Kathryn Tickell’s Debateable Lands 

46Ed Dale penned this review.

This is such a delightful album. Kathryn Tickell is an outright whiz on the Northumbrian pipes, and a fine fiddle player to boot. Debateable Lands, her seventh album, demonstrates her prodigious talents as an instrumentalist, composer, and arranger of individual tunes, sets and the overall flow of the album.

This is a purely instrumental album that highlights the Northumbrian pipes — a gorgeous and under-utilized instrument. This is the only set of pipes you would ever want to share a small room with: quiet and melodious compared to its somewhat shrill and overpowering cousins. At times, it could pass for a pipe organ. The album is also unusual in its mix of instruments: all reeds and strings. The band includes Kit Haigh on guitar, Gregor Borland on fiddle, viola and bass, and Julian Sutton on melodeon. This is their first recording with Tickell.

The melodeon in particular adds to the smoothness of this work. The playing throughout is robust, clean, and not overproduced. What you find here is not noticeably different from what you would hear in a live performance. Most striking, however, is the ever-changing variety within each tune. It’s like fine chamber music in this regard. No one is ever merely accompanying the tunes. Each voice brings its own lyric and purpose; and each merits listening to.

Though most of the tunes are recently composed, primarily by Tickell, the overall sound is clearly rooted in, but not strictly bound by, the traditional music of northeast England. Most of the eleven tracks are composed of two or more tunes and often shift rhythmically along the way. The opening set, for example, starts with “The Wedding,” a syncopated hornpipe that eventually changes into a traditional reel. The second set opens with “Our Kate,” a slow air that converts into a sprightly reel, “The Welcome Home.” The transitions are uniformly well executed. They get your attention without being jarring.

“In Dispraise of Whiskey” — a rare sentiment in the tradition — is a slow piece that showcases Tickell’s fiddle playing. It starts off with fiddle and guitar, then glides into twin fiddles before turning another rhythmic twist with the melodeon kicking off “Swig Jig,” a Sutton composition that takes a decidedly different view of “the drop.”

The next journey also starts off slowly with a string trio of fiddle, viola and cello on the very stately “Road to the North.” Then Haigh takes an intricate filigree solo excursion with a reel of his own composition, “Hanging Bridge,” before being joined by fiddle and viola. That crossed, Sutton’s melodeon takes us aboard a sprightly jig, “All at Sea,” with the rest of the band joining in with a variety of rhythmic accents frolicking along under the pipes’ lead.

“The Return” is an exquisite pipe and cello duet with the pipes carrying the melody while guest artist Ron Shaw provides harmony and counterpoint of ever-increasing complexity.

A standard Irish jig, “Kilfenora,” is one of the few non-Northumbrian tunes on the disc. The melodeon starts it off slowly, then shares the lead with the pipes before shifting to “My laddie site over late up,” a formidably twisted and challenging jig.

“Dunstanburgh” is a slow and haunting air with a guitar introduction; this combines with fiddle and melodeon providing harmony. It is matched with “Kathryn’s Favourite,” a jig featuring melodeon and labyrinthine guitar.

Pipes provide the lead on a three-tune set that starts with a waltz, “The Magpie,” then melds into two jigs: “Rothbury Road” — evidently a very scenic stretch — and the quirky “Cold Shoulder.” Phil Cunningham’s “Hut on Staffen Island” features twin fiddles and guitar before switching to “Random,” a lighthearted jig.

“Stories from the Debatable Lands” is Tickell’s poignant musical rendering through five tunes of the history of the Debateable Lands, a few square miles of land claimed or disclaimed, depending on the circumstances, by both England and Scotland. “Debateable Lands,” a mournful minor key waltz, sets the stage and the feel for a place where there is little joy. “Lawless” is a dark, fast, and swirling staccato piece that invokes the dangers of a land out of control. Melodeon and fiddle trade leads on “Debateable Jig” while twin fiddles carry “Armstrongs Schottische” into the closing tune, “Armstrongs Reel,” the most rocked-out piece on the album, where Borland gets to cut loose a bit on the bass.

The concluding composition reprises “Our Kate,” this time pairing Kathryn’s Northumbrian pipes with Troy Donockley’s Uilleann pipes: a surprisingly amicable blend. Nick Holland provides a tasteful piano accompaniment.

In sum, 58 minutes of pure listening pleasure. The lands may be debateable, but not the music or the musicians.

(Park Records, 2000)

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