Fred Morrison – Outlands (2009)

Ugh! I’m out of my depth again. What do I know about pipe playing or any of the styles of pipe music? But I fall back on the rules I spouted earlier – that if you pay considered attention to something for long enough, even if it’s a thing you can’t do, you start to learn things about it and start to have a basis for considered opinions.

Morrison is a highly regarded player of various types of pipes and whistles. I first came across him on the excellent Transatlantic Sessions series (and isn’t about time we had another round of that?) and one of the things that was hard to miss about him was the grin seemingly permanently glued to his face.

And the music that he makes here is joyous stuff indeed. Not in the lyrics (there aren’t any) but just in the performing. The act of playing music seems to be it’s own happy end.

Morrison appeared on series 3 of Transatlantic Sessions, and that aired in 2007. One of the best performances in that series was Morrison in duet with Bruce Molsky on “Kansas City Hornpipe”. Just the two of them – pipes and banjo (sorry! Should have warned you that sort of stuff was coming), and maybe that’s where Morrison got the inspiration for this album, because the idea here is to take Scottish pipe music to Nashville. Quite literally, because the supporting cast here are mostly top notch bluegrass players – notably multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien and ace banjo player Ron Block – and they lend skilled but mostly low key support, seldom taking a turn in the spot light. (this seems to be a not uncommon approach with bluegrass players – they often don’t play more than they have to, even though they could deliver a lot more).

Despite this approach the playing is never less than top notch. Morrison most obviously with great fluidity on the various types of pipes he plays and the low whistle. The supporting guitar work especially complements the movement in the music marvelously. Only on the title track do they step out, but listen to them on the breakneck closing track “The Hard Drive” and you’ll hear how demanding this supporting role can be and how well they execute it. Just because this is “folk” doesn’t mean that these guys can’t play.

It’s interesting to read that piping, like bluegrass, has a competitive aspect to it (Morrison made his name in piping competitions before striking out as a performer and composer). This is a bit un-rock ‘n roll, reducing music to a muscle-flexing competition and all that, but what it does do is elevate the standards and skills. Bluegrass players are always excellent, and Morrison does not lack for proficiency. Everybody here is a fine player. If you thought that playing the bodhran was just beating a vellum with a funny little stick wait until you hear Martin O’Neill who plays on this disc.

The production is nothing flashy, nor does it need to be. With high caliber players such as these you need to just have a good recorded sound and they will do the rest. And the sound here is rich and accurate. Listen to the version of “Kansas City Hornpipe” that is on this disc and you will hear every note of Block’s banjo ringing clearly whilst Morrison plays the melody over the top. Listen too to their marvelous syncopations. When the guitar joins in it’s low down in the mix but still realistic and rich (and played with deceptive skill).

So what we have here is a top notch piper (no! I don’t know a lot about piping, but Morrison’s skill level and musicality are quite obvious) not just having fun with some fine players from the other side of the pond – a sort of mini Transatlantic Sessions – but positively exulting. And I think it’s infectious – that the listener (and that could be you!) will find a little of that joy transferring to them and putting a smile on their face and, who knows, a twinkle in their step.

Skill and joy. A fine combination.


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