PETE COOPER AND RICHARD BOLTON – Burning Bright (Wild Goose Records – WGS445CD)

Burning BrightI do like an album on which the tracks all have interesting stories behind them, and Burning Bright by Pete Cooper and Richard Bolton, is just such an album. This is the fourth album that fiddle legend Pete and multi-instrumentalist Richard have made, during a quarter of a century working together. As with previous albums, Burning Bright is rooted in British folk, but there’s much more besides. As well as traditional British tunes, from various source fiddlers, there’s dance music from around the World, classical, jazz, vaudeville, and Brazilian choro music. And if you’re wondering about the album title, there’s some William Blake too.

On Burning Bright, Pete plays fiddles and sings the two vocal tracks. Richard supplies the harmony vocals, and plays guitar, cello, and a seven-string guitar that he’s taken up for Brazilian choro music. They’re joined by Ralph Mizraki with percussion, and also double bass on one track.

We start in Somerset. More particularly, the Shepton Mallet Workhouse, where Cecil Sharp collected two tunes from octogenarian Gypsy fiddler James Higgins. ‘Shepton Mallet Hornpipe’ and ‘Radstock Jig’ are two very English dance tunes, played on fiddle, with accompaniment on guitar and cello.

The opening of the second track has an unmistakeably Scottish feel. ‘Farewell To The Dene’ is a Strathspey – a type of reel originating in the Spey Valley – although this one comes from Northeast England. Willie Taylor was a Northumbrian shepherd, a leading fiddler in the Northumbria-Border style, and composer of both tunes on this track. ‘Farewell to the Dene’ is followed by a lively reel called ‘The Pearl Wedding.’ Together they give the track its name, ‘Dene And Pearl.’

The following track has another Strathspey, but it opens with ‘Collsfield House,’ composed by Natheniel Gow, son of the better known Niel Gow. It’s a refined, stately tune, played on fiddle and cello, which brings to mind the balls in grand houses that we’ve seen in many a costume drama. The tempo quickens with ‘Cropie’s Strathspey,’ composed in the eighteenth century by Alexander Givan, of Kelso in the Scottish Borders.

A melancholy Balkan guitar opening to the next track, heralds the first trip overseas. The set opens with ‘Bavno Pomashko,’ a traditional Macedonian tune. The tempo picks up as the fiddle and percussion join in, but it retains a sombre feel. By contrast, it’s followed by ‘Three Ruchenitsas,’ – Bulgarian handkerchief dance tunes – which lift the tempo.

The first of two vocal tracks follows, a setting by Dave Arthur of William Blake’s Poem ‘London.’ It might have been published 230 years ago, but the words retain their emotional power.

 In every cry of every man
In every infant’s cry of fear
In every voice: in every ban
The mind forg’d manacles I hear

I remember being disappointed to learn the phrase that so hauntingly evokes internalised oppression, ‘Mind forged manacles,’ wasn’t in the original draft. It replaced ‘German forged Links,’ when that was judged to be dangerously seditious in Georgian London. Perhaps I should have just been pleased that the definitive version is so much better.

This setting was written for a fundraiser to put a memorial stone on Blake’s unmarked grave. It’s beautifully sung by Pete, while Richard’s cello provides perfect accompaniment. A lovely track.

After the plaintiveness of ‘London,’ come two lively English dances. The first ‘William Pitt’ comes from the manuscript on nineteenth century Yorkshire fiddler Lawrence Leadley. The title might refer to William Pitt the Younger. The second tune is another traditional reel, ‘Willie is a Bonny Lad.’ As on other tracks, the combination of fiddle and cello gives this, for me, a very eighteenth century feel.

Richard’s composition ‘Acton Township’ follows. The name comes from a London station and the tune celebrates South African jazz legend Abdullah Ibrahim, a leading exponent of the Cape Jazz sub-genre. Richard’s seven-string guitar is prominent here. Sounding almost like a kora, is sets up an African vibe that continues throughout this joyful tune.

To Poland next, for a set of ‘Mountain Brigands’ Dances.’ These dances, from Southeast Poland, were traditionally performed on fiddles and a local type of three-stringed cello. Fiddle and conventional cello are used here. The dances are performed by men waving long sticks. That might sound like Morrise dance, apart from that the Brigands’ sticks are topped with steel axe heads.

A vaudeville number follows. ‘Willie the Weeper’ was written by singer, guitarist, and journalist William Ernest Rogers, who first recorded it in 1925. This has a real prohibition era feel, with some Central European touches that are often heard in American stage music. The title character is a chimney sweep, with a bad dope habit. Stoned one day, he dreams of fabulous adventures in exotic places. Then, just as his amorous desires are about to be satisfied – the dope wears off. This is good fun.

Two Derbyshire tunes, from the eighteenth century Ashover Manuscript provide the last blast of English dance music. ‘Harper’s Frolic,’ is suitably frolicsome. ‘Bonnie Kate’ is gentler but retains the cheerful feel.

There have been plenty of classical arrangements of folk music, but the next track is a folk setting of a classical piece. ‘Fiocco’s Allegro,’ was written by eighteenth century composer and church musician Joseph-Hector Fiocco. It’s another refined tune, but with a sense of fun. The fiddle leads, but the guitar accompaniment provides an extra dimension and adds some pizzazz.

A good bit of toe-tapping, American old time fiddle music follows. ‘Cuffey’ is a traditional tune, taking its title from a name commonly given to male slaves, and collected in Virginia. Here, it’s given  bluegrass treatment with guitar, fiddle, and double bass.

Burning Bright ends with a classic Brazilian choro tune, ‘Tico-Tico no Fuba.’ Appropriately the seven-string guitar leads off this infectious tune, composed by Brazilian composer Zequinha de Abreu in 1917. It’s one of those tunes you’ll probably recognise, without necessarily knowing what it is, and it provides an upbeat conclusion to the album.

Burning Bright is a lovely album. The eclectic mix of material covers an impressive range of styles, locations, and emotions. The arrangements by Pete, Richard, and on two tracks Raph Mizraki, are intelligent and well-constructed. This is an unpretentious album. Just highly accomplished and talented musicians, playing music they love on a range of instruments. It might be limited in its appeal and could be seen as one for serious lovers of folk and roots music. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Graham Brown

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A taste of Burning Bright:

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