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ALASDAIR FRASER & JODY STECHER "The Driven Bow"
Culburnie Records CUL102D

Originally released in 1988, this early foray into Cape Breton music by a Scottish musician is now available on CD. Not before time, either: the recent interest in Cape Breton tunes and styles among musicians such as Hamish Moore, Niall Vallely and Liz Doherty make this re-release very interesting indeed, and it certainly hasn't deteriorated with age. This is Alasdair Fraser's third recording, after his historic "Skyedance" album and his soon-to-be-re-released "Portrait of a Scottish Fiddler". He is joined by guitarist Jody Stecher, and I personally prefer this discreet accompaniment to the heavier piano backing on other albums.

To paraphrase the notes, most of the tunes come from 18th and 19th century Scottish sources and are still commonly played in Cape Breton. There are also some modern compositions from Cape Breton and elsewhere. In typical Cape Breton style, the sets of dance tunes are relatively long: up to ten tunes in a set. There is also a preponderance of reels and strathspeys, again typical of Cape Breton.

The most striking thing about this recording, now as in 1988, is the fiddle style. The album title comes from the forceful Cape Breton bowing style, with most of the phrasing and ornamentation provided by the right arm. Alasdair has copied this style very effectively, capturing the spark and energy of Cape Breton dance music. Listening to track 7, a nine-minute monster full of tunes associated with Cape Breton, it's hard to tell that it isn't being played by one of the MacMasters or MacDonalds.

Alasdair also demonstrates a completely different style on some of the pipe tunes, fitting piping grace notes onto the fiddle in a manner reminiscent of the great Jean Carignan. This time, the left hand's doing all the work. Alasdair's performance of "Father John MacMillan of Barra" is breathtaking, and does full justice to a superb tune. The two pipe marches on the next track are given a similar treatment, to great effect.

Finally, there's the Scottish highland fiddle style we all know and love, most evident in the slower pieces such as "Lady Louisa Gordon" and "The Lea Rig" but also in the jaunty set of jigs and the strathspey/reel medley which follows.

Favourite tracks? Well, there's a beautiful rendition of "Jenny Dang the Weaver", an archetypal Scottish reel and one of my favourite tunes. However, this is outshone by track four, in particular the last tune. This track starts with a haunting Gaelic air, "Domhnall Dubh", which moves into two reels. The guitar and fiddle work perfectly together here, and the last tune "Calum Finlay" is a cracker.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 16 of The Living Tradition magazine.