Ross Ainslie is probably one of the hardest working musicians on the Scottish music scene. His talent as a tunesmith is matched only by his skill as an instrumentalist, Ross is a master pipe/whistle player as well as a cittern and mandolin virtuoso. Hardly surprising, then, that he’s one of our most sought-after session musicians. As well as being a founding member of the amazing Treacherous Orchestra, Ross has worked as part of Salsa Celtica, Dougie Maclean Band and India Alba. He enjoys a very successful musical partnership with Uilleann Piper Jarlath Henderson; which has produced two widely acclaimed albums: Air-Fix and Partners In Crime.
In 2013, Ross released his first solo album, Wide Open. Nominated for Album of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2013, Wide Open showcased not only Ross’s abilities as a writer and player of music but also as an arranger – presenting a richly varied cross-section of musical influences. Ross is one of the busiest musicians on the Scottish scene; bursting with energy, talent and innovative ideas.
In addition to his success with Treacherous Orchestra, 2015 has also brought Ross a commission from Celtic Connections as part of their New Voices series. The result is this month’s release of Remembering, in which Ross adds song writer to his long list of talents.
Remembering is an apt title. The connections in this recording go way back to Ross’s very beginnings as a musician, when he and Ali Hutton were part of the Vale Of Atholl Pipe band, under the tutelage of the late, great Gordon Duncan. As a trustee of the Gordon Duncan Memorial Trust, Ross works tirelessly to promote Gordon’s legacy and the innovative approach to pipe music that he championed. Joining Ross is Ali Hutton on acoustic guitar, and he isn’t the only familiar face on this album. During a week spent in the idyllic Ochil Hills setting of Tpot Studio (just a few miles along the road from where I sit, in fact) Ross was joined by a host of talented friends – close companions who’ve worked with Ross time and again.
Having spent 18 months writing songs for this release, his first outing as a song writer, Ross has clearly found it a purifying experience. In that time he’s also given up alcohol and is refreshingly open about the effect it can have on work, creativity and individuals within the music industry. The opening track, Change, approaches the subject on a personal level and with a powerful frankness:
Looking back I always had an easy day
Falling in and out of bars
Self destruction is the easy way
But the dark shadow carries
The pace is set by Ali Hutton’s acoustic guitar and in addition to providing the drums and percussion for the album, Gordy Duncan Jnr takes on the role of vocalist in what must have been a deeply personal performance. Change also makes fine, and subtle, use of some beautifully rambling pipes and a closing note to raise the hairs of the back of your neck.
Change is the first of five songs Ross has written for the album and one of them, Dreaming Daisy, was written in partnership with Hamish Napier. It’s bright, breezy and, in addition to showcasing Ross’s skill on the cittern, delights in a vocal duet between Hamish and Laura-Beth Salter. Together, Matheu Watson’s electric guitar, Laura-Beth Salter’s mandolin and Ross’s whistles provide some of the richest of the instrumental twists and turns that are a feature of this album.
That meandering sound doesn’t just happen – it takes a skilled arranger to tease all those flourishes and tangents from a melody, and a skilled producer to put together a band that can do them justice. Ross has excelled at both these tasks. The group of friends he’s assembled for the recording exemplifies the community spirit that exists within the trad music scene and the effect that has on the evolution of the music. The three tune sets that have been included on the album are probably the clearest illustration of this effect.
Lullaby for Mel is a beautiful, haunting melody written in memory of a friend and is typical of Ross’s exemplary skill with a slow air. Leading on from Ross’s whistle in duet with John Somerville’s accordion, Laura Wilkie joins on fiddle for some further exploration of the theme before a finale that builds with James Lindsay’s bass and brings out guitars, pipes and, inevitably, goose bumps. The title track, Remembering, opens on a soothing note… a gently keening guitar and rich accordion herald a sentimental whistle melody, gently lifted by electric guitar and fiddle. It’s in the tune set Skins, though, that the almost telepathic communication between the band members comes to the fore. From its lilting and summer breezy whistle opening, the track moves on to a brisk-paced instrumental that shows off the full company’s talents and craft to the max. Whistle / accordion / fiddle keep perfect measure with each other, with no small thanks to percussion as tight as the lid on Ma Broon’s biscuit tin. It’s full of added spicy surprises and is joyfully characteristic of Ross’s explorative approach.
The album’s also about song writing, though, and there are further fine examples to enjoy. Treacherous Orchestra cohort Steve Byrnes provides the main voice in the uplifting Fly Higher. I can remember Ross introducing Fly Higher as his first attempt at song writing back in January 2014, at Celtic Connections; and it’s rewarding to hear the same song enjoy a rich development, with multi-textured backing vocals and added excitement in the instrumental bridge. Aberdeenshire tradition-bearer Jock Duncan provides a short snatch of memorable prose before the gentle waltz opening of the positive and forward-looking Head High, which introduces another fine vocal performance from Laura-Beth Salter, this time in duet with Ross.
Remembering takes a final tangential bound to close with Nowhere to Go. This slightly trippy triptych enjoys a mysterious opening of dreamy vocal, a light jazzy guitar and contrasting a sense of monotony from the accordion. There are a couple of changes in mood before closing on a final, and glorious, instrumental rammy.
Despite having worked together on numerous recordings and live shows before, every member of the company Ross has brought together for Remembering is aware of the uniqueness of this project; and that awareness shines through in the music. This isn’t a trad, or pipe music album. It isn’t a rock or a pop album. Remembering takes elements of all these genres, and many more. It takes the memories of Ross’s early days in a pipe band and the sadness at the loss of his mentor; it takes the warmth of the friendship he enjoys with like-minded musicians; and, I like to think, it even takes hint of the fresh air and birdsong of the Ochils. The title is deceptive – Remembering doesn’t hark at the past, although it references it. Remembering takes things forward and is certainly a substantial step forward for Ross Ainslie.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
The Making of: Remembering
Remembering is released on 18th September via Great White Records. It is available to pre-order and download now via Bandcamp here.