Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Canada's music: Sketches from Natalie MacMaster

Natalie MacMaster remembers when she came to hold her first fiddle.

"My grand uncle, Charlie MacMaster, who lived in Boston, sent a three quarter sized fiddle to our family -- not just my immediate family, our whole extended family -- sent it up to Cape Breton and said any of the kids who want to play this instrument can keep it,” she recalls. “There were a couple of other people who looked at it. I remember Dad taking me to see the fiddle and I just fell in love with it. Nobody else wanted it, so I took it, and that night, I started playing." She was nine.

That falling in love with the fiddle has lasted.

Exploring and sharing that love have led her to become one of Canada’s most well known and well loved musicians, and equally well known and respected for sharing the unique music of Cape Breton Canada around the world. She’s received many awards, nominations, and other recognitions, among them a Grammy award and nomination, a Juno award along with seven nominations, numerous East Coast music awards, three honorary doctorates, and induction as a member of the Order of Canada.

All of which she appreciates, but it is the making of music, the music she grew up with which can be fiery, bright, and fast paced as well as haunting and gentle, that is at the heart of what Natalie MacMaster does.

It is at the heart of her album Sketches, too.

It had been a while since MacMaster had made a solo album -- not that she hadn’t been making music, having done two albums with her husband and fellow fiddle player Donnell Leahy, continued to tour across Canada and beyond, worked on founding the Greenbridge Music Festival near their home in Ontario, begun a couple of book projects, and worked on ideas for a concert with an orchestra -- not to mention working on home schooling the couple’s seven children. In the midst of all that, in the winter of 2019, she knew it was time for another project.

While preparing the duo album with Donnell, she and guitarist Tim Edey did some jamming together.They had not worked together before. MacMaster loved it/ “I said to him ‘We are absolutely going to record something that sounds just like this!’” she recalls.

t’s a fine pairing of talents. From the blast of reels which opens the recording, a tune each from Jerry Holland, Martin Mulhaire, and MacMaster herself, to the gentle Professor Blackie from James Scott Skinner on through reels, barn dances, strathspeys, jigs, a set of tunes to honor the dance, and a nod to Bonnie Raitt with the melody of I can’t Make You Love Me, it’s a good journey with many a twist and turn.

Joining Edey in support of her vision, Marc Rogers adds tasteful touches of standup bass, while on selected tracks Mike McGoldrick joins on flute, Stuart Cameron on 12 string guitar, Frank Evans on 5 string banjo, Remi Arsenault on bass guitar, and Mark Kelso on percussion.

MacMaster has a lot to say through her fiddle and she says it well, speaking clearly of the lively community, the changing seasons on the landscape, the tradition of dance, those who’ve passed the traditions of Cape Breton on to her, and her own creative take on all these things.

It is her playing and vision which center the recording. All the tracks are well worth repeated listenings.

One of my favourites is the Killiekrankie set, with the quiet namesake tune followed by a blast of faster tunes. Of the set MacMaster writes: “The first tune is one of my top picks of favourite fiddle tunes ever! Not sure why it didn’t make it on any of my previous recordings but I am delighted it’s here. Following are a typical blast of Cape Breton strathspeys and reels.”

Cape Breton music draws deeply from the well of the musics of Scotland which early settlers brought with them across the seas. It is also a music rooted in landscape and grounded in community in this place in Atlantic Canada where sea meets forest meet sky.

“No other music makes me feel the way this music does,” MacMaster said. “ I’m not talking about my own music, but the music of those who came before me, and of my peers. It lifts me up and makes me want to get up and dance, and it soothes my soul. It gives me pure peace.”

Those are qualities Natalie MacMaster well knows how to share with her listeners.

While preparing for the release of Sketches, eight years on since she had recorded her last solo album, she reflected that it was a time she wanted to mark. “This is a moment during my 47th year of life, my 37th year of fiddling, my16th year of marriage, and my 13th year of parenting,” she said. “It’ll be a moment of joyous appreciation inspired by years of parenting, marriage,friendships, music, and life.”

Give a listen to Sketches, and share those moments with Natalie MacMaster and her music.

Also to note: MacMaster, Leahy, and their children are taking their popular Christmas concert online this season, supporting a number of venues where they have often played in person. Look to their website for details on dates and tickets.

You may also wish to see
Tim Edey: Christmas music on guitar
Natalie MacMaster and Donell Leahy: One
Leahy Live in Gatineau dvd
Alasdair Fraser, Natalie Haas, Hanneke Cassel: Travels in Music on Fiddle and Cello

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