Album review: Ross Miller ‘The Roke’

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THE ROKE
CD Review by Stuart Milne.
Piping Today #100, 2020.

Ross Miller is a great example of what it means to be a modern piper. As Ross explains in the sleeve notes to his debut solo album, The Roke, his early musical background was purely in pipe bands (formerly Peoples Ford – Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia and now reigning World Champions Inveraray & District) and solo competition. His studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland opened his eyes and ears to new styles, and this release reflects the many varied influences from his musical education. 

As has become typical, The Roke is not strictly a solo piping album. He has enlisted the help of five equally talented guest musicians who have been important companions on his musical journey: ex-Manran guitarist Craig Irving, 2017 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Charlie Stewart on fiddle and double bass, Rory Matheson on piano, and fellow National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland stalwarts Callum Edwards and Craig Baxter on percussion. All six members of the line-up make great contributions to an album filled with energy and positivity.

It begins in upbeat fashion with three reels given a very pleasant treatment by the backing ensemble – D Major MacKenzie and Rona’s Reel by Ross and Mornington by Craig Irving. It is a lively start to the album, and the energy is continued in the second set, comprising waltzes (Richard’s Gone Bananas by Terry Tully and That Little Bit Extra by Ross) and polkas (Ton Doubl, adapted from a Breton dance, and the most enjoyable Laurie the Blaster by Zakk Cormier and Ben Miller). 

Recordings with a keen sense of place are always enjoyable, and the album art of The Roke is firmly rooted in Ross’ native Linlithgow in West Lothian – the excellent photographs show off the magnificence of Linlithgow Palace and Ross’s excellent beard. That sense of place is combined with another common theme (tributes to Ross’ family) in the third track. It begins with a delightful air for Ross’ Grannie Betty, and continues with the retreat march Far O’er Struy, the hill of Struy being one of the landmarks visible from Grannie Betty’s garden in Sutherland. Both tunes are greatly enhanced by Rory Matheson’s exquisite piano accompaniment.  Much of the album continues in a similar vein – great musicians playing good tunes tastefully and well – though some of the original compositions near the end of the album are not as strong as the early offerings. Listeners who have followed Ross’ playing career closely will recognise the Aye Right set from his trio performances – Bill Livingstone’s retreat march Leaving Arisaig mixed in with a Gaelic puirt a beul and the cracking reel Aye Right by Angus Grant Junior. Still more striking is the unusual Quartet track, where Ross plays multiple bagpipe parts to create a Breton feel to this experimental set.

Indeed, it is very hard to define where Ross’ musical talents end. He remains an active and successful solo competitor, is a Grade 1 World Champion bandsman, and is the Town Piper of Linlithgow (the album title comes from the 6/8 march The Roke, the Row and the Wee Pickled Tow he and the town drummer are required to play at dawn on the day of the Linlithgow Marches). He has also crossed the channel to compete at the highest level of the bagad championships in Brittany. This album proves he is equally at home in the folk scene. Pipers of his generation are becoming the new normal and putting we greybeards to shame – is there nothing they can’t do?

•The Roke is available from www.thebagpipeshop.co.uk