Gretchen & Rebecca Koehler,
Parallel Lines
(What a Raquette, 2000)

In the realm of traditional music, whenever you hear more than one fiddle together, there are a few things that can happen. Either there are a lot of great harmonies going on, everyone is playing the same tune with orchestral precision, or (and this is often the case when my fiddle is involved) it's a free-for-all jam session where you can't even tell whether or not everyone is playing the same tune. Luckily, Gretchen and Rebecca Koehler fall into the first category, and provide the listener with an excellent mix of tunes, wonderful fiddle harmonies and talented guest musicians wrap up an already great package.

Rebecca and Gretchen are sisters who have been playing fiddle together for virtually all of their lives. They grew up in Westfield, Massachusetts, and now live in northern New York and Boston. Joining them on the album are Matt Bullwinkel (piano), Brandt Kronholm (guitar), Beth Robinson (cello), Stuart Kenny (bodhran) and Ed Clark and Joel Foisy (percussion).

This was the first time I had heard Rebecca and Gretchen, and I was quite impressed. The album is upbeat and energetic, with the odd smattering of slower tunes. The arrangements are excellent and the musicians outstanding. Their playing style reminds me very much of Cape Breton fiddle traditions, with piano and guitar accompaniment and tunes that seem made for dancing. Indeed, the sisters credit Cape Breton's Barra MacNeils with a few of the tunes on the album.

One of the many strengths of this album is the instrumental arrangements. Often, a tune starts off on the slower side, with fewer instruments, and gathers momentum and sound throughout. Intricate harmonies between the two fiddles and with guitar, piano and cello are prominent and instruments constantly fade in and out, providing the listener with a tantalizing mix. Although most of the tunes on this recording share these characteristics, there are a few tracks that stand out. The first track, with its set of jigs and reels, "The Mooncoin Jig/Farewell to Ireland/The Punter's Graveyard" and the momentum-building jigs with a reel finale on track nine all are prime examples of Gretchen's talent for arrangements.

The percussion is another strong point for the album. On the third track, the tambourine and bodhran are combined to make a stimulating beat for this energetic set. On one track, appropriately titled the "Knock on Wood Medley," there is a quite interesting patch-clap pattern which makes for good listening, and something which isn't heard all that often. It reminded me of the toe-tapping often heard in Acadian music, and the accompanying fiddle percussion magnified this effect. I also enjoyed Stuart Kenney's bodhran playing. I find that intonation (or, the lack of it) is often the downfall with bodhran accompaniment. The instrument can provide a wonderful sound, but not if you simply whack away at it with the appropriate beat. It takes some talent to be a good bodhran player, and Kenney has it.

I really enjoyed all of the fast, zippy tunes on this recording. This is a fast-paced album, which is bound to find its way into my CD player quite often. Rebecca and Gretchen are equally as skilled at slower tunes, however. Their rendition of "Neil Gow's Lament for the Death of His Second Wife" is very well done and includes some wonderful harmonies. The Koehlers also worked a beautiful piece of their late grandfather's, "Permission" into the tune. This short little bit fit so well that I almost didn't realize that it had been tucked in!

Rebecca and Gretchen play a lot of tunes which are familiar and likeable to me, and play them well, adding some of their own formidable compositions to the mix. The arrangements are excellent, and the playing well-divided amongst the two siblings, who have obviously learned to share with one another. Both Rebecca and Gretchen are adept at playing solos, melodies and harmonies in an energetic, danceable and appealing style. I also enjoyed the light-hearted liner notes, which gave out lots of interesting tidbits about the tunes and arrangements. I will definitely be keeping my eyes (and ears!) open for more material from these Celtic fiddlers!

[ by Cheryl Turner ]