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HIGHLAND CONNECTION - "Gaining Ground" - Greentrax CDTRAX 087

Highland Connection is a new group with a long pedigree. Ian Hardie plays fiddle, viola, bass and Scottish smallpipes and is ex-Jock Tamson's Bairns; Dagger Gordon plays mandolin and cittern and is ex-Black Donald and Janice Clark is on guitar and vocals, ex-Iolair and just excellent.

This is their first album together but the seams are invisible and the themes irresistible. Both Hardie and Gordon are proven writers as well as musicians and here their handiwork stands shoulder to shoulder with fiddle classics from the pen of William Marshall and songs ranging from Burns' "My Tocher's the Jewel" to one written by Janice on society's ills in the 1990s.

But to borrow a footballing metaphor, this is a game of two halves, for the second part of the album consists of "The Ross and Cromarty Suite". When the exhibition "Scotland's Music" - based on John Purser's wonderful book and radio series - was staged in Dingwall in 1993, Ross and Cromarty District Council commissioned the work, and though all the band members contributed to its creation I'll resist calling it a 3-piece suite.

It is based loosely on a ceilidh setting and is made up of eight themes - the gathering; the welcome; the dance; the past; the pipes; the present parts 1 and 2 and the farewell, reflecting the varied landscape, history and culture of the district from the Clearances to the oil boom and from the piping tradition to Gaelic lullaby.

Comparisons are inevitable with the thematic works of Shaun Davey or with Billy Jackson's Wellpark Suite but perhaps the District Council envisaged this as more of a Car Park Suite, influencing prospective visitors with subtle suggestions of what they might see and hear on a holiday in one of Scotland's most perfect settings.

However, mentioning its potential for a Tourist Information Centre video is not intended to diminish the quality of the music itself; Janice has always had a rich and powerful voice and the instruments are played impeccably, supporting where required and leading when asked.

Produced by Phil Cunningham at his Crask of Aigas studio, this is another exhibition from Greentrax Recordings of how Scotland's Music really sounds.

Alan Brown

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This album was reviewed in Issue 10 of The Living Tradition magazine.