Reviews

Duncan Chisholm
Album: Affric
Label: Copperfish
Tracks: 11
Website: http://www.duncanchisholm.com

Fiddler Duncan may have just been unlucky in not attaining the final accolade with either of his twin nominations for this year's BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (Musician Of The Year and Best Traditional Track respectively), but he's already deservedly received much acclaim for the previous two CDs in his Strathglass Trilogy (Farrar and Canaich). Affric is the culmination of six years of work and thus the concluding part of the trilogy. It marked the end of a journey of musical introspection during which Duncan drew inspiration from one of the world's most beautiful wilderness areas; in my opinion the finest of the three glens has inspired the finest music.

Although Affric's 11 pieces inevitably form a kind of suite, each of them also stands alone as a satisfying miniature tone-poem in its own right. Traditional structures and forms are intelligently reworked and reorganised at the service of Duncan's acute pictorial sense, but you never feel that a predetermined "programme" is being forced on the listener, however potent the evocative power of the music in conjuring images of the unique landscape of the region - although an appreciation of this can still much enhance one's enjoyment of the music.

Duncan has brought along for the ride some of the finest musicians on the scene today (Patsy Reid, Tony Byrne, Phil Cunningham, Jarlath Henderson, Iain Macfarlane, Ali Hutton and Ross Hamilton), but his own charismatic fiddling is alwsys the driving force, the unifying presence, the thread that binds it all together; not as a concerto virtuoso but more as a primary soloistic colour that informs, inspires and influences the surrounding textural landscape. And you could say that one's sense of adventure on entering the glen and travelling its glorious length is mirrored by the adventurous nature of the musical settings and arrangements, sampling along the way a myriad of contrasting chiaroscuros in sound.

The suite's prelude, An Ribhinn Donn, is based on a simple traditional air, here played with the understated sensitivity that's one of Duncan's special trademarks. After this, momentum gathers with pace for Big Archie, whose larger-than-life presence is conjured by a genial rocking-reggae rhythm and gently wailing electric guitar. A spellbinding, frozen-in-time performance of √Čamon Doorley's reflective air Rubha Nam Marbh follows, then come two of the set's most intriguing pieces, both Duncan's own compositions: Waltz Of The Grey River (with its almost eerie percussive pulse) and The Flooded Meadow (a funky, storming dance-of-death reel awash with rippling droplets of rhythm). Phil Cunningham's lovely tune The House In Rose Valley receives a timelessly direct, faultlessly paced performance by Duncan with its composer at the piano, at the conclusion of which the same piano ushers in Rory Campbell's vibrant Innes Campbell slow reel before Duncan gets his head of steam again for the tricky five-time contours of his own composition The Erchless Scout, which glistens with Ross Hamilton's electric guitar, Ali Hutton's whistle and throbbing, pounding bass and percussion.

The sublime Folk-Awards-nominated Unknown Air (a traditional tune without a name) couldn't then have better placed within the sequence, and forms a compelling emotional core from which it's hard to disengage except at such a leisurely and carefree gait as Allan Macdonald's light-textured waltz We're A Case seemingly effortlessly provides. Like the deer running through the glen, the pace then quickens with the heartbeats of Running The Cross (quite Wolfstone-ish, this track), with Jarlath Henderson's uilleann pipes and Ross's guitar once again to the fore as Duncan heads for the finish with the Liz Carroll tune Anne Lacey's. The suite then ends in meditative, quite melancholy fashion with the voice of Allan Macdonald reciting a short excerpt from Neil Munro's poem To Exiles before Duncan and Phil play us out of Affric in the repose of dusk with a matchless rendition of Johnny Cunningham's marvellously evocative Night In That Land; a fitting end to the trilogy.

It's obvious how much care and attention has been taken in assembling this creative sequence of pieces, yet never does it smack of contrivance. The three discs constitute a very special experience indeed, a work of mesmerising aural and conceptual beauty that's enhanced by the CDs' artistic, attractive, and intensely complementary, artwork and design.

David Kidman