Gary West,
The Islay Ball
(Greentrax, 2001)

The Islay Ball is the most entertaining piping album I've listened to in a long while. The mix of great tunes, high-quality piping, tasteful and musical arrangements, and excellent guest musicians combine to give a feast for the ears. I got this CD in August 2002. As I write this review 11 months later, the recording is just as fresh and exciting as the first time I listened to it.

Some bagpipe albums, regardless of the quality of piping, really only have an attraction for pipers and piping enthusiasts. This album is not restricted to the piperati. The Islay Ball is easily accessible to those for whom the phrase "redundant low-A" is meaningless.

On this album, Gary West plays Highland pipes, Scottish smallpipes and whistles. Only two of the 12 tracks are performed solo, both on the Highland pipe. The other tracks bring together the talents of an excellent group of musicians: Wendy Stewart (concertina, harp, electroharp), Tony McManus (bouzouki, guitar), David Milligan (piano), Kath Campbell (cello, piano), Colin Matheson (guitar, keyboards), Colin Campbell (fiddle), Marcos Watt (percussion), Stan Wilson (bass guitar) and Carlos Arredondo (vocals, guitar).

West and producer McManus have done an excellent job in creating an album that focuses on a single musician and his instruments, yet also smoothly and artistically blends in other musicians and their artistry. For example, the guitar and piano don't provide tedious rhythmic texture, as is all too common. These -- and the other -- instruments are used to very good effect and add to the musicality of the album and enhance the final product.

Originally from Pitlochry, Scotland, West has played in an impressive array of bands. For 18 years, he played in the Vale of Atholl pipe band, which won several major pipe band championships. He rose to prominence in the Scottish folk music scene in the late '80s when he joined the exceptional group Ceolbeg. In 1991, he became a founding member of Clan Alba along with Dick Gaughan and Brian McNeil. He has played in major festivals throughout Europe and North America, most recently at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He is currently the presenter of the BBC's Pipeline radio program, focusing on piping.

The album starts with a set of reels that sweep you up and pull you along in a whirlwind of music. The fire and passion of this opening track are infectious and could easily lead to dancing. The reels are Michael Grey's "Fleshmarket Close" and West's arrangements of the traditional tunes "The Yellow-Haired Tinker" and "The Mason's Apron." This exciting track features smallpipes, bouzouki and piano.

The electric first track is followed by a pair of pipe jigs from the Borders. This set consists of the tunes "Dixon's Highland Laddie" and "Rangers' Frolic," which is also known as "Hit Her Between the Legs." This track is a bit slower than the first set, but it is still a high-energy pair of tunes. West is joined on concertina by Scottish harp goddess Wendy Stewart. Stewart is shown on this track to be a very accomplished box player. West plays smallpipes for these tunes and is accompanied by cello, bouzouki and the aforementioned concertina.

Stewart pulls the harp out for several tracks. On one, she provides accompaniment for West on the song "Chi mi'n Gheamhraidh." This Gaelic love song, written by Calum and Rory MacDonald of Runrig, is an introspective melody played here on whistle and harp. A set of three hornpipes brings together the Highland pipe, electroharp and guitar for an energetic dance track.

G.S. MacLennan's 3/4 march "Kilworth Hills" is played on smallpipes and cello. The smallpipes start solo and the cello joins in shortly by providing a drone accompaniment. The melody is briefly handed off to the cello, then it returns to the smallpipes. The cello continues with a lovely harmony line and then joins in on the melody. This very nice arrangement and combination of instruments give a rather different effect than I'm used to hearing on 3/4 marches.

The "Coupit Yowe" set is a trio of tunes written by West, starting with an air written for his wife. It's played on whistles, guitar and fiddle. This pretty air blends nicely into a pair of jigs written for sheep and played on Highland pipes and piano. Another jig set later in the disc combines the smallpipes with the cello, bouzouki and guitar. These jigs are the classic tunes "Scarce o' Tatties" and "The Gold Ring."

The CD contains one song, "A Camilo Jorge." The Spanish lyrics to this song were written in honor of the birth of Carlos Arredondo's son. Arredondo, a Chilean singer living in Scotland, sings and plays guitar for it. This song took a bit of time to grow on me. It's a nice song, but seems a little out of place on an otherwise strongly Scottish album. West plays a set of smallpipes in A for an instrumental break at the track's end. The low whistle and electroharp are also used.

There are two solo Highland pipe tracks, one of which starts with a slow, beautiful air called "Saligo Bay" and written by West. I think of this tune as a short pibroch, given its non-mensural, theme-and-variations structure. It doesn't have some of the common pibroch variations (no dithis, no siubhal, no taorluath, no crunluath), but the pibroch feeling remains and imparts a sense of incredible beauty and peace. This tune makes me want to find Saligo Bay and stay a long, long time.

"Saligo Bay" leads directly into a dance set of strathspeys and reels. "Caber Feidh" and "The Islay Ball" are the strathspeys, "Broadford Bay" and "The Rejected Suitor" are the reels. The first and last of the four tunes are classics, the second and third are a little less frequently heard. These tunes are all well-played and fit together beautifully.

The other solo Highland pipe track is a set of very nice 2/4 marches, "Willie Angus MacDonald of Melness" and "Cleveland Heights". The second is a West original, written when visiting his sister-in-law in Ohio. The first tune was discovered when West was camping in Sutherland, on the croft belonging to the eponymous MacDonald. The march had been written for Willie Angus MacDonald years before, and MacDonald asked West to play it for him into a tape recorder.

The penultimate track is performed by Hugh MacDiarmid's Haircut -- West on Highland pipes, Colin Matheson on guitar and keyboards, Marcos Watt on percussion and Stan Wilson on bass guitar. This is a set of classic jigs: "Hag at the Churn," "Lark in the Morning" and "Old Hag You Have Killed Me."

The final track is a gentle waltz written by West and his wife, called "Last Waltz at the Islay Ball." It is played on low whistle, whistle, fiddle, guitar, piano and cello. This tune is quite successful in evoking the end of a ball, dancers coming together for the final waltz of the evening, a comfortable close to an enjoyable night of dancing.

My one major complaint with this album involves volume balance between instruments. The cello tends to be mixed too low and is consequently overshadowed by other instruments. This is exhibited on the "Kilworth Hills" track. When the melody passes to the cello, the cello's part fades into the background and it almost seems like the smallpipes are sustaining a solo drone. The cello's beautiful harmony line is also too far in the background and risks being lost. However, this is a minor issue when looking at the CD as a whole.

Overall, The Islay Ball is a superb album and it is highly recommended. This album is packed with outstanding music and is not to be missed by fans of piping.

- Rambles
written by Wayne Morrison
published 9 August 2003

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