Alex Monaghan reviews two album collaborations from piper Tim Cummings


Rule of Three

CD Review by Alex Monaghan. May 2024.
14 tracks, 58 minutes

Hailing from the north-eastern seaboard of North America, this trio features Tim Cummings on whistles and cauld wind pipes, Jeremiah McLane on keyboards, and Alex Kehler on strings and occasional vocals. Singer Elisabeth Giroux guests on one track, but otherwise it’s just the trio, admittedly with a fair amount of multitracking. Triton’s repertoire is eclectic – Scottish, French, Swedish, Northumbrian, and some of their own transatlantic compositions.

The opening two tracks showcase Border pipes on a suite of well-known central French bourrées and Scottish smallpipes on three twisty reels: the playing on both is tight, deft, sparsely ornamented and driving the tunes along. Nyckelharpa and Scandinavian mandola spar with the pipes over a rhythmic accordion ground. Les Filles des Forges is the first of three vocal numbers, a traditional classic tale of flirtatious young women and lecherous clergy, neatly turned by Kehler with voice and instrumental backing from his bandmates. Five tracks of Breton tunes give the middle of this album a distinct p-Celtic feel: dark and brooding, leavened somewhat by a cheery gavotte and another central French piece. Cummings switches between pipes and whistles, while Kehler adds fiddle and McLane fits piano accompaniment to the second song Dans la Froidure. The whistle isn’t quite as assured as the pipes, but Cummings’ control of the smallpipes on Dans un Pré would be hard to match.

Three very tasty 5/4 waltzes, one by each member of Triton, bring us to another set of Breton tunes and then the popular Swedish polska Grind Hans sweetly played on low whistle, accordion, fiddle and nyckelharpa: a gentle highlight of Rule of Three. Another well-known French song, a sad one this time, is followed by a powerful suite of Breton dances led on Border pipes, and then a smallpipes finale ending with the trusty Rusty Gully. This album is a fine example of combining pipes with other instruments across a broad range of music, and a lesson in adapting piping technique to achieve an international sound. It’s also an enjoyable hour of good tunes well played.

The Bird’s Flight
CD Review by Alex Monaghan. 
May 2024.
16 tracks, 57 minutes

American oldtime piping – that’s a thing, right? Well it is now! Vermont piper Tim Cummings has teamed up with Appalachian fiddler Pete Sutherland and banjo player Brad Kolodner to reinterpret almost two dozen old Scottish tunes which have passed into the oldtime repertoire. This venerable tradition actually suits Cummings’ smallpipes and Border pipes surprisingly well: oldtime tunes are often in old European modes, and almost always firmly in one key, so much so that fiddle and banjo retune depending on the melody, and sessions stay in the same key for hours. Here the smallpipes alternate between C, D and A chanters, as the fiddle and banjo adopt different tunings (all listed in the detailed sleevenotes).

From the opening Campbell’s Farewell to Red Gap to the final title track, The Bird’s Flight is full of understated gems. Donny’s In the Slop is better known in Scotland as Little Donald in the Pig Pen, and has been extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic recently. Katy Bess of Tennessee clearly encountered Mrs McLeod of Raasay at some point, and I Wished I Hadn’ A-Seen It is known to me as Ho Ro na Piseagan, a Gaelic mouth music piece. The pipes blend naturally with banjo and fiddle: Cummings doesn’t overemphasise the Scottish style in ornamentation or rhythm, but the drones and the tone of the chanter fit this ensemble perfectly. The pair of jigs Farewell Dundee and Babe of Bethlehem have more of an Irish feel, while Jackson Falls could be straight off a contemporary Scottish piping album.

Sutherland’s fiddle is flexible enough to fit fast and slow pieces, clear Celtic melodies and more Backwoods numbers. Kolodner switches between modern 5-string banjo and the older gourd banjo with its roots in West African music: both are delightful here. Not every track includes pipes: Tim sits out Mackenzie Creek, and Brad is in solo mode on MacGregor of Roaring Fork. Three songs provide additional variety, and Brad delivers a banjo version of Lexie MacAskill over pipe drones, making a very varied hour of music. Nowhere are the Scottish roots of Americana more evident than the reel or breakdown Money Musk which is given a good dust off on Border pipes here. Cummings, Sutherland and Kolodner wrap up with an oldtime waltz, another highlight in a sparkling selection.