Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Hass – Ports of Call
Culburnie – 2017
Ports of Call is Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Hass’s fifth album together (they began with Fire & Grace in 2004) and, whilst it is in some ways a departure from their previous efforts, it is at least as rewarding as what went before.
The duo brings together Alasdair’s in-depth knowledge and skill in Scottish traditional fiddle playing with American, Juilliard-schooled, Natalie’s cello which is always fittingly varied. Alasdair’s earlier recordings point to his longstanding interest in testing the boundaries of his craft, ranging as they do across solo fiddle, duo albums with piano players (Paul Machlis), guitarists (Jody Stetcher and fellow Scot Tony MacManus), and the dynamic and uplifting full-band sound of Skyedance. Playing with Alasdair is also not Natalie’s only foray into joining in with traditional fiddle playing – she has previously performed with Natalie MacMaster and played on Dirk Powell’s Walking Through Clay.
Freedom Come All Ye opens things up in a wonderfully stirring but graceful manner and it’s simply impossible to read their instrumental rendering of the famous Scots anti-imperialist song by Hamish Henderson as anything other than a reflection on the state of the nation and the persistent question of independence in the context of the uncertainties thrown up by Brexit (there was a track on their 2013 album Abundance titled The Referendum). Henderson wrote the song in 1960 describing hope for a world without exploitation, imperialism or young men being sent to fight in wars that only serve the interests of the rich and powerful. Whilst it has come to be seen by many as a radical Scottish national anthem, Henderson insisted that its’ message was internationalist.
Ports of Call is a particularly apt title for an album on which the tunes originate from, or are connected with, a panoply of places including – take a breath – Scotland (predictably), Norway, Sweden, Finland, Quebec (where Natalie now lives), California (where Alasdair now lives), Galicia, Brittany, the Bourbonnais region in France and Australia. Unsurprisingly there are almost as many different tune styles to be heard as there are places the tunes are from – so we get jigs, scottisches, a bridal march, polskas and polkas. Some are traditional and some written by other traditional musicians, although aside from Freedom Come All Ye the tunes are unlikely to be familiar. There is also a good helping of tunes composed by Alasdair and by Natalie, most in a lovely personal way as gifts or tributes to friends. In some hands, this could all end up an incoherent mess but Ports of Call is certainly no forced effort to appear globally savvy and the fortunate listener gets their usual consistent and very high standard of playing throughout.
The musical journey that the duo have been on since 2002 started with recordings that featured for the most part just the two of them, with brief contributions from others. Then in their middle period, they brought in a wider range of guests: for example, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill played on much of Highlander’s Farewell (2011) and both Donald Shaw from Capercaille and American fiddle player Mark O’Connor (whose band Natalie has recorded and appeared with) contributed to Abundance. Ports of Call feels stripped down both in terms of returning to just the two of them, aside from cameos from Brittany Haas and Dave Wiesler, and there is a perceptible slowing of pace, to the point where even the jigs feel like – well not like jigs as we know them but ones you’d have to dance to in slow motion. Looking back over the course of Alasdair and Natalie’s five albums this appears a gradual shift in balance towards less pacy interpretations of what are still, after all, dance tunes; a shift that in turn serves to accentuate the modern chamber aspect (which was always there but previously less up and front) less fire, more grace. The result is completely engaging and somehow manages to be calming but still edgy at the same time.
I’ve no doubt some people reading this will be thinking: we know that the fiddle has a place both in the traditional and (as the violin) in the classical world, but isn’t the cello really a classical instrument? The cello is featuring more prominently in contemporary traditional music and does have antecedence in the folk world, not least in Scottish music. As Alasdair Fraser has said: ‘People may be familiar with the gorgeous, melodic cello sound, but they’re surprised to learn that the cello used to comprise the rhythm section in Scottish dance bands’. By the late 17th Century, Henry George Farmer wrote in A History of Music in Scotland (1947), ‘the violoncello as an accompaniment to the violin had become the mainstay of dance music in Scotland’.
On Ports of Call, Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Hass, as they have done before, make the fiddle and cello – or as Alasdair puts it ‘wee fiddle’ and ‘big fiddle’ – sound like they were made for each other. The absence of guests and the overall more relaxed pace allows them to stretch the boundaries perhaps even more than previously. If you haven’t come across them before, this album is well worth your attention and if you do know their music you won’t need any persuasion.
Ports of Call is out now on Culburnie now.
Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas: Ports of Call UK Tour Dates May 2017
18th Peebles, Eastgate
19th Masham, Town Hall
21st Exeter, Matthews Hall
23rd Shoreham, Ropetackle Arts Centre
24th London, King’s Place
26th Haleworth, New Cut