The Living Tradition
- by Rob Adams Issue 50 January/February 2003
Mention soprano saxophone and most people, naturally enough, will think of jazz: the intoxicating anguish of Sidney Bechet, say, or the creative torrent of John Coltrane's My Favourite Things.
It's much rarer to associate the instrument with traditional music, and while musicians such as Norwegian Jan Garbarek, the Devonian John Surman and Edinburgh-based Phil Bancroft have played - and continue to play - soprano improvisations with a distinct folk influence, their approach is very much that of jazz players investigating their native traditions.
Fraser Fifield, on the other hand, came to the saxophone - he plays alto as well as soprano - as a piper, trained in the strict Gordon Highlanders school of bagpiping. And as followers of Old Blind Dogs' Doric folk-groove became aware during his mid-1990s tenure with the band, he has developed a way of playing which makes the soprano sound entirely at home on jig, reel, strathspey or slow air. Which answers his first fear, as he launches his solo career primarily as a soprano saxophonist and whistle player: that he might be accused of gimmickry.
"I feel that, on soprano, I'm making a real go at translating traditional music on to the instrument," he says. "Not for gimmick's sake, but because I feel it works very well. I can put a lot of feeling into a piece of pipe music and although it requires strong fingering, the piping style of ornamentation works very well on the soprano."
Fraser's involvement with traditional music became less visible to the folk audience as his work with popular Scottish salseros, Salsa Celtica, took him into more of a jazz and World Music environment. But being their, as he puts it, "Celtica element", allowed him to maintain his "folk chops" and with his stay in the group coming to an end, he's keen to make people aware of his presence as a traditional musician, beginning with the release of his first CD, Honest Water on his own Tanar Records label.
"I reached a stage where I began to feel that, musically, I needed to do something of my own," he says, settling down in the music room of the house he shares with his wife, fiddler Sarah-Jane, in Ormiston, East Lothian.
"Everything I'd done since leaving the RSAMD had been with either someone else's band or in a band that was already established. All of these, Wolfstone, Mick West's band, Old Blind Dogs and Salsa Celtica, have been really positive experiences. I've learned an awful lot and I hope I've been able to contribute something to them, too. But very early on, almost as soon as I started gigging in fact, I'd also decided that I didn't want to be still travelling in a transit van, permanently living out of a suitcase when I reached thirty."
He's actually four years ahead of schedule on that one - and has already turned down the chance to tour with Riverdance because of his feelings on the matter. There was, however, another factor which helped him in his decision to go solo and begin his gradual and entirely amicable withdrawal from Salsa Celtica after four busy, productive years.
For some time he had felt that, no matter how hard he practised, he was making no progress as a musician. His fingers began to seize up and he thought he was suffering from arthritis. Then, in June 2001, he was found to have an under active thyroid gland. His heart rate was twenty beats below normal. Pills, still taken daily, put that straight, but it was a wake-up call, to say the least.
"I'd actually started recording Honest Water the February before I was diagnosed. I'd been getting so frustrated with my playing and once we got the thyroid problem sorted I listened to what I'd done, scrapped it and started again, and finished it in April 2002. So it's been on the go quite a while. I also spent a few months trying to decide whether to go with an established record company or to start my own. I spoke to Ian Green at Greentrax and Donald Shaw at Vertical, but because I knew I'd end up phoning them every day to say, Are you doing this, are you doing that? - and probably making a nuisance of myself, I decided to go on my own the whole way."
The album itself is almost completely his own work. Aside from appearances by guitarists Graeme Stephen and Malcolm Stitt, of Boys of the Lough, on four tracks, Fraser plays everything himself, and it's a fairly long everything, including low whistles, soprano and alto saxophones, small pipes, border pipes, keyboards, acoustic guitar, clarinet and an array of percussion instruments too numerous to list.
Largely composed and recorded in the music room at Ormiston, Honest Water is named for a travellers' rest near in Aberdeen shire between Aboyne and Fraser's childhood home, Glen Tanar (hence his label's name), and includes reworkings of two parts of Traditions, his suite for saxophone quintet commissioned for Celtic Connections 2001's New Voices series, and the completely improvised final track, Alone at Last.
"It's a statement of where I am, or at least where I was at the time I recorded it," he says. "I'm aware that I might get criticised for using multi-tracking and that it lacks a live feel. But for me, the studio is an instrument in itself and recording's an entirely different thing from going out to play live. As it stands, the music on the album can't be gigged but I'm very happy with it and when I do take the music out live, as I will, it can be redeveloped for whatever combination of instruments and musicians I use."
Reservations about prolonged life on the road aside, he is aware that he needs to be in the shop window as a musician and while he plans to expand his work from home in television and film music in 2003, he has several line-ups in mind for live work with a goal of becoming as prolific as possible.
There's one trio, with Fiddler' Bid's Chris Stout and guitarist-of-a-zillion-bands Kevin Mackenzie, which has done one successful gig and is ready to do more. Another trio featuring guitarists Kris Drever and Graeme Stephen makes its debut at Edinburgh Folk Club in January. And another, with two fiddlers yet to be named, has a tour of the Scottish Highlands and Islands pencilled in for the summer.
This last threesome particularly will, Fraser hopes, follow the musical direction he's been moving in for some time and reflects his interest in Scandinavian musicians, particularly the multi-instrumentalist Ale Moller, best known on this side of the North Sea for his work with fiddler Aly Bain, and saxophonist Jonas Knutsson.
"The thing that always strikes me when I listen to the Scandinavians is their attitude," he says. "They're a lot more serious, their music is a lot darker, whereas with Scottish music, there's a tendency to say, Hey, let's have a party. I'm not saying that we should stop having fun - far from it, but I think there's room in Scottish music for something richer, something more emotional. That might involve taking the music to places it hasn't been yet, but I'd certainly like to find more space, more improvisation, both in terms of playing within the established meters and tune forms and taking the music out into completely free expression."
This, he's aware, may be interpreted by some people as proof of a lingering desire to be a jazzer. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although his current play list includes jazz musicians such as Swedish pianists Esbjorn Svensson and Bobo Stenson, and he puts forward as a role model guitarist Bill Frisell (eclectic and then some but assuredly working out of a jazz base), when it comes to his own music, his heart is in his homelands, deep in Aberdeenshire.
"I'm not sure that, the title track apart, the music on Honest Water reflects a particular place," he says. "But I think it's definitely northern in character and I certainly want my playing and writing to reflect my origins. Playing music for me is all about making new music every time, which is a characteristic of jazz, too. But I know myself that I'm not a jazz musician. I went through a period at college playing all these show tunes from the 1950s that constitute the standard jazz repertoire, and I listened to saxophone players from Charlie Parker onwards and although I admire them, of course, and like what they do, it doesn't move me in the same way as Scottish music."
Rather than giving him a jazz musician's psyche or swerving him from his original path, playing jazz has, he says, freed up his approach, given him tools to apply in his own music - and the confidence to apply them.
"That was one of the great things about Salsa Celtica: they're a great band, with a terrific rhythm section, and playing at all these massive festivals all over the place gave me a big platform to play on. It really brought my playing on, gave me the confidence to play without a safety net, if you like, because put on the spot like that, you have to deliver. Through that, on the whistle, as well as the soprano, and to a lesser extent the border pipes, I've developed my improvisation abilities - using "jazz" phrasing and heaven forbid, even phrasing across the barlines - but using a traditional music vocabulary."
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