We start today with some very interesting archive material. Firstly we have a recording of Bob Brown, Balmoral, playing two 2/4 marches, Abercairney Highlanders and the 74th’s Farewell to Edinburgh. The recording comes to us courtesy of Patrick Molard in Brittany. Patrick recorded Bob when he was a pupil of his (Patrick of Bob not Bob of Patrick!) in the early 1970s.
What do we learn? Firstly I think it shows again how our 2/4 march playing has slowed down considerably in the recent past. The plodding, careful style we hear so often these days has become the norm. Judges and audience have become inured; we expect nothing less. I would say this insidious creeping has been going on for the past 20 years. The bands don’t even play marches on the edge any more. Not so Bob Brown. A little hasty and slightly erratic in places yes, and the pipe could be improved (this was not a commercial recording nor a competition after all), but this is good, professional march playing – tempos close to where they should be if they are to stir the heart. Listen here.
The problem stems from our MSR contests. Pipers know that if they get through the march cleanly – no need for heroics – they could be half way to a prize. So don’t take the march too quickly; keep it clean and try for some magic in the strathspey and reel is the mantra. Unfortunately, and perhaps unconsciously, this cautious approach is then transferred to the ‘march only’ contest, to young listeners to boot, and we have what we have. I might say that not all professional pipers are in the dock here, a notable exception the brilliant Angus MacColl. Have a listen to his playing at Oban last August.
The second thing we learn is that Bob Brown, the great piobaireachd expert, was no cack-handed ceol mor philosopher, resorting to the great music because it was in his comfort zone. No, here we have a piper capable of the greatest technical delivery. Should he so have wished, this master could have got a game with any of today’s Grade 1 pipe bands no question. His super fingering is evident in his ceol mor too of course. Get out your Masters of Piobaireachd CDs and have a listen his crunluath, chedari, embari etc.
Third, isn’t it enriching to hear these different settings of the standard works in the 2/4 repertoire? As I said before, Willie Ross did a marvellous job for piping when he standardised our ceol beag technique, but I am sure he would have been the last person to insist that the only settings of tunes worth playing were those in his books. Variety is the spice of piping life and judges are surely impressed by a piper who has gone to the bother of researching and learning something a bit different. I remember Brian Donaldson doing just that when he came out with a seldom heard setting of Bob o’ Fettercairn to great acclaim a few years back. And who will forget John Burgess and his four-note run-down in Delvinside?
If you’d like to compare Willie Ross and Bob Brown’s playing of the 74th you can click here for a recording of the former.
Bob Brown is pictured above playing on his beloved Deeside in the early 1960s.
Our second recording comes from a pupil of Bob Brown’s, Jimmy McIntosh. Jimmy has already supplied a number of tunes for the PP Archive and he has kindly given us permission to use this performance of his playing of the Lament for the Earl of Antrim. This is from the recording done aboard SS Calypso in May, 1977. The ship was moored off Armadale on Skye for a contest promoted by Clan Donald. Jimmy was placed third with this rendition. Listen here.