In the second part of The Big Music Society’s evening of music that aims to help find a place for Piobaireachd in a modern setting (read part one on Blarvuster here), Fraser Fifield takes to the stage. Fraser may be best known for his innovative work in bringing the traditional reels, jigs and strathspeys of Scotland to the soprano saxophone, but he trained first as a piper. Having developed his unique approach to saxophone with the likes of Wolfstone, Old Blind Dogs and Salsa Celtica; Fraser began recording music under his own name and released his first solo album, Honest Water, in 2002. His skills as a multi-disciplined, multi-instrumentalist/composer were immediately apparent and, ever since, Fraser has continued to create thought provoking and highly individual music, as well as take part in countless significant collaborations.
For The Big Music Society, though, Fraser admits he’s revisiting ‘this music’ (meaning the Piobaireachd) after some time. His return to the Big Music takes form in a re-working of a series of standard Piobaireachd that’s very different from, but just as individual as, Blarvuster’s approach. To begin with, he’s created a trio that’s more used to playing jazz, bringing in Mario Caribe on double bass and Graeme Stephen (one of the few guests on that first solo album) on guitar. The result is a gentle opening with Glengarry’s March, where Fraser’s low whistle is joined by Mario’s bowed bass to open, supplemented in time by Graeme’s light, jazzy tones and some live looping from Fraser. The soft sounds continue with The Old Woman’s Lullaby, a sleepy guitar/bass combo and some more advance effects from Fraser’s low whistle – these are never understated, but neither are they purely decorative.
Lament for the Children was perhaps the most significant piece on offer. Fraser takes to his soprano sax initially before a phase of intricate improvisations on guitar and whistle lead back to the main theme. Tension builds from bass and guitar, for which Fraser provides a very eloquent match on small pipes, and takes the piece toward a more intense period than many are used to in a lament. With the alterations in guitar sound and the reedy soulfulness of the pipes it almost sounds North African, meanwhile Mario steadfastly and subtly gives it all he has on the bass. Other highlights of the set include the most soulful of soprano sax arrangements for Catherine’s Lament; a favourite of Fraser’s – Lament for the Viscount of Dundee, a plaintive low whistle among some mighty guitar embellishments.
Fraser reminds us that innovation is far from a 21st Century phenomenon in the piping world. His own Piobaireachd tutor, Dr Jack Taylor is a former president of the Piobaireachd Society and at one time hosted a piping program on Radio Scotland. In the 1980’s he asked Fraser to join him on a show – with his soprano sax. The selection was MacDougall’s Gathering and the same melody closed tonight’s performance, with Fraser taking to his low whistle on this occasion, in an intoxicating conclusion.
Fraser’s been asked to look again at the Piobaireachd and place it in the context of his own music. The sax seems to lend itself perfectly to Fraser’s improvisations – or Fraser makes sure it does, and proves these ancient melodies still have a place in a modern setting.
An important aspect of Celtic Connections is pushing boundaries. Not just the boundaries of what constitutes Celtic music, but the limits we impose on the music, whether as artists or as audience, whatever its origins. Fraser Fifield helps to highlight, in all his work, just how adaptable our indigenous music can be in the right hands – and Fraser’s are definitely the right hands for the job.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
You can order his full digital discography via Bandcamp here: fraserfifield.bandcamp.com/releases