Natalie MacMaster,
Natalie MacMaster's Cape Breton Island Fiddle
(Mel Bay, 2001)

I don't think there's any tunebook I've ever anticipated as I have the new Mel Bay publication from Natalie MacMaster.

I didn't even know it was available yet when I went to see MacMaster perform at the Spring Gulch Folk Festival -- and neither, apparently, did she, because she was startled when a fan asked her to sign his copy. "I haven't even seen this yet," she said, with some wonder.

Needless to say, I collared the fan and found out where he bought it. Since a festival merchant had them in stock, I sprinted across the grounds in time to buy his last copy.

How horribly disappointing.

Mel Bay seems to have left Natalie MacMaster out of Natalie MacMaster's Cape Breton Island Fiddle. Sure, the 64-page booklet includes 41 tunes she has recorded. And yes, the introduction does say she looked over the pages and added some "last moment emendations" here and there.

But where, outside of the photos of MacMaster on the cover, is her presence in the book? Where is the personality that makes this her collection of tunes?

The tunes were transcribed by Stacy Phillips. Phillips picked them, not MacMaster -- this is no compendium of MacMaster's favorites, mind you, but a collection of tunes Phillips found convenient and easy to transcribe and fit in the book. (He says so in the introduction, which he, not MacMaster, wrote.)

There are no photos of MacMaster inside the book, no notes from her explaining her sources for these tunes, no anecdotes about how she learned them or memorable times she has played them. There are enough blank pages in the book (intentionally left so, the publisher explains, to "avoid awkward page turns") that a little bit of character could have been inserted to make this, in truth, a MacMaster collection.

In fact, minus those "emendations," MacMaster apparently had absolutely nothing to do with the preparation and publication of this book. This is a Stacy Phillips project, with MacMaster's name and face attached for the obvious marketing tie-in and, well, it is a very pretty face, guaranteed to catch a browser's eye on the shelf.

But I didn't want a Stacy Phillips book, and I already have plenty of photos of Natalie on her CD covers.

Yes, the tunes included here are nice to have, but there are bigger and better tunebooks on the market for those looking to expand their repertoire. So, unless you're a MacMaster completist, I'd give this one a miss -- seek instead one of Jerry Holland's excellent collections published by Paul Cranford's small press in Nova Scotia. They're harder to find, but well worth the effort -- and you can actually see Holland's presence in the books.

Hopefully, MacMaster will someday take this route instead of lending her name to another such unsatisfactory product. Let's see a real Natalie MacMaster tunebook, something exhibiting at least some signs of her participation in the project.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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