Claire Mann,
Claire Mann
(Foot Stompin', 2001)

This self-titled debut album from Claire Mann is a solid piece of work. With a mix of Irish and Scottish traditional songs and tunes, it contains a good variety of material showcasing Mann's many talents. Although mainly featuring Mann's instrumental abilities, the album also contains a couple of vocal tracks from this versatile young lady. The accompaniment on the recording is excellent, and arrangements are quite well done.

Mann is a young but musically mature artist hailing from Newcastle, England, and currently residing in Edinburgh, Scotland. An all-Ireland champion on both the flute and whistle, Mann has two recordings already with the group Tabache, but this is her first solo recording. Mann plays fiddle, flute and whistle on this album, as well as providing vocals. She is backed by a number of talented musicians: Aaron Jones (10-string bouzouki, guitar, vocals), John Joe Kelly (bodhran), Brian McAlpine (keyboard) and Simon Thoumire (concertina).

The album begins with "Fahey's," a set of reels featuring Mann on both flute and fiddle. Right from the start of the album, it is clear that Mann has equal prowess on both instruments, playing with accuracy and excellent expression. Kelly's bodhran is impressive as well -- the tone (which, unfortunately is so often missing with bodhran players) is fantastic, and the rhythms diverse. This theme carries into the second track, "Chloe's Passion," a lilting set of jigs with some great bouzouki tunes.

"The Green Laurels" is the first vocal track on the album, accompanied by whistle and bouzouki. There are some nice whistle harmonies in this one, and Mann has a good voice -- a little on the low side, and quite strong and natural -- but I find that her vocals aren't quite as expressive as her playing. Expression, however, is the name of the game in "Cumberland to Colpitts," a set beginning with reels with a wonderfully unique transition to jigs and some fine instrumentals.

The aptly named set of polkas, "Polkas," is a little different. It features a combination of flute and keyboard that is more common to Cape Breton music than to Irish and Scottish. Although it isn't quite the percussive, zippy accompaniment I'm accustomed to, it makes for a pleasant, cheerful set of tunes. The air "Mornings at Bonny Doon" contains some great intertwining harmonies with Mann's fiddle and flute, while "Mrs. Malaprops Obsessed Island" is an expressive set of jigs with a pleasant, bouncy feel, and delightful bouzouki and bodhran.

The light and airy "Tim's Mazurka's" again includes some keyboard accompaniment and a lovely arrangement while Mann's expressive fiddle takes the spotlight for "Cronin's," a jig and reel set. Next, Mann sings "Drinaun Dhun," a lovely song with beautiful accompaniment. Now, although Mann's voice does justice to this song, I prefer the more zippy tunes (unless they're short and sweet -- this one's not). I also didn't like the way a lot of the words were broken into two or three notes when one would have sufficed; I'm not sure if that's how the songs were written or if it was a personal embellishment of Mann's, but the shorter form would have improved the overall sound.

The album's final two tracks are great sets. "The Commodore" is a quick-paced set of reels with Mann's flute and Jones' bouzouki. The instruments work well together and Mann maintains a good individual quality to the notes along with impeccable expression even with the fast pace. "The Fiddle Cushion" begins with a strathspey and a lively, lilting reel, then shifts gears for a jig with another neat transition -- a great finish!

Although I would have liked to hear more harmonies between the fiddle and flute in many of these sets (more often than not, they were simultaneously playing the melody), on the whole I quite enjoyed this recording. There is an excellent variety of tunes on the album -- jigs, reels, polkas, mazurkas, an air and a strathspey -- as well as a couple of vocal tracks. Mann has formidable talent in many areas and the ability to put feeling into her playing rather than just playing the notes. A great introduction to a fine musician!

[ by Cheryl Turner ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002