Reviews of VT144CD 'Merrymaking'
Many moons ago I briefly recommended a CD by Mark Bazeley & Jason Rice entitled Moor Music and declared it: an open window to a music not only "as it was," but more importantly "still is," in the Dartmoor region of Devon. If that CD indeed offered "an open window" through which to hear this tradition, then these two open the door, invite you in and make you a cup of tea! Jason (and Mark) also appear on 'Merrymaking', but the predominant figures are Jack Rice (Jason's grandfather) and his cousin Les Rice, who mainly play mouth organ and concertina respectively. The recordings made between 1981 - 2000, in Chagford, Devon, also feature various other Rice family members. The title, 'Merrymaking', is a reference to the custom of forming free-reed bands (called Merrymakers), for local carnivals and fairs. Consequently, the repertoire and style of performance is unfussy, uncomplicated and undeniably "merry" throughout. With thirty tracks of Polkas, Waltzes, Hornpipes, Jigs, Schottisches, Barn Dances and the like, coupled with comprehensive and booklet notes, 'Merrymaking' is both a fascinating record of local social history and an absolute joy to listen to!
One of the great icons of English country dance music has been Bob Cann of Dartmoor. His playing style and repertoire was a great influence on the revival dance bands starting in the early 1970s. In his latter days he played extensively with his grandson Mark Bazeley. Mark currently enjoys popularity playing with Jason Rice of Chagford. Their superb playing ends the album, but it is where their music comes from that this album sets out to demonstrate. We have all heard it stated that Jason comes from Dartmoor's other great traditional music family, but until the release of this engaging album, access to recordings of the Rice Family has been limited.
Most of the exciting playing amongst the 30 tracks comes from Jason's grandfather, Jack, and Jack's cousin Les when they are playing mouth-organs. They make their small, simple instruments fairly crackle with excitement. They stand out amongst the offerings here, though Les playing step dances on the anglo concertina also packs a punch.
The music seems to have fulfilled a number of functions for village entertainments and dances, carnival marching bands and most interestingly there are a number of local hornpipes that were used for the Dartmoor step dancing.
Sam Richards and Paul Wilson made most of these recordings in the pre-Wren Trust days, providing further evidence of the fine job they have made in trying to make a comprehensive documentation of the singing and playing traditions of the south-west peninsula.
Jason Rice is a West Country accordion player, who has recorded, and regularly performs with Mark Bazeley, and as a member of the Pixie Band. Jason can be heard playing in fine form with Mark on three tracks on this album, and really good they are too, but it is the step dance tunes played by Les Rice and the mouth organ tunes performed by Jack and Les Rice, which really get the adrenalin flowing. Jack Rice is Jason's Grandfather, Les is Jack's cousin and both are really fine and enthusiastic musicians, and had I not been drawn to the power of the mouthorgan as a worthy instrument for performing traditional music by the playing of Will Atkinson, this CD would have converted me. There are thirty tracks in all, mainly hornpipes, jigs and marches, including some short but interesting snatches of tunes. Those who are familiar with the Bob Cann CD 'Proper Job' also from Veteran will have an idea what to expect and I'm sure will wish to add this to their collection, as too will any who have an interest in English Country Music.
This disc contains thirty tracks of dance music from Dartmoor, mostly solo tunes, played primarily on Anglo Concertina and Harmonica. Cousins Jack and Les Rice provide the majority of the music, both excellent step dancers in their day„this collection is testament to their skill as musicians.
Despite the simplicity of the recording - most are solo instrumentals recorded in the 1970s, they capture a vibrancy and life that is captivating. The musicianship captures the verve and bounce of the unseen dancer perfectly. Jack Rice's harmonica playing is consistently edgy, in the best possible way, blending melody and rhythm into something unique, pushing the instrument to its limits and evoking sounds that are reminiscent not only of traditional one row melodeon players but somehow akin to the sound of good blues harp players. Les's Anglo playing is similarly distinctive, and whilst not as complex as say, Scan Tester's playing, there is a tautness to the phrasing that keeps things punchy and individual. The solo concertina tracks are excellent despite their brevity, and I particularly liked "the Monkey Hornpipe".
As seems to be the very welcome norm, Veteran provide very good notes on the tunes and the musicians who played them, establishing both academic and social analyses. The sense of where the tunes fit socially is strongly emphasised both by the notes and by the inherent "danciness" of the playing, but the addition of tracks by the New Merrymakers carnival band gives an additional taster of things.
The emphasis of this being both a community (Chagford, Dartmoor) and a family's music, and of its continuity is provided by the addition of three tracks played by Jason Rice (Jack's grandson) ably joined on two by Mark Bazeley (grandson of Dartmoor legend Bob Cann). Whilst the addition of these tracks here feels a little like an advert for Mark and Jason's own CD ("Moor Music", also on Veteran), they are heartening and well played tracks in their own right, and blend with the earlier material to create a sense of a "whole picture".
This is another excellent release from Veteran. The notes are erudite, yet warm, and the simple energy with which the tunes are played was enough to get me to put down the new Castagnari and start learning tunes on a Hohner one row.
English Dance & Song
Veteran have spread their wings from the niche of East Anglian traditional recordings of yesteryear to this collection of tunes mainly by cousins, Jack and Les Rice from Chagford, Dartmoor in Devon. Les Rice was a renowned step-dancer and anglo-concertina player, said to be a flamboyant gent in his time; his cousin Jack was more the shy retiring type but as demonstrated here was no slouch when it came to playing the mouth organ. It is not possible to comment on every track, so I shall concentrate on the overall feel - definitely a feel good factor.
Most of the recordings were made 20 years ago with a sprinkling of more recent tracks provided by the younger generation - Jason Rice (piano accordion), grandson of Jack Rice and Mark Bazeley (melodeon), grandson of the legendary Bob Cann. Although a few of the earlier recordings suffer from pitch variation, the general effect is of a simply recorded tune up in a Devon pub of say 50 years ago. You could be picky about some of the material - sometimes the mouth organ is played at or beyond its limitations "The Scottish Hornpipe/ The Trumpet Hornpipe", but this in no way detracts from the life, spirit and atmosphere conjured by these "old boys". There are some great bits too - Jack Rice "sounds" like a superb step-dancer, it would have been nice to see him perform - is there a Veteran video? The youngsters, Jason and Mark, also deliver on some fine renditions of dance tunes. As is the style with Veteran, there are extensive historical references and some excellent source notes on the tunes by Phil Heath-Coleman. So, another successful project for Veteran; the journey to the West certainly paid off!
The Living Tradition
Many readers will remember Bob Cann the wonderful melodeon player, caller and step dancer from South Zeal in Dartmoor. You may be aware that he came from a family of traditional musicians and that his grandson Mark Bazeley is continuing that family tradition. However, you may not know that only a few miles away in the village of Chagford, lived the Rice family - in particular, the two cousins Jack and Les. Les was a fine step dancer, who played anglo concertina, whilst Jack was an excellent mouth organ player who also step danced. Although Les's playing may occasionally have been a little erratic, his step dancing was good enough for the EFDSS to book him (with Bob Cann playing) at one of the Royal Albert Hall Folk Proms many years ago. This CD consists of 30 tracks, the majority of which feature either Jack or Les playing solo, a couple of them step dancing and a few where they are joined by other musicians. Also included are three tracks by Jason Rice, Jack's grandson. Jason plays piano accordion and is joined by Mark Bazeley on two of these tracks, and it is good to hear the tradition being continued in their hands.
The tracks featuring Jack and Les Rice all date from the early 1980s - by which time they were probably past their prime! I would love to have seen the two of them step dance - audio recordings of step dancing just aren't the same! As always with Veteran releases, the CD comes with excellent background details. These put the music making into context and show how it changed over the years. Particularly interesting is a section on the origins of the tunes, showing that musicians such as these would constantly adapt their repertoire to the needs of the function, they were providing.
I'm no expert on mouth organ playing, but I find Jack's performance brilliant. In common with other traditional mouth organ players, he manages to maintain the tune whilst vamping, an accompaniment. The resulting sound is very danceable. I feel that performers should listen to as many recordings of source musicians and singers as possible. For dance band musicians these recordings of Jack Rice are an ideal starting place.
The term 'Living Tradition' has been applied to various aspects of folk music on various occasions, but nowhere does it seem more appropriate than in the context of this CD released by Veteran, featuring three generations of the Rice Family from Chagford. By far the majority of the 30 tracks are 'field' recordings of Jack Rice, on mouth organ, and Les Rice, on anglo-concertina, mostly made by Sam Richards in the early 1980's, together with some made by Paul Wilson (who also accompanies Jack on a couple of tracks) and some very recent contributions by Jack's grandson, Jason, and Bob Cann's grandson, Mark. Forget about any misguided concepts of scratchy 78-type 'field recordings' - these all have clear, high quality audio reproduction, both enjoyable to listen to for their musicality and valuable as a sound chronicle of living history'.
Another in Veteran’s ongoing series of releases of traditional music from Dartmoor, Merrymaking follows the earlier release devoted to Bob Cann (Proper Job), this time concentrating on (predominantly early-1980s) recordings from the small and remote town of Chagford, which "fifty years ago would ring to the sound of mouth organ, concertina and accordion music or the rattle of a stepdance board", according to the sleeve note. Two cousins, Jack and Les Rice, who were at the centre of this music-making, perform most of the selections recorded here, either as solo pieces or (less frequently) duets. Audible stepdancing only resounds on two tracks, however, these each featuring one of the cousins. Further cuts contain additional contributions from melodeon players Bob Cann or Jack’s son Gordon, or Bob’s grandson Mark Bazeley, the latter in consort with Jack’s grandson Jason on piano accordion (these two are the stars of Moor Music, reviewed below). Once you’ve worked out the interconnectivity of the musical dynasties thereabouts, you won’t be confused, I promise! Whatever, this album presents a veritable treat of merry music-making which encapsulates the Dartmoor tradition with that characteristic, wonderfully infectious spring in the step that’s very "moorish" (read "moreish"!) – for this listener at any rate.
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