Jo Morrison,
The Three Musics
(Triharpskel Productions, 1998)

The sound of a well-played harp instantly conjures visions of smoky, fire-lit halls in ancient Ireland, where clansmen and women gathered around feasting tables to pay heed to the minstrel who was an all-too-brief guest of their chieftain. At night, as dogs fought over scraps in the rushes at their feet, they'd sit and listen as the minstrel plucked out nigh-mystical melodies on an ornately carved harp.

The Three Musics by Jo Morrison does that very thing, evoking imagery of a time I can only wistfully imagine. There is something about the resonant, bell-like tones of a Celtic harp which cannot be duplicated by any other instrument.

The album derived its title, Morrison explains, from the ancient belief that Celtic harpers played music of mirth, music of sorrow and music of sleep, each having its own magical powers over their listeners. Many of the Irish tunes heard in pubs today, more often played now on a fiddle or tin whistle, owe their origins to those harpers of old.

This album comprises 64 minutes of music. Only four feature Morrison alone, however. On most, she employs the skills of several guest musicians who complement her own deft playing. Among them are Cathy Alles on flute, Walt Michael on hammered dulcimer, Bonnie Rideout on fiddle and viola, and Rick Schmidt on cello.

From the first notes of "Inverary Castle," it's clear Morrison knows how to handle her strings. Alles joins her on flute for a duet that is at all times an equal partnership, never a conflict for dominance.

Highland bagpiper Paula Glendinning joins Morrison for "North Brig o' Edinburgh/The Goat and the Mare/The Old Wife of the Milldust." Now, the bagpipe isn't an instrument one would normally pair with a harp, but Morrison plays David to Glendinning's Goliath, not so much slaying the giant as putting it firmly in its place with her light strokes. (This must have been a recording nightmare, getting the levels right to combine the brash, very loud skirling of a pipe with the delicate touch of a harp. Thankfully, what could have been a disaster turned out rather well, although I wonder if it could ever work in a live performance.) A similar feat was achieved in "Mermaid's Song/Lochaber No More," which coupled the harp with Morrison's husband, Wayne, on shuttle pipes for a lyrical pair of airs.

Another combination I didn't expect -- simply because the instruments come from such vastly different traditions -- is Morrison's harp with Bobby Read's soulful clarinet. Fellow Celtic harper Sue Richards combines forces with Morrison for a lovely harp duet, "Bonawe Highlanders/'S Ann An Ile/Willafjord." Morrison's double-strung harp, played only on the solo air "Sleep Soond in da Morning," is particularly evocative of an otherwordly air, although her rendition of the sprightly hornpipe "The Rights of Man" is probably my favorite solo piece on the album. "The Three Musics," featuring harp, cello and flute, is one of several excellent original pieces.

The Three Musics is a delightful mix of harp tunes that should please any fans of the instrument. Beware, however: It may send you to your bookshelves seeking tales of bards, heroes and gods to benefit from Morrison's nimble, atmospheric performance.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



Buy The Three Musics from Amazon.com.

Visit Jo Morrison's Web page.

If you like this performer, be sure to check out:
Ceolbeg
Bonnie Rideout
Amy Krupski