November 30, 2001

Over and under

Down Under: Live at the Sydney Opera House
Simon Fraser University Pipe Band
Produced by the band, SFU008CD,

Reviewer's rating: 4 gracenotes out of a possible 5

Reviewed by Willie Connell

Down Under was recorded at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and it includes violinist Anna Schaad multi instrumentalist David MacVittie. Instruments included are violin, acoustic and electric guitars, harmonica, bouzouki, flute, sitar and others. Despite being recorded live in concert, the sound reproduction is excellent. There are thirteen tracks on the CD.

“The Blue Cloud” starts the recording and is a lively and original jig using electric guitars and violin as harmonic blends. Pipers use note distortions in a most skillful and musically pleasing manner. The theme of the tune is quite different and interesting, and the overall harmonic blend is very well done and pleasing to the ear with overall excellent technique on all instruments.

Next is a selection of 6/8 marches that are by far the best of any pipe band I have heard. The tunes are well played, with well defined accents and delivered in a relaxed manner with segments of harmony tastefully added by a variety of instruments. The tonal balance is excellent with the percussion section enhancing the selection in fine style.

In “Hold On” the band opens with a skillfully rendered version of “The Ness Pipers” in both reel and jig time. The selection of reels is nicely enhanced in the latter part of the performance by a well blended inclusion of violin, flute and other instruments. The selection is played at a crisp and lively pace, displaying excellent execution throughout.

The piobaireachd, “Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay,” composed by Willie Barrie opens with a group vocal rendition of the ground. The pipe section then comes in with the variations, and part of the ground is then repeated with both pipes and vocals. While not being a great fan of piobaireachd played by pipe bands, apart from being a shade rushed, the performance has merit.

The “SFU Retrospective Medley” is a selection of the tunes played in competition by the band during the 1980s and ’90s. The precise execution and unison of the band comes through strongly in this performance. SFU has always been outstanding in this area of playing. My only criticism is the lack of phrasing contrast in the strathspey segment, but they nonetheless demonstrate convincingly why they have won four World Championships.

Opening with a combination of solo piper and violin, the slow air intro in the next track is extremely well balanced in both pitch and musical interpretation. This is followed by fine jig playing by the full band, ending with, again, a nice blend of several instruments with violin quite prominent.

The “Traditional” selection comprises favourites that have stood the test of time. Here again is a solid performance, but her again is lack of contrast in the phrasing of both strathspeys and reels. Overall, however, it is a fine demonstration of technique and unison.

“A Salute to Gordon Jolley” is the title of the drum fanfare, and, while not being a drummer, I appreciated the skills displayed in technique and unison by this fine corps. The variety of rhythms and time signature demonstrate why this excellent section have won World Championship honours.

The “Hot Hands” track is aptly named, as the players demonstrate great finger ability and control. Being something of a traditionalist, I did not enjoy the segment using note distortions. Nonetheless, it is a first-class demonstration of the players’ skills.

A tribute to Tom McAllister Senior and Junior is next with a well-established March, Strathspey & Reel played as you would expect from a World Champion pipe band.

The “Waltzes” track showcases re-arranged jigs and reels and is a quite original concept, enjoyable to listen to with pipes and violin combined to add musical flavour. “Big Jigs” is a mix of classic and new jigs [played at competition level by top pipers throughout the world. This is a fine, musically entertaining selection, played in typical SFU style: extremely well executed in harmony with several other instruments.

Down Under: Live at the Sydney Opera House demonstrates why the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band is one of the finest at the world-class level. The CD highlights the technical and musical skills of both the band and the other fine musicians featured on the recording. It is a pleasure to listen to.

Willie Connell’s record as a piper, teacher and judge is formidable. As a pupil of Robert Reid for over 20 years, he won the Clasp in 1957, and was Pipe Major of the Grade 1 Renfrew Pipe Band for many years before emigrating to Canada. He lives in London, Ontario.


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