As session and live musicians, the individual members of the Andy May Trio have been much in demand for years. Between them they’ve worked with the likes of KAN, Jez Lowe and Kathryn Tickell as well as uniting in their passion for the music of the North East of England. And it’s from that repertoire they source most of the music for their debut album as a trio About Time. It’s a collection that brings together lovingly collected melodies from the North East and contemporary tracks penned by all three, with some dazzling musicianship in the form of Andy May’s Northumbrian smallpipes, guitar from Ian Stephenson, and Derbyshire fiddler Sophy Ball.
The album launched at the recent Homegrown Festival in Bury, Lancashire, part of the English Folk Expo. For the band and fans alike, it’s been a long time coming, as Ian Stephenson explained:
“Having been best mates for years, we’re rarely seen apart and can be found right at the centre of the healthy folk music scene in Newcastle Upon Tyne, so when it came to looking for a new project to focus on, the solution had been staring us in the face the whole time! When we announced the new trio, our friends and colleagues exclaimed “It’s About Time!” as if we should really have thought of this earlier. The music of North East England really excites us and we are passionate about finding hidden gems in the archives – particularly in old Northumbrian Pipes repertoire. Having played together unofficially for many years, there’s something about playing instruments with true friends that brings energy, spirit and fun to the music and it’s important to us that we communicate that fun to audiences both live and on the album”.
The three have performed together in a bewildering variety of settings for over a decade, and the deep understanding of each other’s strengths this has fostered is evident from the very start of the album. Bonapart’s Expedition / Lang Stay’d Away provides the upbeat opening. A pair of tunes from popular Northumbrian collections that showcase guitar, fiddle and pipes, each alternating between melody, harmony and rhythm with consummate ease. A driving beat and some lovely bowed bass ensure a foot tapping start.
There’s fluid dynamism throughout the album; a foundation laid by the combination of guitar and fiddle. Neither instrument shouts for attention, they operate in perfect unison to provide pace and colour. Keeping such impressive ability in the background, though, would be an unforgivable waste of talent and, thankfully, there’s plenty opportunity to impress. In Sophy Ball’s light dance Learn to Hambo!, paired with Andy’s Eric Stephenson Of Crookhill, Sophy’s fiddle takes centre stage with intricate timing before Andy’s pipes join in the melody and we’re led to a modern, light as air pipe melody with some elevating fiddle harmonies toward the close. Some performances just exude happiness – this is one of them.
Sophy Ball is classically trained but also has a degree in Folk and Traditional Music from Newcastle University. Along with Ian Stephenson she received a BBC Young Folk Award back in 1999 with ‘422’. Her enthusiasm for all forms of fiddle music has led her to explore the sounds of Scandinavia, India, America and Canada – she’s even indulged in a spot of Klezmer music too. What Sophy brings to About Time is a level of versatility and skill that’s as appealing as it is productive. Driving rhythms, soaring harmonies and dazzling intricacy; you just can’t imagine this album sounding quite so accomplished without her contributions. Another tune of Sophy’s where fiddle and pipes form a memorable duet, Dreams Of Yorkshire Tea, could also easily accompany a dance; paired with the more upbeat Marche 150, the full effect is utterly delightful; somehow managing to invoke thoughts of Sunday afternoon lock-ins and music by the fire.
Where Northumbrian pipes are concerned, it’s often the fast and furious that grabs the attention of the listener, and Cuckold Come Out Of The Amrey provides plenty of that. Some intricate pipe flourishes, and furiously fast finger work lead to another thoroughly engaging fiddle / pipe duet. As you’d expect there’s no shortage of dexterity on the pipes, Andy May demonstrates a masterful touch throughout.
Andy was introduced to the Northumbrian Pipes in the 1980s by his father, Stan, and they were his chosen instrument when he took his music degree at University of York. Having played as part of Jez Lowe and The Bad Pennies since 2002, Andy’s also recorded and toured with Kathryn Tickell and Baltic Crossing. Andy’s Northumbrian Smallpipes are, of course, at the heart of the music; and he’s just as adept at the gentle, ebb and flow they can produce in the hands of a true expert. A perfect example’s provided with Peacock’s Trip To The Bigg Market. It celebrates the great history of music in the North East of England (John Peacock, from Morpeth, was one of the finest Northumbrian smallpipers of the 18th/19th Century); opening as a pipe tune, before the fiddle takes up the theme and both indulge in variations that enhance the maritime atmosphere. However, Andy also displays an absorbing virtuosity on the piano and creates gripping atmospheres on the harmonium. Leaving Copenhagen will inevitably invoke comparisons with the light, intricate work of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and makes you wonder why Andy doesn’t indulge himself with more of these lovely piano outings. The duet with Ian Stephenson’s melodeon is simply gorgeous before the closing melodeon/fiddle duet with a warm, comforting backing from bass and piano.
A similarly gentle pace is utilised in Ian’s tune The Norwegian Gent, written in thanks for a set of Northumbrian pipes. It’s a longer track that seems to provide space for the trio to stretch and breathe. There’s a hint of sadness to the melody, but a glorious depth when pipes and melodeon combine, with fiddle soaring above. Ian Stephenson’s groundwork provision of acoustic guitar and double bass is fundamental to the album, but his deft touch on the melodeon provides even more scope for adventure. More recently bringing his string skills to KAN’s incredible album, Sleeper; Ian has also contributed to two albums with the Kathryn Tickell Band, taken to the stage with Chris Stout in his Brazilian Theory performances, and recorded his own solo project, the Nordic-influenced Line-up. As well as providing a trio of tunes for the album; Ian recorded, produced and engineered the whole, glorious sound at Ashwood Studios, his own specialist folk and acoustic music studio. His own tune, Transatlantic Reels is a fine example of how the trio works to full effect. Opening with Ian’s Reel (written by Andy) a pipe melody is quickly taken up by everyone, enjoys a melodic outing, and a short flight of fancy too, before the second tune provides a perfect union of pipes, melodeon and fiddle.
It’s the dynamic, dazzling virtuosity of this trio that really shines, though, and probably shines even brighter in a live setting. The Sailor’s Wife / Quick And Merry takes a smidgen under three minutes to illustrate the joy of music with impressive eloquence, and The Mug Of Brown Ale / Handsome Young Maidens brings the album to a conclusion on a high note. It’s a steady pace, and would make an energetic dance, but you can feel the band coiled like a spring – and when the tension is released the result is irresistible.
About Time is a debut album, but the Andy May Trio has been around a lot longer than their performances have. Having played together for many years in a host of different settings, the trio have attained a level of understanding that matches any well-established band. Not only is the music a highly polished performance that showcases the ability of all three to each make their own significant, and dazzling, contributions; it also demonstrates just what they can achieve together. Andy May’s pipes can be rousing or soothing and are a joy to listen to; Ian Stephenson’s guitar and bass are dynamic and dependable, his melodeon delightful; and Sophy Ball’s fiddle is accomplished, adventurous and thoroughly enjoyable. However, with their abundant enthusiasm, a mutual empathy bordering on instinct and, above all, a collective passion for the music they play; it’s as a single, cohesive unit that the Andy May Trio shines brightest and About Time is the superb result.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Upcoming Live Dates:
OCT 29 – Queen’s Hall, Hexham, UK Tickets