Liz Knowles,
The Celtic Fiddle
(Lyrichord Discs, 1998)

Liz Knowles' debut recording sparkles with the enthusiasm of a fresh mind and a passionate spirit. This exciting new fiddler seemed to explode on the scene in the last few years, appearing as guest soloist numerous times on Riverdance, on the soundtrack to the movie Michael Collins, teaming up with Ensemble Galilei and the Sirius String Quartet, and most recently joining the John Whelan Band. Her popularity is well-earned, however, as is evident from the extraordinary playing on the recording. Tutors Brian Connolly and Eileen Ivers are undoubtedly proud.

The selection of guests on the recording is impeccable. Including such notables as Joanie Madden on flute and whistles, Chris Cunningham on guitar, and John Whelan on box, the background instrumentals show talent and musicianship equal to the soloist. This balance can be so vital to a recording, and is often an overlooked aspect of making a solo recording.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this album is the choice of tunes. In the eight tracks containing traditional music, Ms. Knowles explores a wide variety of melodic lines, cadences, and rhythms. Take "The Crooked Road," which begins with a light and airy calypso-like rhythm, and ends with a driving Celtic beat on the second tune. "My Darling Asleep" teams the provocative sound of Knowles' fiddle with the gentle, wispy accompaniment of Sue Richards' harp on the opening tune, Turlough O'Carolan's "Dr. John Hart." This gently leads the listener to a slow but lilting duet on "Knocknagow" and a more bouncy version of "My Darling Asleep."

Equally intriguing are the Liz Knowles originals, including a fiery set of jigs, complete with shaker and conga percussion on "Jigs for John," and a deeply emotional and introspective air entitled "The Gift of Falling." The latter explores the mixed blessing of time off due to a broken collarbone from a horseback riding accident. The track's depth and charm are greatly enhanced with Des Moore's guitar and Michelle Kinney's cello.

The true stand-out on this recording is the Middle-Eastern sounding "Laz." This unusual traditional (not Celtic) dance tune sports a fascinating seven-beat rhythm, which the instrumentalists have woven back and forth with a jig beat. The instrumentation of Uillean pipes, ney, guitar, bass, percussion, and fiddle lead to an exotic, earthy sound.

As with many solo fiddle recordings, this tends to be occasionally mixed a little heavily on the fiddle, leaving some of the other instruments struggling to be heard. Also, the fiddle never really gives up the lead to another instrument, which would add a nice variety of sound now and again. Despite these minor complaints, Liz Knowles' fire and vibrant energy shine through every track, and she will keep your toes tapping throughout the whole recording.

[ by Jo Morrison ]

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