Jennifer & Hazel Wrigley,
Mither o' the Sea
(Greentrax, 1999)

It seems most of the rave reviews for Celtic fiddlers these days are about fiery young musicians coming out of Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island and other coastal Canadian locales. Well, another fiddler to watch Jennifer Wrigley, who has been steeped in the traditional styles of her native Orkney Isles, Scotland.

Now based in Edinburgh, where they have also been noted for playing with the band Seelyhoo, Jennifer and her sister Hazel are gaining a wider audience as a duo keeping Scotland on the map for breeding excellent new talent. The sisters' fourth album, Mither o' the Sea, is an excellent example of their work.

Jennifer takes the point, leading each tune with her wonderful stylings on fiddle and hardanger fiddle. She doesn't have the jazzy innovativeness of Eileen Ivers, the bounce of Natalie MacMaster or the devilish glee of John Cunningham, but I suspect she's a player we'll hear a lot from in years to come. Hazel, meanwhile, is a perfect partner, providing a solid foundation for each tune on guitar and piano. The duo alone seems sufficient to fill an album with plenty of sound, but they brought in some help: Aaron Jones on bass guitar, Eamonn Coyne on banjo and mandolin, Kevin Macrae on cello, Simon Thoumire on concertina and whistle, and Rick Bamford on percussion.

When first listening to the album, I assumed most of the tunes were Scottish traditionals -- but I was surprised and delighted to see in the liner notes that several are J. Wrigley originals. In fact, the album begins with a spritely coupling of two: "Swelkie" and "The Teran," tunes which should certainly make the rounds among other Celtic musicians. Jennifer also wrote "Compliments to the Orkney Norway Friendship Association" and "The Mester Ship" for her hardanger, using its extra drones to full effect. Her "Running the Lee" and "The Flotta Dash" leaves listeners a bit breathless! Jennifer also wrote the energized "Scotification," which lights a fire after the slower "The Duchess of Gordon" by W. Marshall. She also adds her bouncy "Tommy Mainland's March" to the equally bouncy "Whal's Rost" by Jimmy Craigie.

Jennifer changes moods for the melancholy air "Adelaide," which the liner notes reveal was composed while feeling homesick in Australia. It leads into Hazel's first composition for this album, the frenetic "The Phantom Flight" (also, appropriately, written about being on tour). Hazel stretches her writing skills again for the set "Way Oot West" and "Bessie Millies Sixpence." The first keeps sis Jennifer's fingers busy while Hazel's guitar part plods slowly along; the addition of Coyne's banjo midway along really spices up the track.

Other tunes on the album include the lilting "Brae o' Scorne" by Gordon Harvey and J. Murdoch Henderson's lively "JF Dickie," named for a "famous Scottish fiddling hero." (How refreshing, in a day when kids grow up listing professional wrestlers and video game characters as heroes, to see the label applied to a traditional musician!) Davie Eunson composed a gorgeous air for fiddle and piano, "Mrs. Violet Eunson," to honor his wife, and Jennifer's strings give it extra lyrical emotion. There's a lot of variety in the Orkney set combining John Sinclair's "Shapinsay Polka" with "Jimmy o' the Bu's Polka" by J. Spence and "Scapa Flow" by J. Johnston. W.R. Aim's "The Trip to Orkney Waltz" is very danceable indeed.

"R Aim's Compliments to J Craigie," by W.R. Aim, and the traditional "The Holm Band Tune" provide an excellent closing to the album. While some might argue that there are non-traditional touches which interfere with the overall sound -- like, in the final track, the inclusion of a snare set and hi-hat -- I'd contend that the Wrigley sisters have found a grand balance between their native traditions and their own unique, clever originality.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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