Ross Couper and Tom Oakes – Fiddle & Guitar
Haystack Records – 12 May 2017
In a collaboration that spans the length of Great Britain, Shetland fiddler Ross Couper and Devon guitarist/flautist Tom Oakes have been performing live as a fiddle/guitar duet for almost a decade. Their instantly accessible arrangements for traditional and contemporary tunes have been charming live audiences for years at festivals up and down the UK, at Denmark’s famous Tonder Festival and in Australia, Sweden and Norway. At last, this pair of charismatic and naturally gifted musicians have taken time out to record their debut album – Fiddle & Guitar.
There’s a perfectly good reason for that simple title because the album itself aims to capture the essence of what their live audiences have been enjoying all these years. And it succeeds, with an uncomplicated combination of fiddle and guitar that forswears the studio temptations of overdubs and guest appearances; to deliver an honest, accomplished, and, above all, thoroughly enjoyable 46 minutes of music.
Low, warm bass notes from Tom’s guitar lead the way for the album’s opening, as Allan MacDonald‘s pipe tune The Road To Loch Nam Bairneas, flows like a Strathspey from Ross’ fiddle. Soon the sedate pace starts to find a groove, and that fiddle becomes a muti-toned wonder, with deft flourishes and wayward harmonics as guitar knocks out an encouraging beat. That gentle opening grew from a bud of melody to an exotic bloom, with layers and textures to delight. Which is what Ross and Tom’s music is all about – simple tools to create beautiful things.
Both, of course, they have a wide range of experience to draw upon. Having played the fiddle from age 8, Ross was the first Shetlander to study at the Plockton Centre of Excellence for Traditional Music. Following a degree in Folk and Traditional Music at Newcastle University, a proving ground for many of our finest trad musicians, Ross was a founding member of the award-winning Bodega and more recently joined Skye-based masters of Celtic fusion, Peatbog Faeries.
The fire that drives the music of Peatbog Faeries is much in evidence on Fiddle & Guitar, of course, but it’s understated and likes to take the time to draw the audience in. Shetland Swing, for instance, opens with Pig’s Reel, a perfectly paced reel (something you could actually dance to) from the pen of prolific Unst tunesmith Stevie Spence. That pace is established by the light jazz chords of Tom’s guitar before the set moves on into something more complex. There’s more craft than fire, and the craft is exquisite. The fire is there too, though, as the trad melody The First Months Of Summer builds up like a helter-skelter defying gravity and shot into reverse.
Those jazz guitar chords from Tom hint at a musical journey from Devon to Edinburgh, where he’s now based, that’s seen him enjoy some adventures. And he has. Since Tom and Ross became friends while studying together at Newcastle University, Tom’s experience as a composer, guitarist, flautist ranges from Arabic Hip-Hop and Indian classical music to Scandinavian Jazz and projects closer to home with the Northern Sinfonia and Mr McFall’s Chamber. His Irish roots directly influence his mastery of the wooden flute and Tom has enjoyed a number of rewarding teaching posts.
Fiddle & Guitar, though, stays resolutely with the strings, and that’s one of the many ways the album succeeds. The duo’s close empathy is in evidence throughout, and especially as the deep, throaty fiddle tones of Ross’s Chatham Lasses opens on Sambuca. It’s the same kind of telepathic understanding that’s so much in evidence when you listen to Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, and after the guitar-like fiddle riffs lead the way to the fiery Strictly Sambuca the adventure continues with an irresistible call to the dance floor, as Peter Morrison‘s Room 215 seals the Peatbog Faeries connection.
92nd year is a gentle waltz that’s still open to adventure, albeit a carefully paced one, as befits the dignity that comes with age. The waltz moves on to The Lounge Bar, Annlaug Børsheim‘s delightful Norwegian Polska with a Highland swagger. Sólarlag maintains the Scandinavian tone in a pair of tunes from Ross and Tom that display an endearing lightness of step with a shared melody and some mightily deft picking from Tom. 5.31pm means time for another dance – a title that could only have been inspired by the end of the working day. Sunburn, Man-flu And The Shits opens another pair of tunes from the duo as Tom’s deftly picked bass notes over a fiddle drone take the pair on a fast-paced outing towards a reel that loses none of the pace and excitement set earlier.
Phil Cunningham‘s waltz, Cathcart, injects a similar pace, no doubt inspired by its march-like character. Guitar and fiddle chop their way through a refrain as if impatient to return to the gorgeous melody. The gallop slows to a canter for the opening of Apo Fetlar Top, leaving room for some fiddle riffs before the reel comes in like an exuberant festival audience. On the topic of exuberance, Tom’s Something For The Weakened shows just how proudly a contemporary tune can display its highland heritage while showcasing the best of 21st-century fiddle music.
For The Last Gasp, another of Tom’s, fiddle drones over a picked guitar melody hint at Iberian influences and evoke a soft red sunset. Then Ross takes the theme along on softer, utterly charming tones. Despite the gentle structure, there’s still a hint of rebelliousness in the fiddle that adds to the charm, drawing the tune to a close like the end of a perfect, fulfilling summer’s day. It would be a fitting, gentle close for the album, but the lads have too much fire in their bellies to allow that to happen.
Lively barely begins to describe the irresistible pace of Sam Commier‘s (on Devon to Shetland) as flashes of Hot Club de France and Square Dance vie for your attention and close the album in the only place it could – on the dance floor and with, fittingly, The Devon Flute Player’s Salute To Shetland.
Fiddle & Guitar is a debut album that’s been a long time coming but fits perfectly what Ross Couper and Tom Oakes have been achieving with heir live sets for almost a decade. It’s an album that draws the listener towards the dance, but with gentle craft, rather than compelling pace. Their straight-forward, open approach to performance translates perfectly to the studio, probably because they’ve stayed true to the live sets that have delighted their audiences for so long. The very best of live, contemporary trad music, perfectly adapted for the studio.
Fiddle & Guitar is out on Haystack Records 12 May 2017