Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, Fire and Grace (Culburnie, 2004)

We get the loveliest things here at Green Man, often without any clue that they are coming! Fire and Grace, the latest CD from Alasdair Fraser, who's perhaps the best Scottish fiddler ever, arrived in the post this week. Fraser was born in Clackmannan, Scotland, but now lives in the United States, where his record company, Culburnie is. He is a two-time winner of the open competition of the Scottish National Fiddle Championship, and has won myriad national Scottish fiddling competitions in the U.S. and Canada. As good a fiddler as he is, he's an even better teacher, according to those honoured to be his pupils. And he's considered a true gentlemen, too! The musicians in the Neverending Session down (usually) in the Green Man Pub have been known to play naught but his tunes for hours upon end.

I've ever heard a bad bit of music from him, nor do I expect I ever will. But what we have here is not just Fraser, but also the cello playing of Natalie Haas, of whom Fraser notes on his Web site, 'People may be familiar with the gorgeous, melodic cello sound, but they're surprised to learn that the cello used to comprise the rhythm section in Scottish dance bands. Natalie Haas unleashes textures and deep, powerful rhythms that drive fiddle tunes. We can 'duck and dive' around each other -- swap melody and harmony lines, and improvise on each other's rhythmic riffs. She has such a great sense of exploration and excitement for the music; it's a joy to play with her!'

Now at first, I didn't find that I was all that excited about the idea of the cello as a Scottish instrument. Or any other form of folk instrument! It's not that I don't like classical music, but me tastes lean more towards the Bartok end of that genre. However, a few years back I encountered Belshazzar's Feast, when the band was a duo of Paul Sartin (oboe, violin and vocals) and Paul Hutchinson (accordions). Yes, an oboe! So if an oboe can be a folk instrument, why can't a cello? And in the hands of Natalie Haas, the cello becomes a truly magical instrument.

I felt terribly old when I read her biography, as she's accomplished more in her brief span here than many musicians do in a much longer lifetime: 'At 20, cellist Natalie Haas is already a seasoned performer, recording artist, and teacher. Over the past four years, she has joined master Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser for festival and concert appearances in Scotland, Spain, France, and throughout the U.S., including Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, Scotland, the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention in Aberdeen, Scotland, the Festival Interceltique de Lorient in France, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.' And photogenic too -- the cover of Fire and Grace has the two of them looking like they're playing at a Scottish ceilidh, with him bent over his fuddle, long hair and red braid flowing, and her in a pretty flowered dress smiling at him as she plays her cello.

Just how good is this CD? Do you remember my review of an Aly Bain and Ale Moller CD, Fully Rigged, in which I noted that 'the Shetland Islands' most revered fiddler and charter member of the Boys of the Lough is jamming with Ale Moller, Sweden's acclaimed fretted-string master and member of Frifot'? The feel and energy is quite similar here. Without the orchestral effect of Alasdair Fraser's Celtic supergroup Skyedance, what you get is indeed the feeling that it's just you with a dram of single malt, the artists, and their ever-so-lovely playing. I've now listened to this CD at least a half dozen times over the course of the week -- and each listening has been even more rewarding than the previous one was.

The press release notes that the two musicians have 'played together to great acclaim in numerous concert halls and festivals' across the States. Certainly the sound here suggests very strongly that they feel comfortable as a musical duo. Indeed, there is both fire and grace in the music they make! As they have been playing together for five years now, that's not 'tall surprising!

As I finish off this review, the final cut of 'The Hut on Staffin Island/The Barrowburn Reel/The High Reel' is playing. I can hear Fraser's fiddle as it plays off Haas' cello -- note after note full of energy comes from both of them as the music dances along. Without a doubt, any lover of Celtic music in which (blissfully) there's naught but stringed instruments will love Fire and Grace. And if you haven't encountered the music that Alasdair Fraser makes, this is a fine, very fine, introduction to it!

[Jack Merry]