Few things are as evocative as a train journey, the sense of movement without volition, as the scenes of life's great story pass by. The sounds and rhythms of steam. The teamwork of tiny human beings and huge machines. And, into this marvellous construct, we bring our own narrative. In this case, a continuing journey of one of Scotland's leading composers to and from his native home, Grantown in the Highlands.
Largely instrumental, the album tells of the Speyside Line and of the life and times of Jimmy Gray, a long serving railwayman. On the opening track, named for the line, Napier's piano, cued by a station master, picks out the notes of a jig, slow and mournful. A sample of an engine sets the rhythm, picking up pace, as it leaves the station. The band implode into the mix, driven by bass and guitar, drums evoking the sound of wheels on track. Whistle states the main theme, simple yet complex, before a shift into minor key and a long hold, strings introducing tension and danger, and an anxious counter melody, as the locomotive fights the gradient. And then wins the summit, as the main theme is re-stated, glorious and free. The destination in sight, the train cruises along the long straight beside the loch before it's arrival in triumph, cheering crowds on the platform, brakes hissing. And that's just the first track.
Double Header is a lively polka, with hints of new-Orleans in its bagpipe driven syncopation, a transatlantic swing, playful and insolent, as piano drives on. Jockey the Mole, one of only two songs, tells of life on the footplate, a mid paced rocker with a catchy chorus. Worth a listen for those looking for material.
The Old Ways is a slow 6/8 march, joyfull and evocative, but with the sadness of a Highland winter underneath. Helen's Song, dedicated to the memory Gray's wife of 63 years, starts as an air on piano, with solo fiddle, and tells of love and loss and great joy. The powerhouse Diesel shouts its arrival with driving piano and roaring pipes.
The album closes with a suite of three pieces, the Railwayman, which spans Gray's time on the railway, both a theme and a variation, as a dance melody is take for a ride around different Highland rhythms, finishing with the Gay Gordons
Napier has the composer's gift of painting a picture with sound, more evocative that an artist, and achieving this by a stunningly simple collection of musical ideas. He is aided by a world class band, a who's who of Scottish music today, who have collectively left egos at the door and quietly upped their game. Many quote the maxim 'less is more'. Rarely has that statement been made quite so eloquently. Count Basie, maybe a handful of others.
Superb. Highly recommended.
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