By Scott Williams


Nine Blasted Notes by Michael Grey

I have four CDs in my collection that feature the bagpipe music of well-known Canadian musician, Michael Grey. The earliest was "An Evening of Champions" recorded in 1991 with four other pipers as a fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society. It was pretty straightforward – marches, strathspeys, reels, slow air, hornpipe and jigs - the usual bill of fare for a solo piping recording. The second was "The Composer’s Series, Volume 1", which Michael recorded for Lismore in 1992. As the title suggests, ithe tunes were his own music and they had a wide appeal. The proof of that is the fact that 35 pipe bands at the World Championships in 1990 played 41 of his tunes, just one year after the release of his first published collection of music! Jump ahead to 1997 and his CD "Cuts From the Traditional Cloth", which examined new possibilities for mixing the Great Highland Bagpipe with other instruments, and that takes you to "Shambolica" released in 2001 which widened the field even more as Michael explored the use of the bagpipe as a voice in a whole new array of musical styles and tastes.

To quote Michael’s press releases, his new recording, "Nine Blasted Notes", released in October 2003 has taken "Scottish bagpiping to unfamiliar heights by melding the sweet sound of Scottish pipes with everything from techno-pop, to mainstream jazz, to traditional Iraqi folk". Well, when I played the CD for the first time, the music was certainly unfamiliar! Did it rise to the heights? I wasn’t sure. I was disappointed, actually. It seemed to me that the bagpipe was taking a backseat to voices and other instruments. Was Michael the featured performer on this CD or a backup musician? I thought that it would be very unlikely that this CD would get much play time in my home.

Knowing Michael, however, and believing him to be an extremely talented musician and composer, I could not limit my exposure to simply one listen. It remained on the player over the next two weeks and after a while I found myself turning it on almost automatically every time I arrived home. As I listened, and became familiar with the music, Michael’s marvellous piping and Bryan Greenwood’s startlingly unique arrangements grew on me and lately I’ve been playing my favourite cuts for anyone who comes to visit. And that has been getting harder to do, as more and more of the cuts are becoming my favourites!

The CD opens with a solo bagpipe playing an upbeat arrangement of Michael’s hornpipe, "John Cairns Double" – a reference to John’s Gold Medals from Oban and Inverness, both won in the same year, making him the eleventh person in history and the first Canadian ever to do this. By the end of the first part of the tune, however, a drum kit has picked up the beat, then synthesized accompaniment, and horns which gave the tune a very strong off-beat pulse, a fast, driving intro to be sure. In Track 2, I loved the soundscape of Glasgow’s Central train station. The slow acceleration of the ‘train’ produced by the accompanying instruments builds the excitement until the bagpipe enters. A hornpipe carries you along the Scottish countryside, and the pace seems to settle into a slow driving rhythm.

When I first listened to Track 3, "End of the Road", I thought Sir Harry Lauder might turn over in his grave! What had they done to his song? Well, you should hear what they’ve done to it! With the pipes backing her up, vocalist Paula Lynn Walker presents a masterful reworking of this old concert hall favourite that rapidly became one of my best-loved selections from the CD. The pace changes again in Track 4 – St. Cyrus. Michael’s slow air backed up by acoustic drums, cymbals, church bells, an organ and tympani is heartrending as he commands you to see in your mind’s eye a small church on the east coast of Scotland, with high cliffs, long white beaches, and crashing waves.

Track 5 is definitely my favourite, honestly! The acappella choral treatment of "MacCrimmon Will Never Return" caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand straight up! What amazes me is the magic of modern recording techniques that can make three voices sound like a full chorus of the very finest quality! There is a slow passage, then the drums pick things up a bit and, as the excitement rises, the pipes burst in with a rousing reel supported by Iain MacInnes’ whistle. What a masterpiece this track is! I’ve often bought a music book to get one new tune. This track alone is worth the price of the CD!

Michael has chosen to place the title track in the middle of his CD. "Nine Blasted Notes" is presented in a manner that was inspired by Iraqi dance music and the acoustic percussion on this track is terrific! Track 7 features Iain MacInnes playing a jig on the Scottish small pipes with lots of stuff worked into the background. I was especially pleased to hear a bit of Gaelic sung by Glenna MacKay-Johnstone, the daughter of Reay MacKay and a great piper in her own right. The children’s rhyme "One Crow Sorrow, Two Crows Mirth" is a chant in the background as the selection makes a transition to Highland pipes and the whole thing finishes up with a wonderful jig. Michael says this track was a blast to record. Well, it is also a blast to listen to!

Track 8 features vocals by Lorraine Lawson, with whistles, violins, cellos… "an eclectic mix of old and new world sounds". The song is "Again Rejoicing", a lesser known poem by the immortal bard, Robbie Burns but this presentation should soon make it a favourite at Burns’ suppers everywhere! The dominant feature of Track 9 – "L’Estrie" – is the acoustic percussion. There is a chant that is reminiscent of the market places of Algiers and the whole thing is performed in a minor key, which makes it mesmeric, almost hypnotic.

Don’t be fooled by the penultimate track – it starts off with a solo bagpipe and you think, ah, at last, ‘regular’ bagpipe music! But these excellent strathspeys are not unaccompanied for long and by the time Michael hits the reel "Yellowknife Thea" –surely named for Thea Gillis of North Sydney, Cape Breton who went out to Yellowknife to teach school – drums, keyboard, etc. have been added and the piece is one of the most energizing.

The CD ends with a dance remix which starts off with Paula Lynn Walker singing "End of the Road" who is soon joined by Michael playing "Anne Spalding’s Hornpipe" – a lively end to a fascinating CD. So, did I end up liking it? You bet! Michael Grey’s CD can be obtained wherever piping supplies and music are sold, or by contacting Malcolm Bow, Dunbar Music, (905) 627-8141, or for more information.