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Celtic-jazz fusion from 'Baby Barras'

By Ron Foley - The Daily News

Slainte Mhath’s The Prophecy may be the most exciting debut album to emerge from the East Coast in 1996. It's an auspicious outing that also marks the 10th anniversary of the first Barra MacNeils album. It's no coincidence. To industry insiders, Slainte Mhath is affectionately known as The Baby Barras; Ryan and Boyd MacNeil are indeed the Barra's younger siblings.

The excitement building around Slainte Mhath's initial release comes less from family connections and more from the group's intriguing, and often spectacular, merging of Celtic and freer musical forms. These four young (average age 18) musicians tempered their traditional backgrounds with musical studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. They bridged the gap between the region's cultural heritage and North America's one great contribution to world culture - jazz.

While legends such as Van Morrison have been toying with the Celtic jazz thing for years, Slainte Mhath dives right in on its first album with a stunning sense of confidence. No doubt the band members' talents were cultivated in the hothouse atmosphere of a thousand kitchen parties, the same informal celebrations that tempered Ashley MacIsaac and The Rankins. Rather than pursue a fusion of popular forms such as Maclsaac has with dance or The Rankins have with country and pop, Slainte Mhath has embarked on a more adventurous journey. It is striving to create a sound that could take East Coast music to a place it's never been.

While The Prophecy seems conservative, a few close listens reveal subtle arrangements buried in the mix. Fans of the Cape Breton fiddle will not be disappointed. The twin violins of Breagh MacDonald and Boyd MacNeil power the mostly traditional tunes along nicely. Further listening reveals it is Ryan MacNeil's deliberate keyboard work that sets the sound apart. Playing sometimes like Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis's classic mid-'60s quintet, Ryan's accompaniment manages to be propulsive and textured.

Bruce MacPhee's Highland bagpipes and Scottish smallpipes provide a contrasting lead sound. Just as jazz melodies are stated and then improvised by trumpet and then, say, a saxophone, Slainte Mhath applies the jazz form to traditional content. The result can be breathtaking. On the second cut, The Jenga Stick, the group stutters over a repeated bowed violin figure, bouncing a plucked fiddle against MacPhee's other-worldly smallpipes. It's a strikingly original sound that lasts just long enough for the group to rip into the well-known reel Rakish Paddy. Turlough O'Carolan's Air, Si Bheag, Si Mhor offers a more delicate and lyrical side of the group. The dignified melody gets a lush string backing, letting itself be carried by Ryan's determined keyboards.

The most forward-looking selections are the opening and closing numbers. The final set of tunes, aptly entitled The Last One, begins with burbling Latin percussion that's joined by a descending bass line before the reels kick in. Ryan MacNeil and Bruce MacPhee's title song is the most intriguing piece. Featuring layered, Enya-like textures leading into forceful, traditional-sounding melodies, it displays the group's developing compositional abilities.

Slainte Mhath, along with Scott Macmillan, represent the progressive edge of East Coast music that's breaking new ground between traditional, jazz and classical forms.


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