David Granville reviews First Things First, Ailie Robertson, Lorimer Records LORRCD1
THE DRAW of traditional music is simply overwhelming for some people. The young Scottish harpist Ailie Robertson is one such person.
Brought up in Edinburgh, Robertson began playing the clarsach (Scottish Gaelic for harp) when she was eleven years old. However, with a first-class honours degree in genetics from Cambridge University, it looked as if her future, professionally at least, was in a different direction.
A music scholarship from the English Speaking Union, in recognition of her virtuoso harp playing', changed all that. She moved to Limerick and took the Irish Music Performance course at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, graduating with a first-class MA in 2006.
A four-time National Mod (Am Mòd Nàiseanta Rìoghail) gold medallist and a BBC Radio Scotland Young Musician of the Year finalist in 2008, she also won first prize at the inaugural London Harp Competition, was judged best overall musician at the Edinburgh Competition Festival and won the St Albans New Roots award. Not bad for someone approaching their mid-twenties.
In short, her brilliance and virtuoso ability is beyond question. But what makes her such a rare talent, to be treasured, is the flair and creativity which she brings to her instrument and the traditional genre.
By putting the harp alongside a line-up of guitar, bass, percussion and piano on her debut album, First Things First, she demonstrates that the instrument can stand up for itself as a powerful and driving force within an ensemble setting as well as being one of with the capacity to express great delicacy and subtlety.
Contemporary jigs, slow-airs, polkas, slip-jigs, traditional Irish reels are all here, but with a freshness and vibrancy that will make your spine tingle and your feet tap.
Throughout, Robertson is more than ably assisted Paul Jennings (percussion), Duncan Lyall (bass), Ewan Robertson (guitar) and James Ross (piano). Produced by Mary-Ann Kennedy, the album was recorded at Watercolour Music in Ardgour.
This is an outstanding debut album and reminds me of what traditional bluegrass banjoist Alison Brown achieved when she began to explore the possibilities of the banjo as a lead instrument within a jazz setting - or what Sharon Shannon, with the accordion, or Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, with fiddle and guitar, have created from within the traditional Irish music idiom.
The leading Irish flautist Niall Keegan perhaps puts it better: "Ailie's synthesis of Irish, Scottish and contemporary harping technique into an individual style represents the realisation of otherwise unimagined possibilities for the Celtic harp."
First Things First is a musical masterpiece and an absolute delight on the ear.
Ailie Robertson's debut album is available in the UK from Copperplate Distribution
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2009 David Granville