By Scott Williams



Matt MacIsaac: The Piping Album

It was with excited anticipation that I opened the small, padded package that held the new CD by Nova Scotian piper, Matt MacIsaac of St. Peter’s, Cape Breton. I have heard Matt play from the time he was a youngster piping in his first novice juvenile solo competitions in 1991 at venues across the Maritimes and I always enjoyed his spirited and skilful performances. This talented son of Mac and Rosemary MacIsaac of MacIsaac Kiltmakers is the nephew of Allan, Iain and Ken MacKenzie, his mother’s trio of piping brothers from St. Peter’s, and the great grandson of Pipe Major "Black Jack" MacDonald of Soldier’s Cove. Piping is in his blood!

Matt moved up through the amateur grades quickly and by age seventeen was competing for, and winning prizes at the Professional level. In 1997 he travelled to Scotland for the first time, winning prizes in Abernethy, Perth, Crieff, Glenfinnan, Oban and Cowal in the Open Juvenile 17 and Under category. Among his most significant wins were the MacGregor Memorial Piobaireachd Contest held in Oban and the MSR and Piobaireachd events at the Cowal Highland Gathering. Matt was the first Canadian ever to win both of these latter contests in the same year!

These wins gave Matt the eligibility to play in the 1998 Silver Medal Contests in Oban and Inverness. He won the Argyllshire Gathering’s Silver Medal contest with a powerful performance of the tune, ‘All the Men Paid Rent But Rory’ and at the Northern Meeting in Inverness, he came a very close second to his friend and teacher, Bruce Gandy, then of PEI but now of Dartmouth.

Just when it seemed that Matt would have a very bright future as a major league competitive solo piper, he changed into the fast lane and began touring with internationally renowned fiddle sensation, Natalie MacMaster. Now don’t get me wrong – I love Natalie’s music! But so many pipers playing with Cape Breton folk and Celtic rock groups these days seem to want to play fiddle-style music on their bagpipes! In an era when it seems that good quality solo piping has taken the back seat to a much faster and rounder style of "kitschen" piping, Matt has come through with a program of excellent bagpipe music that re-establishes the recording of the lone piper as a significant musical format. He never forgot his excellent training and his first solo CD, "Matt MacIsaac: The Piping Album" confirms that. He gives up nothing for speed and flash in this album. It is all there – a varied program of interesting and entertaining tunes played at reasonable tempos on an excellent instrument with carefully thought out musical expression and the intricately crafted embellishments that make bagpipe music so very distinctive.

Matt opens with one of my personal favourites, Pipe Major William Lawrie’s tune "John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage", followed by Rod Campbell’s intricate and exciting strathspey, "Tulloch Castle" and the lively traditional reel, "Sandy Cameron". This MSR set is an excellent example of the type of music that won Matt such high praise on the competition platforms at home and abroad. On Track 2 he settles things down a bit with three excellent and stately 6/8 marches, "Jean Mauchline" by Pipe Major Williams Bryson, "Fairview Cottage" by T. Green, and G.S. MacLennan’s "Major John MacLennan".

Just when you are leaning back in your LazyBoy chair and resting comfortably with a cup of tea or a tumbler of Scotch in your hand, Matt hits you with a dynamic performance of Donald MacLeod’s famous hornpipe, "Dr. MacInnes’ Fancy" followed by his own composition, "Lynn Sutherland" and his own unique arrangement of "The Drunken Landlady". With your toes still tapping away, he then takes you through a set of jigs – his own arrangements of the traditional tunes "The Snuffwife" and "The Geese In The Bog", followed by George Johnstone’s "Donella Beaton". These are tunes to stir the blood and Matt’s performance is nothing short of ‘brilliant’ as they say in Scotland.

On Track 5, you are treated to a set of superbly played strathspeys and reels. It is in this set, perhaps, and the one that follows it that you might notice the influence that the late Pipe Major Donald MacLeod’s music has had on Matt. The opening tune is the strathspey version of the traditional march, "Caber Feidh", followed by Donald MacLeod’s strathspey, "Susan MacLeod", Peter MacLeod’s reel, "Major David Manson" and Donald MacLeod’s reel, "Roderick MacDonald". Then it’s back to more hornpipes – "Pipe Major George Allan" by Donald MacLeod, and "The Golden Wreath".

Just to allow the listener another moment to catch a much-needed breath or two, Matt slows down with a set of beautifully played retreat marches. Allan MacDonald of Glenuig, brother to one of Matt’s teachers, Dr. Angus MacDonald, composed the lead tune, "Pipe Major Angus MacDonald". J.P. MacLeod’s, "Far Over Struy", the traditional "Jimmy Findlater" and John MacDonald’s "The Sands of Loch Bee" follow. The penultimate track leads off with an unnamed Gaelic air followed by a rollicking set of jigs that includes Donald MacLeod’s "The Old Woman’s Dance" and Matt’s own composition, "The Firedrill". Matt finishes up his exciting program of music with the jig set, "Rocking The Baby", his own tune "Victoria Road" and his own arrangement of "The Mason’s Apron".

For those who really enjoy good quality bagpipe music, in its purest form unencumbered by extraneous accompaniment, this is a CD that belongs in your collection and we can only hope that it is the first of many from this very talented young Cape Breton piper.