July 31, 2004

Impressionable youth

St. Thomas Episcopal School Pipe Band, 2000-2004
Independently produced,

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

Reviewed by Jenny Hazzard

Judging from title and the number of musicians listed the jacket of Impressions, the latest recording from Houston’s St. Thomas Episcopal School, this is a project that has taken an immense amount of planning, funding, creativity and hard work. The band should be very proud of a professional and entertaining result. The playing and production are of a high quality, and the diversity of music is impressive.

About half of the 15 tracks feature Highland and/or small pipes backed by an assortment of keyboards, guitars and percussion. Most of these are slick and entertaining, although some of the material is a bit too familiar.

The best of these tracks are “Dolina MacKay” and the Breton “Suite de Gavottes Pourlettes.” The bold brass introduction to “Dolina MacKay” works exceptionally well, as does the inclusion of horns with the pipes later in the track.

“Suite de Gavottes,” beginning with gong-like cymbals followed by keyboard-backed pipe music, takes a moment to get your head around. However, once you get the idea, it holds your interest to the end of the track.

On the other end of the spectrum are four much more traditional tracks, including a pipe band medley, hornpipes, and two sets of marches. The medley and hornpipes are entertaining, and good evidence of the group’s capabilities as a pipe band unit. The difficult technical work in R.S. MacDonald’s “Good Drying” is handled very well.

I’m not sure about the inclusion of the “Old Favourite” 6/8 and 3/4 marches (“Green Hills,” “Leaving Port Askaig” . . .). No doubt this was a conscious decision, but I suspect that these tracks will do little for those who would enjoy the rest of the CD—particularly as the marches are played quite slowly and the bagpipe tone is on the dodgy side.

Falling between cutting-edge and traditional is the excellent “Ballad of Glencoe.” Lovely vocal harmonies and an effective combination of strings, pipes and snare drums result in a powerful and enjoyable piece.

The last three tracks are generally very good—but they’ve been done! Obviously, bands often borrow from other artists’ past ideas, however, in this case, an entire suite is reproduced exactly as previously recorded by another band. To me this does a disservice to the plentiful creative and musical talent within the St. Thomas band.

Overall Impressions is an excellent production that showcases abundant talent in a wide variety of styles. Only occasional tonal weaknesses and reliance on past ideas remind the listener that St Thomas is a school band, a fact that is easily forgotten when listening to the polished, professional and musical performances that dominate Impressions.

Jenny Hazzard is one of the world’s top solo pipers, with many awards to her credit. Originally from Toronto, she now lives in Edinburgh and plays with the Lothian & Borders Police Pipe Band. She is a geological engineer by profession.


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