Maddy Prior With Hannah James & Giles Lewin – Shortwinger
Park Records – 8 June 2018
Though (rightly) highly regarded as a solo singer of great stature, character and accomplishment who’s already chalked up a distinguished half-century of performing history on the folk scene (and indeed beyond), Maddy Prior’s always also enjoyed collaborating with fellow singers and musicians, whether in duo format (initially with Tim Hart, later with June Tabor) or group context (Steeleye Span, The Carnival Band) or several points in between. Of which the most memorable have been The Girls (where she was joined by Abbie Lathe and her own daughter Rose) and latterly, the eponymous trio with Hannah James and Giles Lewin, who together released a stunning and world-embracing album (3 For Joy) six years ago in 2012.
That album’s followup has thus been long awaited, and here it is at last. Shortwinger, named after a word for a hawk (particularly one of the goshawk genus), is an intelligently assembled sequence of songs and instrumental pieces that follows a loosely folk-mythological theme in exploring the occurrence and role of birds and hares in folk culture. So even before you listen to the first note you know you’re in for a treat, something pretty special that will both stimulate and satisfy, challenge and educate and greatly please.
There’s no shortage of suitable material of course, so equally no need to reprise the “obvious” choice of Thomas Ravenscroft’s Of All The Birds (as it had already appeared on 3 For Joy and even earlier on Summer Solstice). Even so, it’s almost certain that you’ll have heard very few, if any, of the Shortwinger selections before. The songs that comprise its masterful magnum opus The Fabled Hare were originally written for a BBC Wildlife On One programme back in the ’90s, its components arranged by Martin Kisco (who also provided the setting of the medieval poem Winter Wakeneth midway through the sequence). Elsewhere, only The Lark In The Clear Air will be familiar, and its fresh new a cappella setting retains the glorious melody but adds some ingenious and stirring new vocal harmonies.
Aside from The Fabled Hare and Giles’s own song Flying Boy, this latest offering from Maddy, Hannah and Giles concentrate on birds rather than beasts for its inspirations. Swooping straight in (so to speak) is opening track Austringer, the first of four compositions by Maddy herself, which portrays with real empathy the relationship between a goshawk and its handler, as revealed in those two key books Helen McDonald’s H Is For Hawk and T.H. White’s The Goshawk. An initially tricky time signature introduces Maddy’s awe-struck depiction of the bird’s character and her admiration of the handler’s craft. (And not to make too much of the comparison, but there’s something in Maddy’s spooky delivery also that puts me in mind of fellow goshawk-aficionado Carole Pegg…) Onto the opposite end of the ornithological scale, next comes Jenny Wren, the smallest of our birds, whose behaviour and agile “jizz” are conveyed in the infectious a cappella opening round of her tripartite three-minute portrait, and further characterised in Hannah’s solo portrait of the bird and its seasonal and ritual role before Maddy and Giles return for a lively exhortation finale.
The album then takes a break from exploring tradition with Giles’ fable Flying Boy which was inspired by the dreams of his son who fantasised about flying – he being “at that age where the world of imagination seems as vivid as any earthbound reality”; this is memorably set to an Eastern European-styled accordion-and-fiddle-dominated backdrop. The Grey Heron is the first of three instrumental tracks, and depicts with the brisk, ordered elegance of a veritable consort of viols that bird’s slightly sinister grace. Giles’s other instrumental composition is the album’s closing track, The Curlew, another consort tone-poem-cum-sound-portrait, whose wheeling motifs both arise from and integrate with a recording of the bird’s unique burbling song (although a red grouse also briefly gets in on the act at the fade!). The third instrumental item is a pair of charming tunes by Hannah: The Lucky Blackbird (inspired by an unexpected encounter with a baby bird) and House Of White Roses (written to commemorate the wedding of two friends).
Between the first two instrumental pieces, we find Maddy’s haunting account of Swallow, an absolutely beautiful little song that its author River Jones had brought to a singing weekend with Hannah’s trio Lady Maisery at Maddy’s Stones Barn. The mesmerising seven-minute Murmuration is introduced by rhythmic accordion-stopping before intoned vocal parts reflect the continually shape-shifting nature of that amazing phenomenon whereby large numbers of starlings flock together at dusk and form striking patterns in the air; the central mantra finds Maddy in awe of the magical, mysterious and mystical spectacle. The pithy a cappella setting The Owl is possibly the most oblique portrait, being less of a literal depiction of a bird and more of a love-note (from its writer Emily Dickinson to her friend Judge Otis Lord, it turns out). And, as I’ve already hinted, The Fabled Hare is something of a tour de force and a natural choice as a disc highlight.
Finally, having taken you through the glories of the individual items on the disc track by track has not really allowed me to focus on the compelling performances by all three musical collaborators. They’re all fabulous singers, and their contrasting voices blend and match really well in whatever combination they choose to adopt. The recording captures their timbres well. Maddy, of course, is peerless as ever, with her customary commanding presence, thus she inevitably takes centre-stage at times, but not in any over-dominant sense, and she never upstages Hannah and Giles, always encouraging and enabling their considerable contributions on a generous and equal basis. Hannah and Giles, of course, are renowned not only for their intense proficiency (principally on accordion and fiddle respectively) but also their imaginative and resourceful approach in matters of sound, technique and scoring. Giles also contributes some recorder, while Hannah gets to incorporate her brilliant clog dancing skills too.
Shortwinger is a distinctive, purposeful and powerful record, and represents a typically well-considered new chapter in the artistic development of its three participants, all on top form and working brilliantly together in sparky and harmonious consort.