Old Time Scottish Fiddle Music From Cape Breton Island
Joe MacLean(ROUN CD 7024)
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Some twenty years ago, Mark Wilson traveled to Nova Scotia to record a series of albums showcasing Cape Breton Island music for Rounder Records. Among others, he recorded Joe MacLean, then in his sixties. Circumstances conspired to leave the tapes unreleased and unavailable to the public. Two decades later, Wilson once more approached Rounder. The time was right, the family of MacLean, who died in 1996, were in favor, and Old Time Scottish Fiddle Music from Cape Breton Island has now been issued.
The first thing that strikes me about Joe MacLean is his liveliness. Strathspeys, marches, reels, jigs: the primary purpose of the music is dance. Originally played on solo fiddle, sometimes on a pair of fiddles, Cape Breton melodies require a strong sense of rhythm and lift in the playing. This is something MacLean, true to tradition, possesses in abundance. His bowing seems to cut and slide across the strings with frolicking abandon, while his left hand fingering is precise and flowing.
In the excellent sleeve notes, Joe's son Vincent (who co-produced the album) discusses his father's life and times as well as his approach to making music. The older MacLean often found tunes which did not immediately strike him. "But with a bit of work, the tune came alive and soon became a thing of beauty that, to me, is what makes Scottish music almost unique," according to Joe. The result is a collection of 11 tracks, played in MacLean's distinctive style, which demonstrates the vibrant community into which today's fiddlers were born. It comes as no surprise that we now have the likes of Natalie MacMaster.
A special note must be made concerning the accompaniment. Too often pianists get in the way, while percussionists seem to come from other planets. Not so in this case. Lila Hashem worked with MacLean for many years. Her playing is uncanny, not a beat out of place, not a note unneeded. At times echoing the melody, at other times providing scintillating chordal progressions and bass runs, she complements the playing to perfection. Peter Dominic appears occasionally, adding more color and texture on drums, never intruding or dominating, but giving a slight emphasis here and there, like laid back punctuation marks.
The final track is The Kitchen Party Medley. While the first ten were studio recorded, in some ways for posterity, this final piece falls into a different category. MacLean and pianist Marie MacLellan play a near 10-minute set together live at a kitchen party. Although the quality is perhaps not as clear and clean as the Wilson recordings, an already vibrant album actually manages to shift up another gear - real, live dance music.
All the musicians work well together, recapturing on record some of the tunes Joe MacLean had learned throughout his life. "When you have a great gift," says MacLean, "you have a responsibility to share it with others to make their lives a little better if you can." I won't argue with that.
Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz