"Brass Lassie Innovates in a Most Satisfying Way" (album review)
In Scottish tradition, “Lassie” refers to females. But “Brass” Lassie? It’s a band moniker proclaiming a Scots-based music group featuring women musicians and brass in its instrumentation. In live shows and on this first recorded project, the brass lineup includes trumpet, French horn, trombone and bass trombone. Adding the brass to flutes, fiddle and concertina makes Brass Lassie sound different than any other Scottish or Irish band. In the process of delivering a unique musical synthesis, Brass Lassie maintains the high performance standards associated with the leader, Laura MacKenzie.
Even if Brass Lassie presented a traditional instrument lineup, it’s repertoire would still seem more diverse than most. Some of the songs on the CD reference salsa, Caribbean music or jazz. Some listeners getting pretty long in the tooth might feel a vague resemblance to the rock group Chicago.
Including the horns provides a type of firepower you don’t normally hear in Scottish or Irish music. In many pieces on the CD, the horns respond to melodic sequences played by the traditional instruments. However, sometimes it is the other way around. The total listening effect is of musical selections played by instruments playing off each other and there is seemingly a sonic detail every few seconds, keeping the music fresh on the ears.
The CD kicks off with a horn riff. But it only sets the tone for this set of recently-composed reels, as the fiddle soon claims the spotlight. A short distance into the first tune, Laura’s flute takes the lead, and then the second tune in the medley takes over. The second, Taybank Shenanigans has a lovely descending melodic line that contrasts nicely with the first tune in the set. When it is over, you want more.
“More” in this case is a song that references salsamusic. Cut 2, Cuando Me Vaya sounds like what it is, a Scottish/Irish band doing salsa. Reaching out to other genres is something Brass Lassie does frequently and convincingly. For example, the liner notes tell us that The Crown Knot was written as a reel, but that the band swung the melody. This reviewer swears he hears a quote of Lullaby of Birdland during The Crown Knot.
Fause, Fause Hae Ye Been is an example of varied influences combine to create a satisfying listening experience. The piano opens with chords and it sounds like it is going to be they type of broken-hearted jazz melody sung late Saturday night in a bar located in Anyplace, USA. But then comes the Scottish singing. You might realize that the title and lyrics are proclaiming “false have you been.” Even though the singing is in dialect, it fits the mood set by the piano. As a listener you react favorably to the satisfying rendition. If you reflect on the musical items making up the song, you might be surprised and amazed.
Laura MacKenzie would probably blush at being referenced as the brains behind Brass Lassie. But it is she who, in the midst of a Celtic music career centered in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, had the dream about this band. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and it is possible that hearing the Quebecois band La Bottine Souriante had something to do with Laura’s dream. La Bottine Souriante used horns to re-orchestrate Quebecois music a few years back. But adding jazzy horns to traditional music was not new then: Bob Wills did it eighty-plus years ago.
But a dream is just a dream until you roll up your sleeves to make it a reality. And it was Laura who contacted arrangers Peter Enblom and David Milne, lined up the players, sold everyone on the idea, and figured rehearsal times and venues, and how to pay for all of it.
Regardless of where Laura found inspiration, the CD represents a highlight in a lengthy musical career based on executing the highest standards of Irish and Scottish music. Over time, a player amasses a repertoire, learns good ways of presenting songs and tunes, contacts other committed players, and performs in different types of venues.
Through it all, experience playing music raises the levels of players’ performances. The players in Brass Lassie are all veterans of performance and recording. It really shows in the Brass Lassie recording and in performance as well. Every tune or song is delivered crisply. Everyone plays the right notes at the right time. It’s all done on cue, in perfect tune and in perfect time.
Brass Lassie is the result of a life’s work in music. But one hesitates to say that with too much emphasis because Laura is far from done. But it is at least a strong watershed in the musical career of Laura MacKenzie. It represents a great vision, the conception is brilliantly executed, and audiences are left wanting more.
----Phil Nusbaum; Jazz88/KBEM Programmer; Folklorist; Minneapolis/Saint Paul, MN