Jo Morrison,
A Waulking Tour of Scotland
(Triharpskel Productions, 2000)

It begins with the unlikely coupling of the harp and the Highland bagpipes. One instrument is soft, stately, perhaps even delicate. The other is loud, brash and in your face. Don't get me wrong, I like them both -- but they're not instruments you usually hear together. Well, harper Jo Morrison, who successfully combined them in her first album, The Three Musics, has done it again.

A Waulking Tour of Scotland, inspired by Morrison's own travels through the Scottish countryside, takes listeners along on a musical excursion reflecting her passion for the country and its rich musical and cultural traditions. To that end, she utilizes the courtly harp, the stirring pipes, vocals in English and Scots Gaelic, and other ingredients to make this album a trip to remember.

Morrison herself serves as our guide throughout the 20-track, 73-minute recording. Her harp, played with deft, expert fingers, dominates the album, stealing attention away from even the louder, harsher pipes. As on her previous CD, she has struck an excellent balance, keeping the sounds of the two distinctly different instruments on an equal par without ever allowing the mix to sound false or unnatural. You hear it from the very first track, a duet featuring Morrison on harp and Paula Glendinning on the great Highland pipes for "Arniston Castle/Rejected Suitor."

The harp stands equally well with the diminished sound of the shuttle pipes, skillfully played by Jo's husband, Wayne, in "Colin's Cattle/The Lapwing/Shoals of Herring."

"Crags of Stirling/Stirling Castle/Reel Stirling" is a set of three tunes (the last by Morrison) boasting a subtle blend of harp with the hammered dulcimer, played by Walt Michael. It's an inspired combination, one I wish had been employed more often on the album. Another coupling I'd have liked to hear more of is Jo's Celtic harp paired with Cynthia Cathcart's wire-strung harp for a beautiful interpretation of "Skye Boat Song/Coolin Hills." Jo's partnership with fiddler Bonnie Rideout on "The Man from Skye/Crossing the Minch" is another standout track, as is her duet with tin whistler Karen Ashbrook on "74th's Farewell to Edinburgh/Arthur's Seat/Highland Whisky/Flowers of Edinburgh."

We get our first vocals on the second track, "'S Fliuch an Oidhche." Wayne Morrison leads the way, singing the calls to a Gaelic waulking song, to which a chorus comprising the Jo, Wayne, Heidi Gerber and Pamela Murray Winters provide the response and a faint, barely audible bodhran (played by Myron Bretholz) keeps time. Waulking songs, Jo explains in her liner notes, was a process by which groups of women would soften tweed by pounding it rhythmically on a table -- for several hours. Songs such as "'S Fliuch an Oidhche" were sung to pass the time and lighten the labor.

Even better are the vocals (by Jo, Wayne and Heidi) on the too-brief "Dona Nobis Pacem," which leads into another Morrison original tune for harp and shuttle pipes (Jo and Wayne), "Ghost of Elgin." Maggie Carchrie sings crystal-clear lead on the slow, mournful "Oran Mu'n Ghruagaich," an a capella waulking song benefitting from choral responses by Jo and Heidi.

Jo matches harp to concertina (Wendy Morrison) on "Da Full-Rigged Ship/Bressay Lullaby" -- the latter portion of which gives us a taste of Jo's vocal skills. This is the first track which allows her to step vocally out of the chorus and project her own lovely voice. I'd like to hear more.

And I get more. Jo sings lead to Heidi and Pam for the call and response waulking song "Hè, Mannd' Thu." Then Jo and Heidi sprint through the a capella song "Seallaibh Curaigh Eoghainn." Wayne returns to sing lead on Robert Burns' "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose," nicely accompanied by Jo's harp and Cathy Alles on flute. The final vocal track, "Ho Ro Hug O Hug O," is another waulking song featuring the strong voice of Lisa Moscatiello, with Jo and Heidi singing support and an actual waulking beat of the cloth in the background.

Also scattered throughout the album are tracks which let the harp to shine unencumbered by other elements. "Lament for Ravenscraig" is a bonny, airy tune penned by Jo for a castle she visited which was fallen into disrepair and covered in grafitti. "O'er the Bows to Ballindalloch/Nellie's Strathspey/Devil in the Kitchen/Inverness Rant/The Market Place of Inverness/Piper's Bonnet" is a set of strathspeys featuring the solo harp in an even tempo, intricate and steady, allowing listeners to really hear the two-handed work of Jo's playing. Other harp solo tracks -- none of which can be faulted in the least -- are "Huntingtone Castle/Atholl Cummers/Brig o' Perth," "Arran Boat Song/Fear a' Bhata" and "Banks of Lochiel."

Paula returns for another harp/pipes duet on the final track, "Beloved Scotland," a somber piece Jo describes as a piobaireachd, or theme and variation. It's a melancholy close to the album and conjures more than any other an air of windswept, heather-filled Highlands.

When reviewing The Three Musics, I noted how Jo Morrison's harping evoked images of ancient Irish minstrels entertaining the clans in fire-lit halls. A Waulking Tour of Scotland goes one better; the whole album is pregnant with sights and flavors of an entire country. The excellent harping holds it all together; the arrangements with a broad assortment of voices and instruments -- particularly several outstanding duets -- make this a musical travelogue from Scotland you'll want to experience time and time again.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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