Kathryn Tickell,
Debateable Lands
(Park Records, 2000)

Kathryn Tickell displays her vibrant piping finesse on this recording of mostly original tunes, with a few traditional tunes mixed in for variety. Opening with a fiery pair of tunes, Tickell's "The Wedding" and the traditional "Because he was a bonny lad," the recording rockets to a fast and furious pace from the contemplative introductory strummings of Kit Haigh's guitar. This is a promise of things to come, as the album varies between up-tempo toe-tapping dance tunes and melancholy, thoughtful airs. Tickell excels when sporting her rapid fingerwork on the dance tunes, but can also wring much emotion from the slower, more introspective pieces.

The highlight and title cut of the recording, "Stories from the Debateable Lands," features five original tunes from Tickell, exploring the various characteristics and stories of the border country between England and Scotland. This area was long under ownership dispute between the two countries, and the inhabitants no doubt felt this harsh reality throughout their lives, living among the outlaws and lacking a sense of nationality and belonging. The opening tune, "Debateable Lands," captures this feeling with a sensitive and tentative-sounding tune, which leads into the rhythmic and almost harsh "Lawless." "Debateable Jig" is a moody and modal dance tune, blending sounds into a clearly mixed-emotion celebration. "Armstrongs Schottische" and "Armstrongs Reel" round out the set with a rollicking good time, perhaps representing the more positive feelings of the residents today. There is never a dull moment in this nine and a half minutes track.

Surrounding herself with an array of talented guest musicians, Tickell manages to create a wide range of sounds and nuances in her music through the use of different instrumentation and deft arrangements. She is joined by Kit Haigh on guitar, Julian Sutton on melodeon, and Gregor Borland on fiddle, viola and bass, and allows each of these in turn to shine at various points throughout the recording. Haigh's guitar on "The Hanging Bridge" opens with a tender and persuasive solo, later joined by the gentle melodic sound of Tickell's pipes. "Dustanburgh" would not begin to have the same powerful haunting feel without Haigh's guitar lead. Sutton's melodeon adds rhythm and contrast, especially on the jigs. "Swig Jig" and "Kathryn's Favourite" wouldn't have the same swing without his percussive and rollicking melodeon lines. Nor would the Irish traditional tune swing with the same fervor without his opening lead on "Kelfenora." Borland's syncopated bass line adds kick and pizzaz to "The Wedding."

Tickell also incorporates the skills of Ron Shaw on cello, Troy Donockley on uilleann pipes and Nick Holland on piano. The result is a wealth of textures and colors in the music. Shaw's cello shines on the haunting and memorable Tickell air, "The Return," lending mystery to the sound. Adding spice to the final cut, a reprise of "Our Kate" with different instrumentation, is the Northumbrian/uilleann pipe duet between Tickell and Donockley at the opening of the track, which provides a different and perhaps more soulful look at the tune Tickell wrote for Tyneside author Catherine Cookson. The piano works wonderfully behind this duet to create motion once the mood is established.

Not only does Tickell use the gifts of other performers to keep variety in her recording, but she also explores her own lesser-known talents as well. Although known primarily as a Northumbrian piper, Tickell is also an award-winning fiddler, and uses this talent with great success on this recording. Particularly effective are the string passages in the slow tunes "In Dispraise of Whisky" and the lilting "Road to the North."

Tickell's original tunes have obvious traditional roots and are evocative of their inspiration. Reading the liner notes gives great insight into the meanings behind the feel of each tune. Take, for example, the meandering melody line on "Rothbury Road." This tune commemorates an exhaustive search for the quick road to Rothbury, which yielded only twisting and scenic routes.

It is through the combination of excellent instrumental performances and superb arrangement choices that this collection of tunes shines. But what else would one expect from an outstanding musician such as Kathryn Tickell?

[ by Jo Morrison ]

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