Tommy Basker,
The Tin Sandwich
(Silver Apple, 1994)

The tin sandwich in question on Tommy Basker's CD of that name is the harmonica, a much underrated instrument. Like other reeds, it has body and strength and a warmth in tone. And, powered by the right set of lungs, it can literally breathe life into tunes.

Cape Breton is probably most famous for its fiddlers and stepdancers. Although many of the tunes featured on this album are fairly standard in the local repertoire, they adapt well to this instrument. Additionally along with the fiddle-type clipping and double stopping associated with this style, Basker is able to put in the driving harmonious chordal accompaniment so often found among the better harmonica players.

While many of the tunes are Cape Breton in origin, he searches far and wide for his material, and includes some delightfully different interpretations of Coleman, Morrison and other Irish musicians' pieces. He brings new life to session standards such as "Sally Gardens" and "The Boys of Ballysodare," though he seems to race on his complicated version of "The Liverpool Hornpipe."

In typical Cape Breton fashion, he is accompanied by piano and guitar, with fiddle joining in on one track. On eight of the 16 tracks, Ryan MacNeil provides keyboards, while on another seven, Gordon MacLean takes over. (Forget the fiddlers; how many pianists are there in Cape Breton?) I may be wrong (I'm no expert on the instrument) but my feeling is that MacNeil has a more forceful style of playing, while MacLean tends to being more melodic. Either way, they both add great character and depth to the music.

Paul MacDonald plays guitar on 10 tracks, including three with the lesser-heard tenor guitar. He has a deft touch and good sense of accompaniment. For example, his approach to the "Sally Gardens" set is spot on -- at first, it sounds awkward and simplistic, but in effect, he is recreating a classic environment similar to that found on Michael Coleman recordings, in which his rhythm pushes the melody instrument to the fore and allows it to flourish. This is a feat he accomplishes in different ways whenever he plays.

It has been some time since I last heard an album devoted to harmonica -- and I wish that were not so. With musicians such as Basker, the sound is worthy of a wider audience. His playing is perfect for both dancing and listening to: the rhythms and tempos trigger the urge to start tapping feet and swinging legs; and the melodies are infectious.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]