JMI Review

First Things First, the debut solo recording from Scottish harper Ailie Robertson, is a satisfying combination of past, present and future, as she places the ancient over-tones of the clarsach in a modern setting and imagines new directions for the harp.

Robertson’s numerous awards and performances have brought her much attention so far, but this recording definitively marks her rising status, and she is set to become an important figure in future conversations about the harp. The taste and balance exhibited in First Things First reveals that Robertson has the ability to record music which is both detailed, virtuosic and accessible, ensuring her a widespread audience.

Her virtuosity is audible throughout the recording, but never over emphasised. Except for the solo tracks ‘Spirit’ and ‘Sands of Hosta’, the harp is always equally weighted within unified arrangements.

This is a solo album that relies heavily on, and is greatly complimented by, the support of great accompanists. Paul Jennings cajon and percussion playing have a strong influence on a number of tracks; his intro to ‘Donald, Willie and His Dog’ sets a background which is wholly organic, but creates a strong electronic feel with its drum-loop quality. Duncan Lyall (bass) and James Ross (piano/harmonium) both support and lead the harp, creating beautiful moments on tracks such as ‘Ho Ro Mo Bhobag an Dram’, moments which evoke the open-awareness of a jazz trio. Finally, Ewan Robertson’s modest yet incisive guitar playing is ever present; his six strings sounding at times almost like an extension of the harp.

The studio work has managed to capture the nuances of the instruments so that they ring with a clarity which usually only reaches the performers’ ears. Each time you listen, the sound seems alive and not just a reproduction of a studio event. Both Robertson’s harp and Lyall’s piano sustain so beautifully at times that you can almost feel their physical presence.

The combination of instrumentation and arrangement styles give a diversity to the tracks without becoming distractingly eclectic. Robertson’s music has too strong a footing for that to happen. These foundations are further revealed by the inclusion of five of her own compositions – ‘Swerving for Bunnies’, ‘Good Spirits’, ‘Ray & Kevin’s Reel’, ‘Sands of Hosta’, and ‘The Angels Share’ – showing that Robertson is able to add to both the repertoire of the harp and traditional music in general.

As a debut album, this is inevitably a showcase of ability. However, there is nothing here which does not belong. The note has been struck; both First Things First and Ailie Robertson will sustain for quite some time to come.