Tracey Dares,
Crooked Lake
(Atlantiga, 1999)

Anyone who's familiar with Natalie MacMaster's work is bound to know Tracey Dares. She, along with guitarist Dave MacIsaac, provided the solid backdrop for MacMaster's fiddle on several albums and concert tours, and many music fans were disappointed when the Cape Breton keyboardist left the project.

But now Dares is back with her own album, Crooked Lake, which gives us another dose of her excellent Cape Breton style of keyboarding as well as her stepdancing skills -- you can hear the graceful foot taps in the background on several tracks, and having seen her perform I can verify that she plays the keyboard and dances simultaneously.

The album includes several sets of such infectious liveliness -- tune sets such as "G Jigs," "A Group," "C Group" and a pair of Dares originals, "Mustang Jig/Castle Bay Scrap" -- that it's hard to resist the urge to get up and dance.

Unlike her work with MacMaster, Crooked Lake shines the spotlight on the keyboard, and Dares plays it -- fast or slow, bouncy or somber -- with incredible acumen and expressiveness. But this isn't a solo album, either; for some tracks she has brought together a fine assortment of performers, including her former compadres MacMaster (violin and viola) and MacIsaac (acoustic and electric guitars), plus Hamish Moore (small and Highland pipes), Lucy MacNeil (harp), Bruce Jacobs (bass) and Tom Roach (drums). There are also two solo vocalists, Rita Rankin and Rod MacNeil, and a seven-singer chorus on the final track, "Milling Song."

The majority of the tunes on this album are Scottish traditionals. There are also several original pieces by the likes of Dares, MacIsaac, Moore and John Morris Rankin. The lyrics for "Moladh Locha Chaim (In Praise of Crooked Lake)," the choral portion of "Milling Song," were written by Dan Alex MacDonald of Cape Breton, about a favorite spot near Dares' hometown of Big Ridge.

Several tracks on Crooked Lake are keyboard solos, although Dares' intricate fingerwork sometimes makes it hard to believe she's alone. (On "Old Grey Goose" she sounds like an orchestra!) She also uses her guest musicians to good effect. For instance, Dares and MacMaster perform a lovely, exquisite duet called "Black Mary" from the Neil Gow Collection. A solo piano introduction leads to a gorgeous, subtle duet with the harp in "Port Augusta," adding lovely touches by the bass and fiddle.

While much of the album is arranged traditionally, there are exceptions -- such as "Pipe Group," a lively, unusual collaboration of keyboards, pipes, drums and guitars.

All in all, this is a very satisfying album, one fans of a well-struck piano should not be without.

[ by Tom Knapp ]