Reuniting for their second album, Rachel Hair’s vivacious clarsach and Ron Jappy’s vivid acoustic guitar make an attractive pairing in an album that plays with tradition but never loses respect for the old tunes.
Recorded at Glasgow’s Oak Ridge Studios, Élan is a delicate and utterly gratifying treat. Taking inspiration from the French word for “energy, style and enthusiasm”, ensuring the pair take a humorous approach to the Auld Alliance, the album follows their duet debut, 2019’s Sparks, building on the duo’s six years together and further developing their intimate bright sound.
As Jappy notes: “Although Élan looks and sounds like a Gaelic word, it’s actually an old French word that has been used in the English language since the 19th century. We feel its meaning really describes how we both are as performers and our approach to life. We love being on stage, we love being on tour and meeting people, and we can’t wait to do that again with our new album.”
Élan is an album guaranteed to raise a smile. It is a joyful, teasing, and spirited recording with a healthy respect for tradition but a respect that allows the tunes to live and breathe. There’s a nice mix of traditional tunes alongside some newly composed pieces here. Hair’s ‘The Transatlantic Proposal‘ opens the album with a playful set of slip jigs. Jappy’s guitar providing a bouncy accompaniment to Hair’s sprightly clarsach. It’s a warm and welcoming introduction to what proves to be a breezy yet thoughtful listening experience.
Although the pair now call Glasgow their home, the tunes reflect their Highland and East Coast backgrounds and beyond. As Hair notes: “Élan is more closely related to who we are as musicians and people, than my previous releases. There are nods to my Highland background, with tunes from the Captain Simon Fraser collection, tunes I’ve written to do with Ullapool and Loch Broom, as well as pipe tunes – we were both Highland dancers as youngsters and have a deep appreciation of pipe music. There are also sets of Irish tunes as a nod to the Giasgow-lrish music scene, and from the Isle of Man, where my husband is from and where I spend three days each month teaching harp.”
‘Daybrak‘ sees the duo in a more reflective mood with a gentle meandering tune inspired by a walk through the medieval town of Dinan in Brittany. It finishes with a fine little tune from Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson, demonstrating Hair and Jappy’s talents for arrangements – no easy feet to turn a fiddle tune into one for harp!
There’s a lovely lively polka, ‘Tom Toi’s’, and the sweetly poignant, ‘McLeods of Waipu’, inspired by the duo’s 2020 New Zealand tour, before the pair tackle their first traditional tune of the album with ‘Inverness Bridge‘. Merging a tune from John MacColl (‘Mrs John MacColl‘), a trad tune for its title, and a reel from Donald Macleod (‘The Ferryman‘), ‘Inverness Bridge‘ delivers an accomplished Scottish march, strathspey and reel. All three are pipe tunes, given a new lease of life through the harp and guitar.
Waltzes, jigs, and airs soon follow. ‘The Erigmore Waltz‘ is combined with ‘Irene’s Waltz‘ in a toe-tapping set, whilst the duo experiment with a set of Cape Breton jigs consisting of ‘Professor Delbert’s Birthday‘, ‘The New York Jig‘, and ‘J.P. Cormier’s Jig‘. Accompanying the duo here is RURA and Ímar stalwart Adam Brown on bodhrán.
Things take a more meditative tone with the penultimate track, ‘Ceò na Cailliche‘. The air opens with a tune from the Patrick McDonald Collection, ‘Bhannarach Dhonn a’ Chruidh‘, followed by a strathspey (‘Na Maraichean‘) sourced from the Simon Fraser Collection. Tying the tunes together is Hair’s own composition which also provides the tune with its title, roughly translated as ‘The Old Woman of the Mist‘. It’s a sublime little tune set which perfectly illustrates the duo’s attention to historical detail and reverence of the past.
‘John MacDonald’s’ reel, from The Glengarry Collection, is given a nimble makeover with a flourishing harp opener and brisk rhythm, whilst ‘To the Rock’ finishes the album with a fine set of traditional Manx tunes, including ‘Jerrey yn Theihill‘ and ‘Inneen Kilkenny’. The set finishes with some fiery reels. It’s a genial and bubbly conclusion to a thoroughly pleasurable listen.
Élan delivers exactly what it sets out to do with an album rich in energy, passion, and style. Throughout, Hair and Jappy fizz. Tradition is important here, but so too is experimentation, and the pair manage to breathe new life into some very familiar old favourites.
It’s difficult to pinpoint particular highlights, so much fun is the entire album, and so exciting is the playing of Hair and Jappy generally, but what is a crucial takeaway is that at the heart of Élan is the deep joy of Scottish, Irish, Manx, and Cape Breton tunes and the pleasure in exploring the musical journey taken by harp and guitar. Rare has the combination of both instruments sounded so fresh, convivial and invigorating – clarsach and guitar dance and flirt around each other in a swirling play of strings, ensuring many toes will be taped through either a listen or even better still at a gig. Hair and Jappy’s musicianship prompts a palpable and infectious relish here with an album that constantly surprises, charms, and amuses. With such a fine collection of traditional tunes and an inventive and light-hearted set of new compositions, Élanis an energising, inspiring and precious delight.
Original Review HERE