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Borealis BCD201

Ontario fiddler Oliver Schroer is joined by his band The Stewed Tomatoes for this final album, partly recorded from his hospital bed and completed shortly before his tragic early death in 2008. Oliver's creativity and talent spawned a vast amount of music, and although Freedom Row is built on the foundations of traditional fiddling, some of the directions it takes are not on most musicians' maps. In close to an hour of music, this collection spans folk, funk, jazz, jungle, old-time and new-age styles, as well as some hard driving traditional fiddle. Freedom Row is not a purely instrumental CD, but the vocals are mostly in what I think of as Shooglenifty mode: wordless vocalisations, sometimes melodic, sometimes not. Oliver is credited with "vocals" on several tracks, and with "hollers" on Dancing on the Waves: either way these contributions intensify the appeal and the personal side of his music. Elsewhere, he plays fiddle and guitars while those about him wield a bewildering array of instruments.

Oliver Schroer was the first person I heard combining trumpet with traditional fiddle music - in a good way - and now everyone's doing it: there's quite a bit of trumpet on this recording, as well as trombone, sax, organ, more sax, drums and bass, txalaparta and triangle of course, and even a bit of Inuit throat singing from Tanya Tagaq. Nuala Kennedy makes an appearance on flute, Denis Frechette on piano, but most of the other names are unfamiliar to me.

The title track sets up a swinging fiddle rhythm, adding layers of brass without losing the fiddle core. Paddy in Timbuktu is quite different - the horn section takes over, turning this into a Hi-Life or African jazz number, full of fun and energy. All the Little Children is a great sing-along track with lots of wordless vocals. The Pythonesque playfulness of Squid Juice and Barking Spiders is a pure joy for the open-minded, contrasting neatly with the solid fiddle melodies of Ojnab and Jora Dance. Things get funky again with Don Victor's Parade, and so it goes: Oliver and The Stewed ring the changes through American soul, Balkan rhythms, and Canadian whimsy. Freedom Row is innovative without being pretentious, eclectic but not indiscriminate. The mood is cheerful and fun, with occasional reflective moments. I like this album a lot. It's a great pity there won't be any more from Oliver Schroer: don't miss out on his legacy.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 86 of The Living Tradition magazine.