Graham Mackenzie – The Dawning: Album Review

Elegant jazz-trad hues permeate this classy release from the Assynt fiddle man, taking his reputation a further notch upward.

Release Date: 27th January 2023

Label: Blue Door

Format: CD / digital

Another fiddle album already? Hot on the heels of a flurry of recent releases from the approaching saturation market of Celtic fiddle players, here is, yes, another one, but one that does stand out. If the increasing trend is to add orchestration to near anything emanating therefrom, here, rather than string quartet, we get brass, and delightfully so. This gives a slight breeze of jazz sophistry, rather than the chamber effect his peers seem to be striving for. Add in some piano and double bass and Mackenzie’s star is shining in a slightly different environment from most of the competition. It is true, jazz-trad fusion is no new thing, but feels and seems to be somewhat less spotted of late. Of course, it doesn’t hinder he has top-level accompanists on hand here: Neil Yates on all things trumpety, as well as saxophone, and the rising star of Matt Carmichael on additional sax. Add in the fact that he has Mr Everywhere, James Lindsay on bass, Innes Watson on guitar and the Spell Songs alumnus, Jim Molyneux on both piano and percussion. Oh, and did I mention Mke McGoldrick on flute and joint, with Mackenzie, production desk duties?

So who is Mackenzie and how this top-notch assemblage? Mackenzie doubles also as a member of Assynt, as does White, the trio, with Graham McShadden’s pipes, winning the up-and-coming artists award at the Trad Awards in 2018. He is alos a member of the GRIT Orchestra, convened by Celtic Connections to play, initially, the music of the late Martyn Bennett. Mind you, so is just about anyone who is anyone in Scottish music, there being anything up to 80 players on stage at full strength. Also, and far from least, he has been a member of McGoldrick and Yates’s The Undivided Project, a folk-jazz big band, also convened by and for Celtic Connections.

Melancholy piano introduces the Contradiction Reels, a set of three tunes from three prime influences, trad. arr., Tommy Peoples, the late Irish fiddler from the Bothy Band and Gordon Duncan, the piper, also deceased and mentor/tutor to pipers such as Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton. The bass picks up, with MacKenzie firing off in a direction unprompted by the opening bars. But it slots in perfectly, little touches of syncopation keeping the sound fresh. Accelerating into the second tune, the piano and fiddle trade notes, step for step, the final part of the triad again demonstrating the tight studio connection obvious between the whole ensemble. Lindsay’s bass is, as ever, reliably gorgeous. Two slow jigs next, from MacKenzie’s own pen, embedded once more in the contradictory mournfulness of Molyneaux’s piano. McGoldrick’s flute comes floating alongside the fiddle during Earn River, the first part, it getting a tad livelier for Reliant Robbie, a tune for his brother, but an air of bittersweetness remains.

It is to Cape Breton we fly for the next set, at least for the introductory tune. Called Bridge Street Reels collectively, this sees the first appearance of Yates’s nuanced horns, swelling majestically one moment, swift parps of underlining elsewhere. The final tune, of three, gives a good evocation of Kirkwall’s Ba’, Reelin’ Down Bridge Street. Then, In honour, obliquely, of the auld alliance, the next tune is called Delices De Bretagne, dedicated to the creperie of that name, long gone, in Inverness, and is a meandering skirl of the fiddle and flute, elegantly and ably held together by the rest of the band. Seguing into Belmaduthy, the second tune that gives the overall name to the track, it is a charming piece, both tunes self-written, and a highlight. The Road To Monalea is four grouped tunes, three from the tradition and one by Liz Carroll. Yates is back for this one, and his brassy currents are just the ticket, giving, progressively, some swing that contrasts agreeably, once more, with the orthodoxy of the main melodies. He also gets to vamp it up a bit, adding little salvos across the bows.

Mull is our next destination, where inspiration was found for Ardtun. Electric piano opens this edgy composition, with the fiddle starter followed by choral horns, which add a silver band feel to the tune. I would say an almost hymnal feel, but I am not sure the Hebridean Wee Free’s have much truck with anything other than the human voice. Cula Bay is a simpler tune, acoustic guitar and fiddle, celebrating first a demolished Manchester pub and then the wilderness of Cula Bay on Uist. As McGoldrick’s flute enters the room, and White adds some evocative electric guitar to the mix, it is all rather atmospheric. Back to Cape Breton for three more tunes from that part of the world, two written by Andrea Beaton from Mabou, the tunes grouped together under the title The Beatons Of Mabou, and this has the most traddiest feel of the sets here, at least until Molyneaux’s organ swirls in, gloriously, for the last part.

Josh’s Jigs sees Carmichael add his saxophone to Yates’s brass arrangement. After the almost straight fiddle and flute of the first of the tunes, Mackenzie takes the lead for the second tune and I was itching for the additional heft of their instruments, the increasingly jazzy syncopation heading ever in their direction. At last, they bolt on, if briefly, making the final part a delectable marriage of genres. To seal the project comes the slow air, Kirkhall, heard first by Mackenzie from the playing of Duncan Chisholm. With a much less chewy tone than has Chisholm, his fiddle carries a lighter touch, perhaps the better to pair with McGoldrick’s flute. Again, with Molyneaux adding some ripples of piano, and White adding some understated picking, it is a very neo-trad way to round things off.

Brass in traditional music remains an outlier, despite the best efforts of folk like Yates, here, and Colin Steele. Yet when it does, it can offer so much, so full marks to Mackenzie and his co-producer, McGoldrick, to have the vision to include it here. Rather than taking away the focus from Mackenzie’s playing, if anything it draws all the more attention.

The album gets a live launch at, where else, Celtic Connections, Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, on 29/1/22, with the same set of players as appear on the album.

Here’s an earlier reminder of Mackenzie, with Assynt, Forward Thinking from Road To The North.

Graham Mackenzie online : website / facebook / twitter / Instagram

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