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VARIOUS ARTISTS "Masters of the Folk Violin" Arhoolie CD 434

Arhoolie have tried to cover all the fiddle traditions of North America in just over seventy minutes, and the result is surprisingly good. This brief tour takes in five very different genres: Irish fiddling as represented by Brendan Mulvihill, the jazz fiddling of Claude Williams, Kenny Baker's bluegrass style, Natalie MacMaster playing the Scottish-based dance music of Cape Breton Island, and the singing and sawing of Cajun Michael Doucet. With various accompanists, this adds up to a very wide-ranging album. All the tracks were recorded live.

If you already know these fiddlers, you aren't in for many surprises. Brendan Mulvihill is accompanied by Donna Long, as on his recent Green Linnet album, and has been in the States long enough to play medleys rather than just sets of reels. His playing is relatively straight with lots of work in the bowing, and the three sets here cover a Carolan piece and a pair of jigs as well as eight well-known reels.

At the age of 66, Claude Williams is one of the founding fathers of jazz fiddling. His three tracks reflect an earlier era of jazz/swing, and are full of feeling if not as fluent as in his younger days. Kenny Baker is another founding father, this time of bluegrass, and we have five tracks from him and his band, ranging from reels through breakdowns and hornpipes to waltzes, including a couple of Kenny's own compositions. I liked the bluegrass stuff on the whole, but I could not get into Claude Williams' music.

The rest of the album is all excellent foot-stomping stuff, starting with a set of jigs from Natalie followed by a typical Cape Breton mega-set - eight full minutes of strathspeys and reels full of bounce, with Tracey Dares tinkling away in the background. This is irresistible dance music, unparalleled except perhaps by the Cajun tradition which finished this recording. Stomp, reel, two-step, waltz and two-step again, with a good helping of wailing and twanging. Michael Doucet is backed by most of his group "Beausoleil", the leading Louisiana band of the last decade or more. I love this stuff: in the words of the final track, loosely translated, there's nothing like it to get you jumping!

At first glance I though Arhoolie had just thrown this recording together, putting in whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. I'm still not sure that isn't what happened, but most of the ingredients turned out to be genuine good ideas after all. With fiddlers (sorry, folk violinists) of this calibre, it's hard to go wrong.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 18 of The Living Tradition magazine.