Fraser Fifield – Piobaireachd/Pipe Music: Album Review

Jazz ambient bagpipe fusion from Fraser Fifield: approach with inquisitiveness and be somewhat surprised.

Release date: 25th October 2021

Label: Bandcamp

Format: CD/Digital

Bagpipes, possibly followed by banjo, are the instrument most likely to send many who hear them running to the hills. If you are one, one of those, in equal parts mystified and horrified by  “that ancient, slightly mysterious music associated with the Scottish bagpipe”, please do not look away now. Surprise yourself, dip in, if only to the track below. See, it isn’t so scary.

Fifield is a champion of Scotland’s current wave of celebrating that nation’s rich musical heritage, and, besides a selection of his own solo material releases, has appeared on records by Capercaillie, Wolfstone and Afro-Celt Soundsystem. A staunch advocate for his sometime contemporary, the late, great Martyn Bennett, Fifield was/is a proud member of the Grit Orchestra, keeping alive his musical vision. That he has also worked alongside musicians of other cultures; notably from the Indian Subcontinent and from the Balkans and Eastern Europe, should come as no surprise, as you hear nods to said traditions drifting into the material here. He is also a regular for all those one-off commissions that Celtic Connections are so good at putting together.

And don’t be afeard, this is no staid and sober bagpipe suite , Fifield plays freely also of soprano sax, clarinet, whistles and the kaval, an end-blown Bulgarian flute, adding exciting flurries of jazz and world influences into the mix. Me, I love the highland bagpipe in its purest iteration, but this is so much more than that. It’s even fun. A touch of Zappa, a twist of Moving Hearts, that is what I hear amidst the stoical beauty of the often very aged original material. For although some here are newly penned originals, many stem from the tradition.

With eleven separate pieces, Fifield keeps up the interest by changing quite which reeds he will apply: for opener, In Regards That Matter, the whole is a joyous cacophony, harder to work out what isn’t present, and carries a distinctly Balkan tone. An original, composed by Fifield in 2020, originally commissioned by rare, an archive of Scottish music, in response to Covid 19. With that as the impetus, rather than a gloomy lament, this is a joyous and buoyant dance of a tune. Elsewhere, original airs caress the breeze, as myriad other instruments weave amongst the notes. ‘Breizh/A Flame of Wrath’ is a striking example thereof, with the melody coming from the work of Donald Mòr MacCrimmon, the 17th century piper of the Clan MacLeod, the first in the line of the famous piping family. Lament For Red Hector Of The Battles and Lament For The Old Sword are two further staples of the tradition, each with their plaintive core melody left broadly intact, the first on bagpipes paired, effectively, with saxophone, the second more a mix of whistles and kaval.

Elsewhere there is a tribute to his friend and pipe maker Nigel Richard, Being In Time, which sounds almost prog in time signature and delivery, the lively effervescence of The Piper’s Premonition, which calls to mind the Andy Irvine/Davy Spillane Balkan set, Eastwind, ahead of going off-piste into freer territory. There are two improvisations, inventively entitled Whistle and Bagpipe respectively. The first starts with solo whistle starts in near a Native American flavour, ahead of shifting continents apace to the Indo-Chinese border, a background of simple hand drum adding to the atmosphere. It’s bagpipe twin continues this almost spiritual mood; I’m imagining Tibet, strangely.

A mention must also be given to the closer, the altogether psy-ambient of Praise Of Longer Days, which could sit, with its muted electronic drums, on anything by Banco de Gaia or Bonobo. Or, given the flute sounds, even Shpongle. Masterfully, as the melody fades, it cuts to solo pipes, to piobaireachd, that being the meaning of the gaelic word. Which is exactly the way it should end, a genre defying recording by Fraser Fifield that keeps alive both the tradition and the possibilities of the highland bagpipe.

Here’s the opening track, In Regards That Matter:

Fraser Fifield online: Website / Facebook / Twitter

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