Venus in Tweeds
(Greentrax, 1994)

Imagine what might happen if some hapless pub owner scheduled improv jazz and Irish traditional sessions on the same night. The result, I suspect, would be rather like Shooglenifty's debut album, Venus in Tweeds.

The six musicians comprising the band play largely traditional instruments, and certainly most bear the right names to prove their Scottish pedigree: Angus R. Grant on fiddle, Iain MacLeod on mandolin, Garry Finlayson on banjo and banjax, Malcolm Crosbie on acoustic and electric guitars, Conrad Ivitsky on bass and James MacKintosh on percussion and drums.

Many of the album's 10 tracks have a strong traditional flavor -- particularly "The Pipe Tunes" ("John McKenzie's Fancy/The Kitchen Piper"), "Horace" ("The Grampian Television Jig/Horace Shaw of Highfield/The Old Woman's Dance") and "The Tammienorrie" ("The Tammienorrie/Leo Elsey's Reel/Les Reel Des Voyageurs") -- built atop a jazz foundation. Nearly all of the tracks were composed by MacLeod or Grant.

The album shines a bright spotlight on the string ensemble -- each in their turn -- but MacKintosh's percussion should not be overlooked. His quirky, sometimes downright odd rhythms give Shooglenifty an original flair.

The beat-driven energy flows through most of the tunes, building at times into a nearly frenetic pace on tracks like Grant's "Venus in Tweeds" and MacLeod's "Paranoia/Flapper's Reel." Even the rather laid-back "Waiting for Conrad" restrains a kind of restless pep. Probably the most relaxed track on the album is MacLeod's "The Point Road," featuring the writer's slow-walking mandolin. They liked the tune so much they did it twice, rounding out the album with the "Joiner's Mix" version, this time giving the melody to Crosbie to whistle. (That's using his lips, not the tin variety.)

Shooglenifty's 1994 release is an excellent mix of traditional and jazz musical styles, and the improvisational feel is a real plus. While fans of the two distinct genres rarely have tastes in common, I suspect Venus in Tweeds will go a long way towards satisfying both camps.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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