist.The tune itself is a lively reel that is based in Scotland while giving an nod now and then to bluegrass and Americana influences. On this tune and across the music of the album you will notice the creative work of Mike Block on cello. Block is part of the Grammy winning Silk Road Ensemble, and is respected as an innovative teacher and performer. One day, Cassel wanted to show Walden Pond to her longtime friend Block. The day after that visit, Block proposed. Soon after, she began writing the tune. Not long after that, the idea for the album began to circle around that piece.

You might also want to listen out for a tune on Ports of Call from Fraser and Haas -- it’s called Hanneke’s Bridal March.

You may also wish to see
Abundance from Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas.
For Reasons Unseen: Hanneke Cassel
Cathie Ryan: The Farthest Wave on which Hanneke Cassel plays a lovely fiddle break on the title track
Sounds of Cape Breton: Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac
A different version of Freedom Come All Ye: Robyn Stapleton sings the song, backed by Skippinish

Waterfall in Skye photograph by Steelogic; performer photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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