There’s a long-standing, productive and impressive partnership behind the release this week of Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton‘s first album as a duet, Symbiosis. The multi-instrumentalist Perthshire pair are major figures in the exciting and innovative music that emanates from Scotland’s trad music scene, enthusiastically carrying the torch first lit by the likes of Gordon Duncan and Martyn Bennett.
The partnership began when Ross and Ali, both pipers from a very young age, met at the age of 12 in the Vale Of Atholl Pipe Band. Encouraged and mentored by the late Gordon Duncan, his virtuosity and passion rubbed off on the lads, spurring them both on to success with, among others, Old Blind Dogs, Salsa Celtica, Dougie MacLean, Shooglenifty and Capercaillie; as well as inspiring them to form the musical powerhouse that is Treacherous Orchestra in 2009.
The music Ali and Ross make isn’t only about power and excitement, of course, it’s about craft, communication, commitment. All these essential ingredients are in evidence from the opening pair of tunes, Sisters, with its soothing, cascading whistle duet backed by guitar and hints of cittern. There’s an immediate sense of the skill behind not only the musical performance but the composition, Ali’s in this case, that promises an album of beguiling music.
The skill that’s so evident has been clear throughout the duo’s musical careers. Among a list of awards and nominations too long to detail here, at the 2015 Scottish Trad Music Awards Treacherous Orchestra won Album of the year and Ross, Composer of the year, following his explorative solo album Remembering (review here).
In addition to Remembering, Ross’s album output includes Wide Open in 2014 and two thoroughly well-received albums with Uilleann piper Jarlath Henderson, Partners in Crime and Airfix. Among countless collaborations; with India Alba he fused Celtic and Eastern in Reels and Ragas, has a long and fruitful association with Dougie MacLean and contributes his pipe and whistle skills to Salsa Celtica.
Ali Hutton’s early career saw him join the ever-popular Back Of The Moon in 2003, and since co-producing their 2005 album, Luminosity, he’s occupied the producer’s chair on behalf of Maeve Mackinnon, Old Blind Dogs, Rura, Treacherous Orchestra, of course, and Claire Hastings‘ wonderful début, Between River and Railway (review here).
As mentioned, both were taught in the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band by the late Gordon Duncan – piper, folk musician and composer, who died in 2005 aged 41. As part of The Gordon Duncan Memorial Trust Ross and Ali are tireless ambassadors for his work and his unique musical legacy. In addition to organising an annual concert in Gordon’s honour and publishing his work, the Trust provides funding and support for young people participating in traditional music.
Despite the impressive piping pedigree, it’s whistles that dominate the album, if dominate is an appropriate term for such mellow sound. Symbiosis was recorded live in the studio as much as possible, with Ross & Ali dueting on a variety of whistles and strings. It’s those duets themselves that give the album its depth and sparkle. There’s added colour from fellow Treacherous Orchestra members Duncan Lyall and Martin O’Neill, who bring in their exceptional skills on bass and bodhrán as the rhythm section.
Fourth provides a fine example of all four in perfect unity. Opening with a joint composition on whistles, Fourth has more than hint of Irish about it, and Martin’s bodhrán in even finer voice than usual. That conversation between whistles and skin moves up a couple of gears for Gordon Duncan’s dizzying reel that gives the set its title. The combination of soothing and invigorating is further evidenced in a pair of tunes from Ross titled Ruby. Whistles, guitar and cittern provide a melodious celebration of a ruby wedding before moving on to the light-stepping Happy Harry.
Another brace of tunes from Ross, Pongu, also finds room for a brace of harmoniums, with Ali’s tenor guitar beautifully backing Ross’s border pipes, before the pace picks up for the joyful Mari’s Tune. Simplicity can be just as effective, of course. In Loch, a straight-froward guitar/whistle duet to open is enhanced by sweetly soaring whistle harmonies before a tune from jazz pianist Tom Gibbs adds a new, swinging, spring in their step.
Martyn Bennett was another great, and much missed, influence on Ross and Ali’s approach to music. After the cittern and whistle opening on Smiler, the duo take on Martyn’s celebration of middle eastern music, Ud the Doudok. Ross’s cittern helps keep the sound spicy and it’s a virtuoso performance from both whistles that leads to Ali’s infectious toe-tapper, Smiler, with Duncan working overtime on the bass. Grans features another melodious feast from Ali’s tenor guitar, the power of his highland pipes and a stirring snare from virtuoso Breton drummer, Gus Sicard. Then there’s a feast of strings and a hint of synth from Duncan Lyall that quickly moves to a storming pipe/whistle duet – complex timing, perfectly executed. Wan‘s light, airy opening leads to a hint of wildness in Ali’s pipes that fits perfectly with his tribute to album producer Andrea Gobbi.
Closing the album, Gaelic has a hint of the tribal about it thanks to the staunch beat Martin provides, and the fine voice of Duncan’s double bass. There’s a glorious, spine-tingling conclusion in an instrumental adaptation of a puirt à beul that epitomises all the experience, skill and sheer joy that’s gone into Symbiosis.
There couldn’t really be a more apt title than Symbiosis, there’s a unity about the music that comes from deep roots; the same intuitive understanding that’s so in evidence when Ali & Ross play live together (as evidenced from a Song of the Day selection back in July). Symbiosis sees Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton bring that same intuition and unity to the studio in a collection of tune sets that expertly brings their combined skills as composers, multi-instrumentalists and arrangers to an eager audience.
Never known for taking it easy, Ross & Ali will be touring as a duet in September, are on the road right now with Treacherous Orchestra and will also be joining a memorable night in Edinburgh on August 23rd, as the Grit Orchestra comes to the Edinburgh Festival to celebrate Martyn Bennett’s masterpiece.
Symbiosis is Avialable to Order Now via: Bandcamp
Symbiosis – September Tour Dates
13th – Folklub, Hug and Pint, GLASGOW
14th – Green Room, PERTH
15th – Ceilidh Place, ULLAPOOL
!6th – Abriachan Hall, ABRIACHAN
17th – Inverie Hall, KNOYDART
18th – The Old Inn, Carbost, SKYE
19th- The Blue Lamp, ABERDEEN
20th – House Concert, EDINBURGH