Between tradition and a jazzy soul

Special to The Times

Natalie MacMaster is a revelation to anyone who sees the Cape Breton fiddler in action for the first time. Slender and nimble, ever in motion, blond hair flying, she rips off her traditional licks with an effervescent enthusiasm. And when she combines her fiddle playing -- usually at the climax of her performances -- with a flashing set of step dancing moves, there is an understandable burst of cheers and applause.

Her recordings obviously don't produce quite that sort of result. But in her albums MacMaster has had to face a question that doesn't always arise in the excitement of her live performances: how to balance her traditional roots with the obvious desire of her audience to hear her stretch into areas beyond the jigs and reels of Cape Breton music.

MacMaster has responded by alternating albums, switching from traditional efforts such as "My Roots Are Showing" to the mixed bag of the recently released "Blueprint" (Rounder Records). In the latter, recorded in Nashville, she is joined by an all-star contingent of bluegrass players, including banjo players Bela Fleck and Alison Brown, mandolinist Sam Bush, singer John Cowan, bassist Edgar Meyer and dobro player Jerry Douglas.

That's major-league firepower by any definition, and MacMaster responded to their presence by putting together, with the assistance of co-producer Darol Anger, a collection of material reaching from her traditional roots to a touch of jazz and a taste of soul.

Improvisation is not an essential of the Cape Breton style. And MacMaster, for all her virtuosity, is at her best working with variations in sound and phrasing rather than full-fledged melodic invention. But that's not a negative, especially in pieces in which her firm hold on the melody provides a pillar of stability for improvisational free flights by her all-star musical associates.

Some high points: Meyer's jaunty arco bass playing, countered by MacMaster's slashing fiddle lines, on "Minnie & Alex's Reel." An Anger original, "Gravel Shore," a brisk bluegrass-out- of-western-swing number, and Fleck's "Bela's Tune" -- selections in which everyone gets a chance to stretch out improvisationally. A curious medley, "Devil and the Dirk," kicks off with a distinctly klezmer-like quality.

MacMaster's lyrical way with a melody surfaces on a pair of l ballads, "Eternal Friendship" and "Johsefin's Waltz." And in a final bow to the familial associations that are so important to Cape Breton musicians, the album concludes with "My Love, Cape Breton and Me," composed by pianist Bob Quinn and sung for MacMaster's wedding last year by her cousin Kate Quinn.

Vitality, diversity across the hemispheres

Other recommended current world music recordings.

Mafalda Arnauth

"Encantamento" (Narada World)

The spotlight in the new generation of young Portuguese fado singers has largely been dominated lately by Mariza and Cristina Branco. But this first U.S. release by the little-known (in this country) Arnauth makes an immediate demand for attention. Blessed with a rich, velvety sound and subtly nuanced phrasing, the 29-year-old singer interprets traditional fado material from a consistently fresh perspective. Further enhancing her breakout potential, she has written several impressive original works and produced the album as a precise reflection of her imaginative musical views.

Babatunde Olatunji

"Healing Session: Traditional African Meditation Music" (Narada World)

The great Nigerian percussionist -- whose "Drums of Passion," released in 1959, sold more than 5 million copies -- died earlier this year at age 76. Olatunji's multifaceted career reached from involvement in the civil rights movement of the '60s and performances with the Grateful Dead to numerous compositions (including scores for the stage and film versions of "Raisin in the Sun") and a role as an educator. This first posthumous release (recorded in 1992) includes key members of his Drums of Passion ensemble. The music, based on traditional Yoruban chants, takes a while to achieve its meditative qualities. But once it does, it's easy to understand its potential healing powers.


"Teada" (Green Linnet)

The Irish ensemble was chosen the best traditional newcomers of 2003 in the Irish Music Magazine readers' poll. And it's not hard to understand why. Despite their youth (all four members are in their 20s), the group's repertoire focuses on the entire historical range of Irish music, with some of the selections on this U.S. debut album reaching to the 19th century. Performing with great articulateness and captivating musicality, Teada is led by the crystal-clear fiddle playing and deeply affecting vocals of Oisin Mac Diarmada.

Various artists

"Chill: Brazil2" (Warner Strategic Marketing)

The second two-CD installment in single-named singer-songwriter Joyce's compilation of classic bossa nova-related items from the Warner Brazil archives. Like the first, the lineup includes plenty of familiar items -- Joao Gilberto's "Triste" and " 'S Wonderful," Gilberto Gil's "Febril" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Samba de Uma Nota So" among them. But there are other, intriguingly offbeat entries, as well: Osmar Milito's odd rendering of Jimmy Webb's "Up, Up and Away"; Jorge Ben singing "Mais Que Nada"; Hermeto Pascoal's edgy, jazz-driven "Suite Norte Sul Leste Oeste." Convincing evidence, in other words, of the vitality and diversity ever present in the music of Brazil.

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