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I was first introduced to the music of Alison Brown at a small local music festival. Most of the acts were fairly unremarkable and I was talking with friends, and then all of a sudden, “Whoa! Who’s on stage?” the music changed and I stopped talking and headed closer to see who was playing that indescribable music. I say indescribable because Alison’s music is hard to categorize. She plays the banjo, but it’s not bluegrass, it’s not old-time, and it’s not folk. The closest genre I suppose would be jazz, but how many jazz bands have a banjo… and anyway it’s not straight up jazz either. Whatever you want to call it, I was fascinated. For one thing, this woman can play the banjo. I would guess she’s listened to Bela Fleck once or twice. And she brings with her an outstanding band. I was so taken by her piano player (John R. Burr) that I bought one of his CDs after the show to send to my piano-playing son. Gary West plays bass, and Joe Craven plays percussion, mandolin, and fiddle. Various other artists sit in, too that Alison has played with over the years (Larry Atamanuik, John Doyle, Stuart Duncan, Kenny Malone, Erick Jaskowiak… lots of great playing!).
So, it’s instrumental music. No lyrics, no singing. If you’re looking for some songs about broken hearts or whatever, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for some really nice music to play at your next party, or to put on for that next road trip (it’s super road trip music!), then I can totally recommend this CD.
If you’re into traditional banjo music, you might especially appreciate one track on this CD—they call it “Forky on the Water” which is, as you may guess, a medley of Forked Deer and Midnight on the Water. I love it when people take old traditional tunes that you hear at almost any bluegrass or old-time jam you go to, and breathe new life into them. It is a fine piece, a much more interesting arrangement than usual.
I played the CD repeatedly for a few days to write this review, and every time track four came around, I thought, “THAT is a nice piece of music!” I mean it’s all nice, but that one stands out to me. It’s called “Drawing Down the Moon”, and it’s mellow and beautiful, not something that often comes to mind when talking about banjos. As are most of the tracks on this album, it’s an original, composed by Alison with Garry West, who, besides being her bass player, is also her husband (I do not know which came first). Except for the traditional tunes mentioned above, and one tune called “The Road West” by Mairtin O’Connor, all the compositions are written or co-written by Alison or other members of the band.
Many CDs have mostly nice music, but then there’s often one or two songs that I just want to fast-forward through, for whatever reason—not so with this CD. It’s pleasant and interesting listening, from start to finish.
Ingrid NoyesThe Christmas Revels, Down Through the Winters: Music and Poetry in Celebration of the Winter Solstice.
In 1995, the Christmas Revels, with all its magic, mystery and theatrical and musical pageantry, came to Portland, Oregon. Sixteen years later, it is still delighting audiences both old and young each December.
This recording is a “best of,” taken from shows from 2003 to 2010. Under the aegis of its very skillful and consummately professional musical director and producer, Robert Lockwood, this recording is a musical microcosm of the very best aspects of Revels performances all across the country.
From the opening fanfare performed by the Portland Brass Quintet, the Italian Renaissance piece, “Canzona per Sonare,” the listener is magically drawn into settings and performances, including small ensembles, extraordinary solo pieces, full choral settings and instrumental pieces using period instruments, as well as several remarkable spoken word pieces of beautiful and inspiring seasonal poetry composed by longtime Revels veteran, Richard Lewis.
Even such familiar and seasonal “chestnuts” as “Gaudete,” “The Wexford Caroll,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” and “Personent Hodie” are given new and innovative treatments by Robert Lockwood and his Portland Revels chorus.
The music scope on this CD is breathtaking, as it covers not only a thousand years in time, but ranges over a dozen old-world cultures, including not only England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but Norway, Denmark and Finland, as well as France, Germany, Italy, Bohemia and Spain.
Some selections need very special mention: the instrumental, “Jenny Pluck Pears,” taken from John Playford’s 1651 dancing master, “Bells of the Morning,” set to the traditional “Down in Yon Forest,” with new words by Richard Lewis; Angela Trusby’s beautiful solo rendition of the Irish “The Darkest Midnight in December;” “Ave Maris Stella,” an eight-part chorus setting by the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg; the beautiful Welsh hymn, “Calon Lan,” accompanied by the Portland Brass Quintet; and John Rencorne’s “Traveller’s Prayer,” with its numerous poetic images of the moon itself. Another instrumental piece worthy of mention is the Norwegian “Mylarguten’s Bridal March,” featuring the beautifully haunting Hardanger fiddling of Loretta Kelly.
And, if one really listens very carefully, one might actually hear the very voice of the folknik’s own beloved music maven, Barbara Millikan, mixed in among that wonderful choral aggregation.
From percussion and hand bells to recorders, Hardanger fiddle, and so much more besides, the music and song, both secular and religious, just keeps coming, and that results in a recording that is a must for the music library of any true Revels devotee.
The booklet, which is itself a gem, contains not only fascinating notes on the 28 pieces on this recording, but also includes the lyrics to all the songs that are sung.
Congratulations, Portland, you truly have a winner here; or to put it another way, this recording comes very highly recommended, no brag, just fact.
For information on performances and recordings, contact www.portlandrevels.org.