The Madeleine Stewart Trio – s/t: Album Review

Three masterful musicians at the very top of their game.  The Madeleine Stewart Trio show just what can be done with just a fiddle, a piano, a bodhran and a wealth of great tunes.

Release Date:  5th May 2023

Label: Self release

Formats: CD / Digital

Sometimes, it seems, it doesn’t take a lot to make great music.  Take this, the eponymous debut album from The Madeleine Stewart Trio, for example.  Armed with just a fiddle, a piano and a bodhran, plus a veritable library of fantastic tunes, the trio have produced an album that is, in equal parts, engaging, entertaining and utterly enthralling.  Of course, it helps that the musicians responsible for this delightful product – Madeleine Stewart on fiddle, Rory Matheson on piano and Craig Baxter on Bodhran – are all absolute masters of their craft, each with a feel and respect for their music that is as instinctive as it is sympathetic.

Madeleine Stewart is a native of New Hampshire, relocated to Glasgow.  She’s a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and she’s appeared in the finals of the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year.  Alongside The Madeleine Stewart Trio, she also plays with Routes Quartet, a string quartet that fuses Scottish, Irish and English traditional music styles with classical themes, and with Eriska, a Glasgow-based 6-piece multi-national outfit.  Rory and Craig are both members of Celtic assemblage TRIP; Rory also plays with Orkney 4-piece FARA, and Craig is a member of dynamic Glasgow folkies, Gnoss.  And, if all that wasn’t enough to keep our new friends occupied, Madeline also teaches piano and fiddle – with an emphasis on Celtic and Americana styles and techniques – with the Folks’ Music Project, a Glasgow-based Community Interest Company (CIC).  These guys are BUSY.

The trio have come together as a vehicle for exploring Madeleine’s roots in New England contra dance music and in the Scottish and Irish tunes that are such a feature of Glasgow’s traditional music scene.  On this, the band’s debut album, they’ve drawn from a deep well of music that includes traditional tunes, the music of famed Scottish composers such as James Scott Skinner and William Marshall, contributions from established and up-and-coming contemporary composers including Andy Cutting, Liz Carroll and Chloë Bryce, alongside a sprinkling of Madeleine’s own compositions.  And, you know what?  It’s a delightful concoction from start to finish.

The album was recorded over just three days at Solas Sounds studio in Glasgow and, without doubt, producer Gus Stirrat has captured a sound that would be so absolutely enthralling in a live setting.  More than once, as I listened to the album, I imagined myself enraptured in the intimacy of a venue like the Ben Nevis or the Scotia.

Most of the album’s tracks are arranged as sets of two, or three, tunes and, without exception, the combination of tunes has been thoughtfully chosen, often running the gamut of emotion from wistful sentimentality to unrestrained joy in a single track – a pattern that is established right from the outset on Beatrice, the album’s opener.  Lördagskvällen, the first of the set’s tunes – Swedish in origin, I strongly suspect – is as soft and subtle as fallen snow, before Reel Beatrice, the second tune of the pair, ups the pace to something fast, furious, and absolutely under control.

The instruments combine wonderfully throughout the album.  Piano and fiddle work so well together, as any admirers of Dave Swarbrick’s work with pianist and mentor Beryl Marriott will certainly appreciate, and, throughout this excellent album, they combine brilliantly.  Madeleine’s fiddle is always to the fore, with Rory’s piano providing an accompaniment that is never overstated.  That isn’t to say that Rory doesn’t have his moments in the sun – he certainly gets the chance to let loose on tracks like the slinky, jazzy rag Joseph Boseph, the jaunty The Happy Couple and the album’s stunning closing set, Neil Ewart’s.

Craig’s bodhran slots in just as effectively, hitting its stride whenever the pace lifts, such as when Liz Carroll’s The Island in the Woods yields its place to the jazzy Polliwog on the album’s second track, or as the pace builds during the breathless Reels Set (a set of tunes that is surely destined to become a staple of the trio’s live shows).  And again, Craig is allowed his time in the spotlight, this time during Bodhran Set, where he amazes the listener with the variety of sounds that can be extracted from the skin and rim of this most simple of instruments by a consummately skilled practitioner.

There’s lots here too for the sentimentalist to enjoy, and that’s where Madeleine’s own compositions really come into their own.  Miss Mehegan is simply beautiful, a tune that allows – nay, encourages – the listener to dream.  And, unsurprisingly those dreams evoke images of lochs, unspoilt mountain-scapes and clear, unpolluted streams.  Likewise, City Stars, another of Madeline’s tunes, is another delight, as Madeleine’s fluent, fluid fiddle is complemented by the lightest of light touches from Rory’s piano.

This debut album will be irresistible to anyone with an affinity to traditionally-founded music with a twist.  The splashes of jazz, blues, Appalachian and Balkan influences add a spirit of adventure, and, in case you haven’t got the message yet, the playing is impeccable.

Not to be missed.

Not featured on the album, but get a feel for what The Madeleine Stewart Trio are all about by listening to them performing Tripping, another of their sets of tunes, here:

Madeline Stewart online: Website / Facebook / YouTube

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