Bro Nevez #103 - August, 2007 - Page 13
Poor Man's Fortune. In Good Time. PMF CD-003.2007. 48'15
This doesn't sound like the name for a Breton band, and it isn't. But this is one of the best interpretations of Breton music I've heard from American musicians - from deep in the heart of Texas. The press release that arrived with this CD describes it as "old tunes for new ears. New tunes in old traditions" and that is a good start to describing the music you hear.
Poor Man's Fortune is a trio based in Austin, Texas, and the musicians of this group have played around with all sorts of styles. Serge Laine (guess his family roots) plays dulcitare, accordion, hurdy-gurdy and sings. Kristen Jenson plays fiddle and baritone fiddle and joins in on vocals. Larry Rone plays wooden flutes, tin whistle, bombardes (in G and A) and a subois, a rustic oboe which uses bombarde reeds but has a milder tone than a bombarde.
Guest musicians are not just "guests" for a rare appearance, but are an integral part of the CD. These include Glenn Rios who produced and engineered the CD and added percussion, bass and guitar work. Also in the mix are Richard Kean on biniou, Rod Forkner on bodhran, Patrick Whale with gongs, and Kerri Javorka on fiddle and vocal leads.
The CD is dominated by a variety of lively dances borrowed from a variety of performers and composers. A suite of "scottishes" is from the English band Blowzabella, and a set of jigs includes one from Irish tradition, one composed by American Grey Larsen and another composed by Breton flute player Jean-Luc Thomas. A suite of hornpipe and reels are borrowed from Irish and Scottish performers, and a suite of polkas includes another composition by Jean-Luc Thomas, one by Irish bouzouki player Donal Lunny and a less funky traditional Irish tune. Two waltzes also draw from a variety of sources and have a nice slow swing in contrast to the high energy of the other dances of the CD.
Songs include a puirt a' bheil- mouth music from Scotland - which is vocal music for dancing where vocal syllables replace what a piper would do. While traditionally this would be purely vocal, here you have added a very varied and lovely mix of drums and percussion instruments - everything from the sizzle of snare drums to the ding of cymbals, and mellow thud of darbuka and congas (in addition to another half-dozen instruments that sound in name to have come from around the world).
The CD closes with the haunting voice of guest singer Kerri Javorka for a Child ballad "The unquiet grave." While much of this song about a grieving lover is accompanied by acoustic guitar, you have the melody captured by whistle and strings, and the bombarde blends in so beautifuly with the strings that you almost miss it if you aren't listing for its reedy voice.
Breton music receives a full 15 minutes of the total 48 minutes of this CD with a song for dance and two instrumental dance suites. Serge Laine leads the song "Quand j'etais jeune a dix-huit ans" which he learned from a fellow Breton draftee when stationed in Madagascar in 1976. I knew I had heard this song before, and tracked the text to an LP of traditional music of the Pays d'Oust et de Vilaine produced by Dastum in 1984 - a song for the dance pile-menu led by Pierrig Hercelin. But the very familiar tune used by Poor Man's Fortune is different, and is for a different dance - hanter-dro. While I can't track it down I think I have heard it on a Tri Yann album. The travel of texts to different tunes and different dances is what "'tradition" is all about.
Just as they do for Irish and Scottish tunes, Poor Man's Fortune draws from a variety of sources for the Breton dance "ridee six temps." Tunes in this suite are drawn from a cassette recording of an unidentified accordion-bombarde pair, from virtuoso Breton flute player Jean-Michel Veillon, and from recordings of the band Skeduz. A "suite" of gavottes shows off just how well Poor Man's Fortune understands the unique rhythm and the swing of traditional Breton dance. As pointed out clearly the jacket notes to the CD, this is not the three-part "suite" one dances to in Brittany, but a string of gavottes from different regions of Brittany (including Dardoup, Fisel, and the ~'Mountains" of central western Brittany). And then there's a gavotte in there from Bro Austin composed by Larry Rone and Serge Laîné. This is a 5-minute tour de force that will get you up and dancing.
I always notice the jacket notes for a CD and am often annoyed by how sparse they are. The notes to this CD - an inviting cardboard "tri-fold" instead of a booklet in a plastic case - are exceptionally informative and interesting. The musicians and instruments they use are noted for each of the ten selections of the CD, and a short description identifies the source of the tune or song where it was heard and who it was learned from. The historical origins of dances are noted, and for the gavotte there is a very nice explanation of the diversity of Breton gavottes and how the Breton version of this dance is not the same as the courtly dance of the same name. The stories about the CD selections are not only interesting to read but include a dry humor. In addition, details are given on the instruments used by the Poor Man's Fortune trio of musicians so you know what they are and who made them. You'll learn just what you need to know about "Bubba the baritone fiddle."
The notes and graphic layout are nicely done - one of the best CD jackets I've seen in a while. A little paragraph by Breton flute master Jean-Michel Veillon on the back of the CD jacket pays tribute to the good work of the group, rightly pointing out that "The musicians of Poor Man's Fortune made the effort to immerse themselves in our [Breton] repertoire of traditional melodies and came out with a beautiful selection. Their keen musical sense did the rest ... " Clearly they also understand the Celtic musical heritage of Ireland and Scotland and its presence in North America, and this is a great inter-Celtic mix interpreted by skilled musicians in a unique way.