1651, Cast A Bell (Beautiful Jo, 2001)


"To open the book is to enter a country where melodies unfold as landscapes." -- Mark Emerson, sleeve notes

1651, so called for a date for John Playford's "English Dancing Master" on which this album is based, is Mark Emerson on violin, viola and piano, Tim Harries on double bass and Andy Cutting on button accordion. Emerson is best known for backing June Tabor; Harries has been with Steeleye Span on electro bass since Tempted and Tried as well as participating in jazz and rock projects; and Cutting played with the legendary dance band Blowzabella, more lately pairing with Chris Wood's fiddle.

The album is an interpretive tour de force, folk-style music from the Renaissance interpreted with modern classical, folk and jazz "influences." The musicianship is excellent, the triad pulling their diverse histories into the current edge of English folk. The album is meant to be taken as a complete work, but can easily be used as favored tracks. Instruments shift position, not necessarily in cadence, in the renaissance-modern continuum throughout the album as a whole. Often Cutting's melodeon plays the most traditional role, but sometimes it will jump out as passionately abstract. Though Emerson's violin often has a Early Music-folk based influence, his major contribution to this album is creating a sound similar to that of June Tabor's The Quiet Eye, with improvisational violin and contemporary jazz piano. Harries plays stand-up bass, usually unobtrusivly, drawing from a jazz background.

Individually, some of the tunes, like the opening "Kettledrum" and the raucous "Kemps Jig" are strongly traditional, good-natured improvisations. Others, appearing initially in the middle of the album, like "Lady Lie Near Me," "Once I Loved," and Emerson's composition, "Under Alder" are slow and introspective piano tunes. The 16-minute "Millfield" / "Grimstock" / "Cast A Bell" medley is both. In the world of broad musical perspectives, this is a brilliant album, because of the shades of mix and improvisation. For folk listeners, as with A Quiet Eye, some tracks may have just too much of a subversion into the modern urbane abstractness of jazz; too much of that is simply antithetical to folk music. This album, like England, starts out with country dances and ends up in a piano bar at 3 AM. Whether you enjoy that or not depends on what your scope is as a listener.

[Judith Gennett]