Scott Macmillan, et al,
The Minnie Sessions, Vol. 1-3
(Tamarac, 1996-98)

I was afraid these CDs would never be reviewed. When Scott Macmillan and his wife, Jennifer Brickenden, sent them to me, I expected something exceptional -- knowing Macmillan's work and the general quality of Cape Breton musicians, I could expect nothing less -- but I was in for a shock nonetheless. And once these three CDs, released sequentially over three years, got into heavy rotation on my car stereo, I wasn't sure I'd ever bring them in long enough to write a review. They're that good.

So, pardon me if I sound rushed, but as soon as this review is completed, back to the car stereo they go.

Fans of Cape Breton music are accustomed to greatness when it comes to Celtic traditions. Likewise, the little island has made a big place for itself in the fields of country and folk. The Minnie Sessions combine the best of all three genres, with a healthy dose of cool jazz stylings rolled neatly into the mix as well.

My only complaint is that these recordings are too good. Touted as they are as informal sessions, recorded in Scott and Jennifer's home (the former Minnie Adams residence, hence the title) in Hillsboro, Nova Scotia, the object was to escape the "formality and structure" of a recording studio. To wit, these sessions were held with a variety of excellent musicians over several days in August, 1996 and '97. I expected to hear that informality shine through -- perhaps some background noise, appreciative hoots and hollers from other musicians, perhaps a bit of impromptu applause, a cheer now and again, some unplanned foot percussion ... maybe even a goof or two -- but no, these folks are just too good, too polished. While that's not a bad thing, it's not what I expected. The Minnie Sessions are note-perfect throughout, every bit as clear and crisp as a studio recording. It's astonishing.

So, too, is the smooth variety of the music performed. This is a spectacular trio of CDs packed with diverse tunes and songs, each exhibiting some of Cape Breton's best talent. While I may not comment on every track -- 41 combined, totaling 160 minutes of music -- I'll provide some of the highlights.

Volume 1 begins, appropriately enough, with "Minnie Adams' House Reel," a tune Macmillan says "fell out of the walls" the first time he visited the house in 1991. Macmillan leads the way with nimble fingers on lead guitar, dogged all the way by Jon Goodman's pennywhistle. Supporting musicians are Doris Mason on piano and Brian Doyle on rhythm guitar. Mason takes the next track for the wistful song "If Ever You Were Mine" -- she sings with great emotion while accompanying herself on piano. Macmillan lends a hand on guitar. Then he does a solo round on the guitar for "Mine'R Jigs."

Rodney MacDonald shows off his Cape Breton fiddle skills on "The Delhi Siege Medley," aided by Macmillan on guitars. Macmillan follows up with another intricate guitar solo on "The Runout Group" and the mellower "Sir Lulu." Then Goodman returns, this time with the Irish flute, for a gorgeous "Joys of Brotherhood Medley," which begins slow and reverent, then picks up the pace (and Macmillan's guitar) for a lively finish. (The mid-tune fade-out is, unfortunately, an odd and awkward way to end an otherwise good track.) Then Macmillan solos on his bouncy "Toyota Tailpipe" before joining Brian Doyle for a guitar duet on "Romper River." Several more instrumentals round out the album, which ends with another expressive song from Mason, her own "Your Beauty," which pays tribute to the shores of Cape Breton. ("Heaven should look this good....")

Volume 2, which features a different set of musicians and was recorded a year after the first, gets off to a lively start with Macmillan's "The Big Pig Jigs," supported on rhythm guitar by Jimmy Rankin. Lisa MacIsaac demonstrates her own fiddling abilities on "The Mabou Ridge Medley," then Macmillan solos on his jazzy "Iddle-Doo Polka." The first song on this CD is the very lovely "Is It You That I Remember" by Janet Munson, who provides gorgeous vocals and atmospheric violin. Jamie Gatti adds bass and Macmillan, of course, supplies the guitar.

Gatti shows his chops on the electric bass in "The Mathematician," a jaw-dropping instrumental duet with Macmillan. I'm surprised I didn't wear out the repeat button on this one. There's a new arrangement of "Minnie Adams" House Reel" with this new batch of musicians, MacIsaac's excellent "Jigs on Two Legs" fiddle medley with Macmillan, the relaxed jazz of "Back Yard Swing" for Gatti and Macmillan on bass and guitar, and Munson's lush violin on Macmillan's "Rambling in D Minor," among others, leading up to the wonderful Rankin song, "The Wicker Man." This lowkey ballad, for vocals and two guitars, is achingly beautiful, and actually edged "The Mathematician" for the most times repeated.

Volume 3 opens with a third, albeit brief, interpretation of "Minnie Adams' House Reel" with the new musical lineup. After another solo by Macmillan on "Jigging on the Back Steps," he's joined by singer/guitarist Lennie Gallant for Gallant's mellow seafaring song "Knots and Tangles." Then Douglas Reach joins Macmillan for a guitar duet of "Strathcona Park," Reach's clever arrangement of "Sally Gardens."

Jerry Holland is the featured fiddler on this album, and he makes a bold entrance with Macmillan for "The Dancing Jigs." After another solo piece for Macmillan ("Caledonia's Salute"), he's joined by Bernard Felix on accordion for the lively "Grandfather's Jigs." The tireless stepdancer who percusses his or her way through the set is, alas, not identified. After another few instrumental sets, Gallant sings the very tender "Island Clay," which speaks to anyone who's seen family farms fold under the pressure of big-industry agricultural corporations; he's singing here about the dying farms on his native Prince Edward Island. The final track matches up Holland on fiddle, Macmillan on guitar and Reach on accordion -- and, wow, an amazing set it is! The fiddle and accordion both blaze their way through the final tunes, a fitting end to an excellent CD series.

There's no way around it. If you have even a slight fondness for Cape Breton music and the talented musicians who call Cape Breton home, this is a set you must have in your collection. (What do you say, Scott? When do we see Volume 4?)

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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