Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas: July Album of the Month

Ports of Call
Culburnie 125D

In a world in which the adjective "professionalism" is often appropriated rather than demonstrated, music remains an expression in which one can literally hear the proof behind the label. Top-tier musicians possess an ineffable quality that, the moment you hear it, you know you have crossed from the border between good and great. I have made this claim before, but let me reiterate: there are few fiddlers on the planet whose tone, precision, skill, or excitement levels approach those of Alasdair Fraser. For the past fourteen years, his primary musical partner has been cellist Natalie Haas, whose own talents have risen to match those of her mentor. On Ports of Call, the duo's fifth release, Haas and Fraser are co-equals that stand head and shoulders above most of their peers.

The album is aptly named. Past Fraser/Haas collaborations have explored deeper dimensions of Scottish traditional music. It has taken them far, and this album pays homage to various places they have touched down. This includes an evolving exploration of their own compositional skills, and the myriad ways in which melodic categories overlap and collapse. Fraser is fond of saying that their music is "all about the dance," you would be hard pressed to say which Fraser and Haas imbue with more gravitas, a village dance tune or a formal court promenade. That's because many of their favorite composers blur the folk/classical line. Take the Hamish Henderson tune "Freedom Call All Ye." It was written as a protest piece, but it sets your toes tapping. Haas appends her own tune, "Peas in the F-hole," whose whimsical title does little to prepare you for its jaunty complexity. This combination is one of the few that is mostly Scottish in makeup and structure. From it they move to France for two scottisches and an andro. These three tunes chase each other, but with a solemnity that flirts with darkness, as Breton music often does. The same can be said of the "Silver and Stuff" set, a march, polska (3/4), and halling (6/8) that come from Norway.

Before Ports of Call finishes we also visit Spain (including Galcia), Quebec, California, Sweden, Finland, and the creative minds of Fraser and Haas. Galician tunes such as those in the "MuiƄeiras" set often employ hand drums, but Haas' cello provides the percussive bottom. If you like somber, check out the Galician hurdy gurdy tune in the "Foliada!" set, a xota, which is waltz-like, yet not a waltz. Listen to Haas' own "Megan and Jarrod's Waltz" and you'll hear what I mean.  The polska/waltz combo of Swedish tunes in "The Devil and the Gypsy" also tilt toward the austere end of the spectrum, but also highlight the age-old tussel between those of a puritanical bent who damn dance as the devil's music and the gypsy spirit that embraces its intrinsic joy. If you want a lighter touch, check out Fraser's "Keeping Up with Christine," written in honor of his high-energy sister, or Haas' "Waltzka For Su-A," an original and innovative mash of Scandinavian, Quebecois, and Celtic music in C-minor. A personal favorite is Fraser's "Hanneke's Bridal March," which is what more formal pieces should be: stately, but without starch.

Nothing on this album fits the diddly-diddly stereotypes often slapped onto the efforts of "Celtic" musicians. At a recent concert I overheard a woman remark that this was the best "classical" concert she had attended all year. I might dispute the label, but I know what she meant. Listen and you will too. That's what the true pros do—defy our expectations until we surrender to their charms.

Rob Weir

No comments: