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BWW Review: VANA at CD Release

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Ross Ainslie's fourth solo album.

BWW Review: VANA at CD ReleaseReviewed by Ray Smith, Tuesday October 13th 2020.

Ross Ainslie, one of Scotland's most beloved musicians and composers, is due to release his fourth solo album on October 30th 2020, but I was able to get my hands on a copy of Vana before the formal release.

Named for the Vana Wellness Retreat in India, where Ainslie took time out from his frenetic touring and recording schedule, he said this of the album, "Vana is the final product of a reflective journey towards self-preservation. I was beginning to feel burnt out with the pressures of touring, so I decided that I had to take a step back to breathe and evaluate what direction I wanted my life to go in. I took myself away to the Vana Wellness Retreat in India which really helped me take some time to reflect and take stock of the life I have lived and the one I want to enjoy in the future. I started this album when I returned from my trip and I have taken my time with its development, focusing on musical aspects that are most important to me and giving each track the time and attention I feel they deserve."

Ross Ainslie is perhaps best known as a Great Highland Bagpipe player, but this view is a serious underestimation of this multi-instrumentalist's skills and approach to the music that he writes and performs.

That he is a phenomenally skilled player of the iconic Scottish instrument goes without saying, but he has also taken the pipes away from the kilted and brogued cliches found on biscuit tin lids, and has allowed the instrument to flourish on its own terms.

He is far more than just a piper, he is a versatile and innovative woodwind player who's fresh approach has transformed the Great Highland Bagpipes from the synchronised marching band soundtrack, complete with rigid Pipe Major, moustache twitching at a poorly timed Taorluath, to the breathtakingly soulful and exciting freedom of an instrument given its full voice and a brand new repertoire, and yet this is just one of the instruments that he plays.

Musicians may well be measured by the company that they keep and, in Ainslie's case, his company reads like a Who's Who of the best players in what might be loosely described as the Folk or World Music scenes.

He has played with the Treacherous Orchestra, Salsa Celtica, Dougie Maclean, India Alba, Jarlath Henderson, Brighde Chaimbeul, and countless others, with whistles, flutes, cittern and Scottish smallpipes amongst his armoury.

His latest offering, Vana, does not disappoint. It is superbly and meticulously crafted, every note exactly where and when it should be, yet many of the pieces are extensions or re-visitings of earlier compositions that have been carefully honed to their current forms.

It is innovative, of course, what else would you expect, but this time there is an element of jazz, amplified by Paul Towndrow's saxophone, but there are still references to tradition, in a beautifully deferential way, without the slightest hint of nostalgia or apology.

It's impossible to isolate one track and suggest, "this represents the album", it's more like a collection of thoughts, one triggering the other, flowing inexorably towards its own conclusion before allowing the next one to be able to begin to form.

"This album is designed to be listened to continuously from beginning to end", the album cover states, and this is no idle statement; it's the ONLY way to listen to this album. All recording musicians go through the, 'what order shall we lay the tracks down in' dilemma on every album that we produce but, with this one, the question doesn't even arise because there is only one correct order.

The last track is like a gift and, as such, is separated from the main body of the work, and a body of work it is, it is homogeneous and holistic, indeed, symphonic in its structure rather than a collection of individual tracks, but the last, separated utterance is like a 'thank you', a gentle appreciation of time spent listening to this extraordinary offering from one of the world's leading fusion artists.

This is an utterly superb piece of work.


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