Andy Bruce & The Rigidly Righteous
The Midge

(Brokken Records)

An album that sounds quite fresh and captivating, featuring music that's intellectually stimulating while being surprisingly accessible at the same time, The Midge was for this writer a very nice surprise for many reasons, starting with its cover: colourful and light, cartoon-like, the featured artwork by Richard van der Ven reminded me of how dull and lifeless most CDs I happen to see nowadays look (to me).

The second source of surprise was for me the line-up: all names I don't think I've ever heard before, an ensemble whose instrumentation was quite peculiar indeed. Here they are: Andy Bruce, trombone, vocals; Hermine Deurloo, chromatic harmonica, soprano saxophone; Frans Cornelissen; tuba; Martin Fondse, keyboards, melodica, flute; Sander Hop, guitar; Alan Purves, drums, percussion.

At first, some things about the music appearing on this CD that I happened to read in the accompanying leaflet looked to me like the perfect recipe for a potential disaster: a mixture of jazz, improvisation, and traditional Scottish music, you say? I feared the worst, i.e., bagpipes a go-go supported by fusion drums and bass. But the third surprise here was how successful the final result really is.

I was also confronted with the psychological obstacle of seeing the name Robert Burns ('cause it was he who originally wrote three songs featured here, arranged by Andy Bruce), the only thing I knew about him being his being mentioned by Ian Anderson in the course of the chat preceding One Brown Mouse, on the live Jethro Tull album, Bursting Out. I'm lucky Wikipedia exists.

Listening to The Midge told me that group leader Andy Bruce is a good composer: while it's easy to see that Scottish popular music is the basis and inspiration of this work, it's also true that one never hears unpleasant "jumps" between the themes and their (elastic) development, which will have listeners still being surprised after more than a few listening sessions. But, having this album as my only starting point, I'd say Bruce is maybe even better as an arranger: check the way he balances the different "weights" of the sound sources; the skillful way he uses the timbre of the harmonica; of a soprano sax which sometimes sounds as if it's made of wood, like a clarinet; of a trombone played with a plunger, and so sounding at times quite similar to a cornet; there's also a fine use of keyboards, though they are never at the forefront: a grand piano; an electric piano that, from its response to touch, to me sounds like a Fender Rhodes; an organ that to me sounds just like an old Farfisa.

All this would be meaningless without excellent musicians at one's disposal (by the way: Bruce and Purves are Scots; the others, Dutch - a circumstance that goes a long way in explaining the presence of stylistic traits that will sound familiar to a trained ear). They're all good players, but here I'd like to mention Frans Cornelissen and Sander Hop, precisely because it's their work that, to me, sounds like the one more likely to go unnoticed: the former is excellent both in his supporting "bass" role than when soloing; while I think it's the latter (also credited on the cover with "additional recordings", mix, and co-production) who can be held responsible for those "modern" sonic colours (such as the tuba sounding as it's being filtered through a plug-in; some almost "ambient" whispers; and high sounds that seem to come from the use of a Theremin) that in the end make this album so different from what one maybe would expect it to sound.

The opening title track is brief and lively, with many instrumental voices, then it's a "marching band" tempo, the ensemble here featuring harmonica, tuba, trombone, drums, and piano, the electric guitar being very uninhibited.

With its lazy, funny opening, The Bubblyjock has the trombone with plunger, lotsa swing, the Farfisa, the soprano as clarinet, a fine tuba solo with nice backing by piano and drums (listen to the snare), good "comping" from the guitar.

Arranged by Bruce, the traditional The Four Marys is the only vocal track on the album. A melody one can easily transpose for bagpipe, with fine arpeggio guitar as backing, a noteworthy instrumental intermezzo by a "Scottish-sounding" melodica. The musical box at the end is a nice touch that doesn't sound obvious.

As Honest Jacob is a Robert Burns composition arranged by Bruce. It has a "swing" start, a theme played unison by harmonica and trombone, a fine development, a good guitar solo with echo and wha-wha that for a moment reminded me of Gary Green (!), with a nice backing by the Fender piano.

Use Jenobo starts as a "Renaissance-like" quartet. It sports a "classic" (but not "predictable") development, and a theme for soprano, tuba, and trombone, plus "Artic wind" and phased cymbals. There's a tuba solo, with backing by the Fender, nice counterpoint from the soprano, and a good performance from the guitar. Then it's the trombone/soprano theme, then it's back to the "Renaissance-like" quartet.

Penned by Robert Burns, Awa' Wi Yer Witchcraft has a folk melody one can easily picture played on accordion or bagpipe. Here the lead instrument is the harmonica, with unison by trombone. A nice surprise, there's an "almost-Brazilian" atmosphere that appears quite naturally, with a trombone solo that reminded me a bit of Bruce Fowler. Then it's back to the theme, and stop.

Pass The Parcel has a sad melody that to me sounded as not too far from certain arias penned by Wayne Horvitz, circa The President's Miracle Mile. I almost thought I was hearing a Theremin, there's an "African" flute with lotsa echo, a melody played unison by harmonica and trombone. Also percussion with reverb, tuba.

It's back to Robert Burns with the very fine Thou Hast Left Me Ever, Jamie. It starts with arpeggio guitar with echo, backing by the Fender Rhodes, then there's a theme by unison harmonica and trombone. It's a sad-sounding song, with an appropriate harmonica solo with intelligent backing (I especially liked the high-hat).

Trombone with plunger, tuba, soprano sax la Lacy, "jazz" piano, drums, all appear on Where Haggis Safely Graze. There's a very "cool" soprano, and a skillful relationship between soprano and piano. Then it's a "... and 1, 2, 3!", leading us to...

Haggis Hunt, the last track on the album: lively, with fine solos by harmonica, trombone, Fender piano (with good backing from the drums), guitar, the tuba playing a bass part.

Penned by Sander Hop, Requiem For A Midge takes the album to its real close. There's a pedal by winds and guitar, a descending phrase, guitar with echo, then it's the tuba.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010 | Jan. 31, 2010