Graham Mackenzie‘s Crossing Borders is an ambitious, original and ultimately, very successful venture. Originating as a commission for Celtic Connections in 2015 the work has finally found its way on to CD…not before time.
Graham Mackenzie has studied violin/fiddle since he was six years old and has educated himself in both classical and traditional music, something which is self-evident in “Crossing Borders”. The distinction between ‘fiddlers’ and classical players is often obvious to the point that classical musicians can struggle to play traditional music. The rhythms and styles are different and often incompatible with the ‘feel’ of traditional music. Because Graham has studied and played both types of music concurrently, he brings elegance to his traditional-style compositions without diminishing the spontaneity of the music.
At this point, I have to reveal that having started to listen to Crossing Borders with a view to reviewing it I found myself stranded in Glasgow due to ferry cancellations… every cloud. I discovered that Graham was reprising the original commission as part of Celtic Connections and there was the odd seat still available so off I went.
A Tune For Grandad is the opening album track, an exquisite slow air which features a solo fiddle for the first couple of stanzas, it is hauntingly beautiful. Slow airs can be ‘sanitised’ by the over zealous use of vibrato. Graham uses almost none. Instead, he emphasises certain phrases by the use of drones, and silence. For the live performance, the musicians who played on the album were reunited including Megan Henderson, fiddle and step-dancing and Ciorstaidh Beaton on clàrsach. It is the refined piano of Jim Molyneux however that accompanies the next part of the tune before the clàrsach and finally the whole string sound: Robbie Mackenzie, Innes Watson, Stewart Wilson and Alice Allen combine with Megan to bring the piece to a sumptuous conclusion.
The commission was conceived as a ‘this is your life’ look back at Graham Mackenzie’s musical life and for someone who was only 22 at the time he composed it he seems to have managed to pack a fair bit into a short space of time. As part of his degree in Manchester, he absorbed the Irish session scene in the city, managed a study exchange in Cape Breton and rounded things off with post-graduate study at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow.
The album works amazingly well. Over the years ‘concept’ albums have come and gone, many leave you feeling a little dazed, and many a little underwhelmed, Crossing Borders is an exception. From the beginning, it takes you off to new places. The music is lyrical and original but retains the elements of the tradition that Graham seeks to encapsulate.
After an orchestral bridge into The Crate, it turns into a joyous jig, and the whistle playing of Scott Wood makes an appearance, one of the highlights throughout the rest of the album. The arrangements, presumably as a result of Graham’s classical background, not to mention his imagination are striking, making full use of all the instruments at his disposal. In this tune, the clàrsach and fiddle lead into a finale with the whole band driven by the guitar of Innes Watson giving the piano a chance to elaborate on the melody.
I’ll be very surprised if music from this album doesn’t turn up as the soundtrack to a BBC documentary. It would be worth making the pictures to fit the music!
Breaking Borders is split into four parts. It starts with a Scottish section celebrating Graham’s early years before moving to Manchester and his time studying by day and moonlighting by night in the Irish session scene. The Cape Breton section is my favourite before we return to Scotland for the concluding set. It doesn’t feel like four parts however, and clever use of orchestral techniques (I think) mean that each section flows easily to the next.
The Manchester section starts with a slow reel, followed by a faster reel then a jig. Scott Wood’s whistle in the second reel, The 50 Run helps create a sound, not unlike that of the Irish band Lúnasa, the whole piece perfectly captures that Irish inspiration.
Again, some of the accompaniments use classical techniques (in the musical arrangements), and it is these glimpses that elevate the album from a collection of tunes into a complete work. The fact that the musicians are the best in the field (of traditional music) may be the ingredient that makes it all hang together so well: an innate love and understanding of the genre must make playing in an ensemble such as this a delight.
Night at Glencoe Mills is the first of the Cape Breton-inspired tunes and it is a beautiful slow strathspey played on solo fiddle with a very sympathetic piano accompaniment. This is a chance to enjoy Graham Mackenzie’s faultless playing. The tune, inspired by the ‘forest setting’ of a hall on Cape Breton in which the locals were dancing the night away, is perfect. The Cape Breton Set is my favourite part of the album. Three tunes that capture the magic of Cape Breton. One of the highlights of my life was a visit to the Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, and when Megan Henderson’s step dancing is introduced into the middle reel, it immediately invoked memories of the local fiddlers who routinely use foot percussion as they play. By the end of the track, the full band are rocking.
Mrs Mackenie’s is a set written for Graham’s mum, and after a clàrsach introduction the full band, including Scott Wood’s pipes bring the album to a rousing conclusion.
Crossing Borders was written as a commission, and it must give Graham Mackenzie immense satisfaction that not only does it work effectively as a live performance, it is an excellent CD. Every play of the album reveals more layers and subtle little twists, but it never loses the immediacy that made the live performance so special. The couple sitting next to me had travelled from Yorkshire for Celtic Connections and chose the concert at random. They loved it and rushed off to buy the CD.
It’s very difficult to classify Crossing Borders except to say that it’s wonderful; buy it, and if Graham should manage to get the musicians together to perform it live again, be sure not to miss it.
Crossing Borders is out now.