Published: April 30, 2004

Down north, over under

Up South
Fred Morrison with Jamie McMenemy
Lochshore, KRL. CDLDL 1313

Reviewer's rating: 5 gracenotes out of a possible 5

Wizards From Oz
Nunawading Pipe Band
Monarch, KRL. CDMON 853

Reviewer's rating: 3 gracenotes out of a possible 5

Reviewed by Michael Grey

Chalk and cheese, left and right, black and white—new recordings from Fred Morrison and Australia’s Nunawading Pipe Band couldn’t be more different. Of course, they are not meant to be similar—in any way—but for a reviewer faced with listening to the two, straws must be grasped.

Morrison’s Up South includes Highland bagpipes and other instruments; Nunawading Pipe Band’s Wizards from Oz does, too. Both feature a lot of bagpipe tunes composed in the last five years or so, a lot of up-tempo playing, and are released by the Glasgow company, KRL. Aside from both being good, that’s about all the two efforts have in common.

Nunawading Pipe Band recorded their Wizards from Oz “live,” as they say, in Christchurch, New Zealand, surely one of the most beautiful cities in all of pipebandom. “Live” is the way to go for any well-practiced pipe band interested in creating an interesting recording, and the Nunwading combo is certainly well-practiced. A bold, robust sound from the pipes, lively snares, thoughtful accompaniment from all corps—this band is good. With the exception of a slowish march, strathspey and reel, the band’s nod to the competition “set,” Nunawading clearly revels in tempo, and lots of it.

With a “That’s Entertainment” 1940s movie musical feel, the band sets the tone of the concert with an opening tune called, “Bring Out The Gimp” [note to self: be careful when naming tunes]. Here the band lets loose the best sound on the recording.

As with many other selections in their show, like “Emancipation,” Mark Saul’s homage to “The Caledonian Society of London,” and “Rob’s Shower Shabang” by Murray Blair [note to self: underline previous note to self], the opener struck me as representative of current pipe band taste in tune style: driving, often syncopated, and well-suited to percussion. The melody is anti-Gaelic. The form probably owes more to Tin Pan Alley then G. S. McLennan. And that’s okay. As Captain John MacLellan might say, “Good fun.” Nunawading’s drum team, lead by Alister Boyle, is excellent and clearly capitalizes on the music at hand.

Mary-Ann McKinnon’s superb composition, “Steam Train to Mallaig,” was a highlight for me. The band fires on all cylinders here: strong ensemble, enthusiastic phrasing. Were it not for a curious and jarring extended low G between “Blair Drummond” and “John Morrison of Assynt House,” the best of the recording might have been a classic strathspey and reel track, some really good strathspey playing here.

Strange to me that the band would wind up with arid common time marches [note to Danny Boyle: “Scotland the Brave” as played is not your arrangement] and “Waltzing Matilda.” Nunawading is undoubtedly a band to watch and hard-working to boot. Knowing this, it surprises me that one full inside panel would devote credits in large boldface type to the producer, “P/M Malcolm M. Mackenzie,” engineer and photographer (!), while the band wallows in the back panel in microscopic typeface. The layout needs to be rejigged, but not the band.

Up South, is Fred Morrison’s offering. This recording, with accompaniment mostly by bouzouki maestro Jamie McMenemy, is awesomely good. It strikes me that Morrison has managed to perfectly synthesize his collective musical experience. His is a household name in the folk communities of northern and central Europe, if not beyond, and well known in the piping world in general.

Morrison’s interpretation of tunes is grounded in a traditional Highland bagpipe upbringing—traditional with a Uist twist—while coloured by musical journeys throughout the other so-called Celtic regions. For instance, it would seem unlikely that the attention-grabbing opening, Fred’s own “Jamie’s Tune” could have been built without musical experiences outside his Highland home. The opening, along with the title tune is spine-tingling. He’s playing well: crisp, accurate technique, hand-made rhythm with seriously original melody.

On Up South the uillean pipes, low whistle and border pipes get strong play. They integrate seamlessly with the three Highland tracks.

Stylistically, his version of the pipe march “The Ladies from Hell” is cut from the cloth often favoured by the Glenuig MacDonalds. This has a brilliant style: open and canny phrases, very difficult to play well. He does. A stand-out composition is the marchy reel, “Carlos Barral of Oviedo,” an original tune full of melodic surprises that follows “Ladies.”

Up South sees Fred Morrison play with intelligence and sensitivity that is a cut above. My whinges, as with the Nunawading CD, point to the packaging. The kooky typeface font is really hard to read and a few more words around the tunes would have been interesting. Fred Morrison’s musicianship astounds. Best that you hear it for yourself.

Michael Grey’s most recent recording, Nine Blasted Notes, is available on the Dunaber Music label, along with his acclaimed 2001 CD, Shambolica! A world-renowned composer and solo competitor, Grey was also Pipe-Major of the Grade 1 Peel Regional Police Pipe Band for five years. He lives in Dundas, Ontario.

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