Puirt a Baroque,
Return of the Wanderer
(Marquis, 1998)

Given the growing popularity of Celtic music, it's a given that musicians will try to blend some of those unique cultural sounds with other musical styles. Some will be successful translating various jigs, reels and ballads into rock, jazz and new age styles, others less so. But here's one I never would have considered: Celtic baroque.

OK, I guess it was going to happen once Eileen Ivers popularized a baroque classic, "Canon in D" by Pachelbel, as a hornpipe. But a whole album ... nay, a whole band devoted to a Celtic/baroque fusion? Yup. Meet Puirt a Baroque, which blends Scottish/Cape Breton Celtic styles with that old-time baroque made famous by the likes of Bach and Vivaldi.

The band's name (pronounced "poorsht-a-ba-roke," with the accent on the final syllable) is a play on puirt a beul, which is Scots-Gaelic for "tunes from the mouth," or mouth music.

Return of the Wanderer is the band's third album, following on the heels of the award-winning Bach Meets Cape Breton and Kinloch's Fantasy: A Curious Collection of Scottish Sonatas and Reels. Sounds intriguing, no? I need to find them.

But back to the album at hand. Return of the Wanderer draws on the considerable talents of four eclectic musicians. David Greenberg, on baroque and modern violins, is a Maryland transplant to Toronto with an amazing array of classical orchestral, chamber and solo credits under his belt. From Toronto, vocalist and percussionist Stephanie Conn lists chamber choir singer, music and video producer, Celtic music lecturer, improvisational comedienne, baroque dancer and Cape Breton stepdancer among her skills.

Terry McKenna, originally from Regina, Saskatchewan, plays baroque and steel-string guitars, lute and mandolin, performs with various Canadian musical groups and teaches music and performance at several institutions of higher education. David Sandall, until recently from Nova Scotia, has toured the world with his harpsichord. Playing with that impressive quartet on this album are cellist Abby Newton, guitarist Curly Boy Stubbs, violinist Kate Dunlay and backup vocalist John Allan Cameron.

The resulting recording is a marvelous combination of styles I never expected to hear on a single album. It begins with "Joy Go With My Love," a lively jig which sounds almost traditional. OK, the harpsichord sounds a little unusual under the top fiddle layer, but it's nothing too startling.

But those hints of unusualness build from there.

The second track, "The Highland Watch," provides a first taste of Conn's vocals, and sure, she'd sound great in a pub. There's still that harpsichord, though, and it's still confusing the senses just a tad. But damn, doesn't that fiddle soar? "St. Martin's Church Yard" wanders even further afield. The fiddle continues to play with a recognizable Cape Breton burr and slur, but otherwise the musicians sound like a harpsichord and string quartet. No, wait ... the fiddle sound has fallen into more formal stylings, and suddenly I'm seeing white wigs and stiff brocades in some Continental noble's parlor. And so on. Puirt a Baroque has compiled a host of seeming contradictions which weave together with (seemingly) effortless grace.

An excellent example is the "Robert Mackintosh Sonata," in three parts: Allegro, Largo and (!) Jigg. The obviously baroque foundations evolve beautifully, almost but not quite making the leap to traditional. "Memories of St. Paul Island" is a lilting fiddle tune from the maritimes that would almost sound at home in an 18th-century chamber performance.

A variant on the popular British song "The Gypsy Laddie," here titled "Johnnie Faa," and the Jacobite anthem "The Haughs of Cromdale" both have a distinctive recital hall flair, yet still retain their folk roots. "Cromdale," in fact, becomes more and more folk-oriented as it goes, losing many of its chamber qualities as the fiddle becomes more wild and a stepdance percussion adds to the rhythm ... and it is possibly the only time you'll hear a harpischord and washboard in the same recording.

The liner notes are thorough and very educational. Anyone with an interest in the development of Scottish and baroque styles, and how and why they mesh so well, can start a research project right here. Return of the Wanderer is an excellent album for anyone with a hunger for something different, something distinctive, something with a classical flavor rarely heard in Celtic circles.

And, as they always say, if it's not baroque, don't fix it.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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