“To me, the Low D Whistle is a universal instrument,” says Fraser Fifield. He is a is a multi-instrumentalist and composer from Scotland, who performs on low whistle, saxophone, and bagpipes and is currently Traditional Artist in Residence at University of Edinburgh.. His new album “Secret Path” features him in a trio with two of Scotland’s leading jazz players, drummer Tom Bancroft and Paul Harrison. Feature by Rob Adams.
The low D whistle has an honourable place in Scottish and Irish traditional music. A cousin of the sometimes-maligned penny whistle, this simple instrument has afforded musicians – often pipers – an opportunity to express themselves in a much more deeply felt way than its modest design might lead listeners to expect.
Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.
The great Scottish piper Gordon Duncan (he of the brilliantly outrageous bagpipe arrangement of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck), uilleann pipers Davy Spillane and John McSherry, and a pupil of Duncan’s, Ross Ainslie have all produced music of extraordinary eloquence on the low whistle. As has Fraser Fifield, who releases an album showcasing his mastery of the low D whistle, Secret Path, on June 30.
For Fifield, the whistle can be a perfectly valid substitute for a saxophone in a jazz group. And he should know because having first learned to play the Highland pipes as a schoolboy in Aberdeenshire, Fifield transferred his piping skills and phrasing onto the soprano saxophone before falling under the low whistle’s spell. He has also successfully investigated the Bulgarian kaval – an end-blown flute – but that’s another story.
On Secret Path, Fifield fronts a trio with two of Scotland’s leading jazz players, drummer Tom Bancroft and Paul Harrison, who played Wurlitzer piano on the session. Fifield has worked before with names that will be familiar to jazz audiences.
He has a long-running musical relationship with guitarist Graeme Stephen, of Edinburgh’s Playtime collective, and he impressed tabla master Zakir Hussain, of Shakti and the classic Making Music album with Jan Garbarek, John McLaughlin and Hariprasad Chaurasia, when they featured together. Fifield also appeared on Act Records’ Jazz at the Berlin Philharmonic Vl recording in an international ensemble including singer-guitarist Eric Bibb, Norwegian singer-accordionist Tuva Livsdatter Syvertsen and Swedish bassist, guitarist and percussionist Olle Linder.
“I see the whistle as a blank canvas,” says Fifield. “It has its associations but to me it’s a universal instrument. I think all musicians ultimately want to play the music they would like to hear and it’s been my goal to be able to play music on the whistle that isn’t constrained by a diatonic structure.”
Over the past ten years, aided by the addition of one extra tone hole on the whistle’s underside, Fifield has worked on achieving this aim. His domestic situation also helped. Living in a flat in Edinburgh for much of that time, he felt sure his neighbours would be unimpressed by the sound of the pipes or a saxophone intruding into their day or night. The low whistle, as well as requiring little physical work, unlike the pipes and saxophone, is an instrument that can be picked up at any time and played quietly so that ideas can be explored into unsociable hours if the muse strikes.
“It’s been a gradual process of experimentation and that continues,” says Fifield, whose determination to take the whistle into situations that no whistle player should really encounter has led to him working across the world. Eastern European, Spanish and South American, as well as Indian, music have all presented challenges that he has met successfully.
His Secret Path colleagues are similarly adventurous musical spirits. Paul Harrison is equally at home in Brazilian and electronic music and Tom Bancroft has experience in African and Indian music and, like Fifield, plays with the massive Grit Orchestra, which was formed to celebrate the work of Scottish folk-dance beats maverick Martyn Bennett.
“Paul and Tom are both fantastic musicians,” says Fifield. “I knew that they would respond and make the music come alive. I wrote arrangements that gave them enough detail without providing too much information so that there was space for the three of us to express ourselves. It’s very much a jazz approach with a head, solos, head format in most cases and that sense of excitement, and sometimes fear mixed with achievement, that you get when you improvise.”
The title track is named after the 1930s book through which the British philosopher Paul Brunton introduced the Western world to the Indian guru Ramana Maharshi, a figure who has informed Fifield for a number of years. There is further reference to the East in Gita, which is the Sanskrit word for song.
“All the tracks were written in December last year with the exception of East of Leith, which had been forming in my mind for some time but finally came into shape as I was preparing the others,” says Fifield. “There are influences from throughout my musical career – I’ve long had a fascination for the kaval, for example – but essentially, I wanted to give a snapshot of where I am with the low whistle at the present time. Most of the tunes are concise and were recorded as live in two or three takes to keep them fresh.”
Secret Path is a digital release and is available from Bandcamp