Appearances can be deceiving, from the outside, The Fretless look like your average cool folk band: beards, caps, rustic shirts. However, listening carefully to their music and looking closely into their backgrounds reveals a band with a unique and distinctive voice.
The band, formerly consisting of Trent Freeman, Karrnnel Sawitsky, Eric Wright and Ivonne Hernandez, were acquainted through their days of playing fiddle contests across Canada. It was after Ivonne graduated from Berklee College of Music, along with Trent Freeman, that The Fretless formed. The fiddle tradition apparently runs deep, Kerrnnel Sawitsky, for example, has been described as one of Canada’s ‘most accomplished and innovative fiddlers and musicians’ and has played the fiddle since the age of four. He grew up playing in a family band with his two sisters (Kimberly and Kanndece on fiddle) and his father (Orest on accordion) travelling all across North America as The Sawitsky Family Fiddlers.
Ivonne was recently replaced by Ben Plotnick (fiddle), but it is the original lineup that features on Bird’s Nest, their third album.
Expectations may well run high for this release with their previous albums winning Instrumental Album of the Year at the Western Canadian Music Awards and their last album picking up Ensemble of the Year in the Canadian Folk Music Awards in 2014.
Bird’s Nest opens to ‘Alphonzo / Salkantay’. The mystery and tension of Alphonzo, composed by Eric Wright, is based on a character called ‘Alphonzo McKenzie’ on which the band share the following: ‘While travelling through Kingston, Trent and Eric ran into a very unique man with a passion for story-telling. For what seemed like an eternity, this man told Trent and Eric the story of Alphonzo, who truly was a sinister creature.’
Salkantay is named after a 6200-meter peak in the Peruvian Andes, one which inspired the tune and formed a beautiful backdrop to a four-day trek to Machu Picchu by fiddle and viola player Trent. The dark rhythm of cello helps you envision the rough, bumpy path that he must have walked on, while the dramatic mountain peak looms in the background. The tune has a ‘jazzy’ intermezzo. A vibe that’s detected on many of their recordings, proof of their cross-genre influences which become more apparent on side-projects such as Trent’s experimental electronic duo Speaker Face.
Samuel’s Maids features Le Reel de Samuel, written by Karrnell which, with its Irish sound blends well alongside the accompanying Irish traditional Maids of Castlebar. The cello adds a happy and light rhythm you wouldn’t expect to hear in an Irish session whilst the triple fiddle play makes sure that the tunes get a bit of that Irish ‘sweetness’.
The final track, 38 & Gone was composed by Karrnnel in memory of his friend Derek Bachman. Bachman was one of the biggest supporters and advocates for the music industry in Saskatchewan (a boreal province of Canada). ‘He worked tirelessly to help promote the music industry in Saskatchewan, Canada, and around the world.’ It is one of the most sensitive and emotional tracks of the album. The melody allows all instruments to be naturally in harmony with each other, as if there is a natural call for all instruments to play their part, to support the tune without the need to stand out individually. The two-part melody is melancholy, but sometimes happy at the same time. Listening to it, one feels like looking back on something special, something bittersweet. Sad, but with a hopeful wink. The absence of a final note, possibly a reflection of the early death of Bachman, a tune unfinished, a life unfinished.
Bird’s Nest is an exciting follow-up to their well-received second album, giving the listener more than enough to digest and enjoy. Their music, while possibly a challenge for purists, more than satisfies the hunger of the modern audience as they strike that tricky balance between three fiddles, one cello, rhythm and melody. The Fretless sound is the product of brilliant musicians and composers, cross-genre influences in a modern world. The outcome is a unique voice that is rich, fresh and diverse.
Birds Nest is Out Now