Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada - Monday, May 8, 2000

Celtic traditions, jazz attitude

Improvisation adds an edge to Skyedance collaborations

By SANDY MacDONALD -- The Daily News

The collective musical attitude of Skyedance nicely mirrors the far-flung postal codes of its members - from California to Baltimore to Scotland's Isle of Skye. The progressive New Celtic ensemble makes its first appearance at Halifax's Rebecca Cohn on Thursday.

If you go

Alasdair Fraser and Skyedance perform at Port Hawkesbury's SAERC Auditorium on Wednesday and Halifax's Rebecca Cohn on Thursday, 8 p.m. Guests for both shows are Antigonish fiddler Kendra MacGillivray, with her brother Troy on piano. $21. In Halifax, call 494-3820.
"Skyedance are musicians who play really well - and listen really well," explained founder Alasdair Fraser, from his adopted home in Nevada City, Calif.

Each member of the sextet is an accomplished musician in his own right, and together the sum is a fascinating amalgam of sound, rhythm and melody.

"It's not the money that keeps us together," says Fraser, one of Scotland's most renowned fiddlers. "It's the creative challenge of the music. The whole point ... is to be creative in this band - not just play the old tunes.

"We want to step out and see what we can create together - that creative force adds a bit of excitement and edge."

Eric Rigler, a native Californian, plays the Great Highland bagpipes, the Scottish small-pipes and Irish Uilleann pipes. Chris Norman, who grew up in Nova Scotia, brings his wooden flute to the band. The group is rounded out with keyboardist Paul Machlis, fretless bassist Mick Linden and percussionist Peter Maund.

The immense musicality of the group allows Fraser's famed fiddle to cut loose from carrying the melody and "duck and dive" to play harmony.

"Someone always plays the tune, but the others can go and search around it. We get to weave more of a tapestry that way."

All members are composers, and their varied backgrounds keep the music fresh and challenging.

The group's latest CD, Labyrinth (Culburnie Records), features 13 compositions - each player brings at least one tune to the project.

The musicians gravitate together a couple of times a year, usually in anticipation of a recording session or concert tour.

When all the datebooks line up, the musicians fly in from around the world for what Fraser calls a "bash."

"We take a week and do nothing but try new musical ideas. We stay in a house somewhere and mess around. If somebody has an idea, they bring it along. If there's a good feeling about it, it flies. But if there's an awkward silence after a wee while, then it usually just lies dormant. Everyone's good about it."

The democracy in the creative process is rare in music. But because Skyedance plays so infrequently, the get-togethers generate excitement for the players. Band members embrace a jazz ethos about playing essentially traditional Celtic music, blending in influences from other musical cultures while leaving holes inside the music for flighty improvisational passages.

"Sometimes we'll take a little sidetrip in the middle of a piece."

Fraser has achieved acclaim as one of the world's finest fiddlers, a master of the Scottish style. To his highly developed ear, there's no other instrument that so closely echoes the human voice.

"When you think about the roots of the fiddle - rubbing the tail of a horse across the intestines of a cat - you wonder how on Earth did this instrument ever come into being and inspire so much music?"

Fraser relishes the opportunity to play progressive new music with Skyedance, and then return to his passion for the ancient traditional music. He spends several weeks each summer on Skye teaching fiddle.

"I do the Skyedance thing, which is searching forward, then go back and play the old tunes again - to fill up the well.

"That's the cycle that feels good."

Words from a master

"The message in all my classes is to express yourself on the instrument. Do your homework, know the old tunes and where they've been. Identify your heroes and copy them. At some point, your own style will start to emerge. You'll find that you naturally take bits that resonate with your own personal makeup. That's the way the tradition works. The whole goal of it is so you can sit down and communicate the emotions and feelings and excitement of the music." - Alasdair Fraser