Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham,
The Ruby
(Whirlie, 1997;
Green Linnet, 1998)

The Ruby, originally released on Scotland's Whirlie Records in 1997, is Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham's follow-up to 1995's The Pearl, which was their first collaboration as a duo, even though they have worked together on various projects since 1988.

These two well-traveled musicians currently represent the pinnacle of Celtic traditional music, Scottish division. Cunningham spent time early on in his career as a member of Silly Wizard, while Bain is still active as a founding member of Boys of the Lough and tours annually with Cunningham. They have honed their craft through solo work and guest appearances way too numerous to mention here, as well as three albums together, the third being Another Gem, released in 2001. Bain is also well known on BBC television as a host of several music series that explore the connection between Celtic and American folk and fiddle music including Down Home and The Transatlantic Sessions, which also included participation by Cunningham.

Bain and Cunningham play all the instruments on The Ruby save for guest Ian Hardie's double bass contribution on two tracks. Bain is a master of the fiddle, while accordionist Cunningham also handles the keyboards, whistles, cittern, talking drum and trump, according to the credits. Cunningham also did a superb job producing this recording. The music is mostly traditional, arranged by Bain and Cunningham, with a few Cunningham originals mixed in. The traditional tunes, mostly of Scottish origin, also include music fromEstonia, Cape Breton, French Canada and the States. Excellent liner notes describe the background of each tune.

Many of the tracks are made up of three part sets, as for example track one, beginning with "Estonian Waltz," which is given a gorgeous interpretation leading into "La Vie Est Pas Donne," a nice mid-tempo Cajun fiddle tune Bain learned in Louisiana, after which they crank it up a few more notches for the French-Canadian "La Bastringue" finish. After hearing this, you'll want these guys to play your next ceili.

Cunningham's original "Violet Tulloch Queen of Lerwick" features a wistful sounding piano-whistle combination that sets up a heartfelt melody on fiddle, followed by the wistful section again, then the fiddle is joined to great effect by Cunningham's accordion, and so on. The traditional "Logan Water" is given a hauntingly beautiful interpretation on flute and fiddle. The title track is a Cunningham original that has a nice slow melody that is first heard on whistle, then repeats with the accordion/fiddle combination.

From the opening accordion that begins track one, I was instantly transported to a small Scottish village; picture the town from Local Hero. By disc's end, I'm no longer a tourist -- I'm ready to live here. It almost sounds cliched to say that this pair makes beautiful music together, but they unquestionably do. Beautiful melodies, expert musicianship, and impassioned performances abound on The Ruby. Anyone who appreciates traditional Celtic music at its finest will not only find this disc to be essential, but will likely also need to seek out their other two collaborations.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 30 August 2003

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