Ollie is one of England's foremost melodeon players and traditional folk singers. And I plead guilty to coming late to his talent, only eventually by way of his magnificent debut solo disc Gambit, which was released back in 2014. I also plead guilty to spending so much time enjoying its delights that I never got round to penning the enthusiastic review I'd planned (nor indeed to learning a couple of the songs within!). Gambit presented Ollie as having far more to offer than the above bare factual tag might suggest, not only in terms of all-round musicianship, intelligent realisation and expression of the grey areas where different (folk) musical sub-genres interact and influence and cross-pollinate.
Ollie pursues his thesis further on that CD's followup, positing the claim that the folk process is one of diffraction. Here he explores the concept of transformation of ideas, music and customs, whereby folk music interacts with, and feeds both ways into and from, baroque and classical musics Diffractions' opening "gambit" is a pertinent pairing of hymn tunes (Haydn's Emperor's Hymn, from his op. 76#3 string quartet, and Holst's Thaxted), both played here for all their musicality, in glorious unity and full-toned splendour with all due sensitivity to the melody rather than pandering to their usual nationalist connotations. It's a bold and striking start to a bold and striking album that contains contrasts a-plenty in its selection of tunes and songs that goes beyond drawing parallels between the art music of the past (Vaughan William's setting of William Barnes' beauteous Linden Lea, and Cecil Sharp's own composition Roses, based on an apocryphal Shakespeare text) and that of the present (Lal Waterson's Winifer Odd and Nic Jones' Ruins By The Shore) by way of deep tradition (Sweet Lemeney).
Ollie's blessed with an astounding and distinctive singing voice, encompassing a kind of expressive vulnerability that avoids diffidence (recalling Paul Sartin a little, or even Robert Wyatt perhaps); though quite individual, it blends marvellously with that of guest Rosie Hood on Roses and Ruins By The Shore. Ollie possesses a real flair for varying the instrumental scoring to suit the song, and while the squeezebox part (melodeon or duet concertina) is invariably central he makes creative use of timbres that might not readily be associated with folksong - for instance, his own deliciously glistening, delicately lyrical electric guitar (on Sweet Lemeney and Ruins By The Shore) or piano (Ed England's unsettling tune First Of March) or Al Simpson's trombone (on Linden Lea, Roses and Winifer Odd). Other imaginative and keenly judged touches are provided by guest musicians Tom Kitching (fiddle) and Tom Wright (bowed cymbals, bass guitar). The careful track selection gives rise to pondering on non-musical themes and preoccupations such as the transience of humanity (shared by both First Of March and Ruins By The Shore) and the diffraction of tradition through a person (Winifer Odd and Sweet Lemeney).
This is a really spellbinding disc, one whose performances are thoroughly compelling whether in lusty dance-mode (White Joak, or the Hornpipes set interbreeding Handel, Playford and Purcell) or sparsely executed partsong (The Long Day Closes). Yes, Ollie has triumphed once again with Diffractions, producing a deeply thoughtful and bravely, carefully crafted album that's an intense and rewarding experience. Great package and superb notes too. I feel sure it will make my list of top recommendations for 2017.
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