Bagpipe Paintings: Album Reviews

Jon Swayne and Becky Price: Love and a Bottle

Never before in my life (and I'm not just saying that) have I been witness to a performance such as the one I saw at the Pipers' Gathering Sunday Night concert this summer. The Pipers' Gathering concerts are known as being very bagpipe heavy with some of the best pipers in the world and of course they would, it's a BAGPIPE festival. However, this year they let an accordion slip through as an accompanist to one of these world renowned bagpipers and the result was... (expletive) magic. I couldn't keep still, the hair raised on my arms, every time I wanted to close my eyes and let it soak in I had to remind myself that I would not see these two performers again for possibly many years and I needed ALL my senses going so that I would be able to relive the experience as closely to the original as I could.

The two performers in question were the world renowned bagpipe maker and performer Jon Swayne and his accompanist, Ms. Becky Price. Nobody at the Pipers' Gathering needed to be told of the credentials and accomplishments of Mr. Swayne, from his past experience with the band Blowzabella to the fact that the wait list for a set of his bagpipes stretches into the years. That fact was well known. What was less known was this new arrangement he had with Ms. Price. Ms. Price comes from a diverse background from the classical piano training she had to the punk and folk music she listened to as a girl (including Blowzabella). For 6 years she performed with the group "Finality Jack" and has now put out recordings with 2 Blowzabella legends, Dave Shepherd and Jon Swayne. Jon and Becky's performance on Sunday night was breathtaking.

There is one fact of life that just seems unfair and that is that the term "Swayne Pipes" does not only mean "a set of pipes so different from any other that they can only be named after their maker, Jon Swayne" but it also means "pipes whose song really only comes out in the hands of Jon Swayne". When Jon sits down to play, what you are going to hear is not simply a bagpipe technician (ie. one who is so stuck in tradition and technique) but a musician. From his style and mastery of the instrument to his splendid compositions which bridge the gap between folk, jazz and classical music, Jon is a force of nature, completely at odds with his sometimes painfully quiet stage manner. But who needs to be loud and overly charismatic when one short strain of your music lets the audience know that they are about to witness genius the likes of which the world gets to see once in a lifetime?

And now 3 paragraphs later I get to the review of the release "Love and a Bottle". So is it fair that I should review the album of someone who I can safely say is a musical hero? Someone I look up to and hope to be like someday? Probably not. It's probably more like a 1st grader writing a review of their parents, it won't be very objective but at least now that it's out in the open, you can all worry less about my intentions. It may also be said that I never review an album that I don't like and I do, honestly, try to be very forthcoming with my thoughts on these albums as I know that, while I wouldn't suggest it, some people actually buy or don't buy these disks on my suggestion. So let my first statement be "If you don't like bagpipes, don't buy this album... although you'll regret it" and let me also say "if you don't like the accordion, don't buy this album... although you'll regret it". If you're looking for a comparison, I can most easily compare it to Patrick Desaunay and his album La Passagere (again, if you don't currently have it... get it). The difference here is in the compositions.

At the end of Swayne and Price's performance that Sunday, there was such a rush to the CD table that they were sold out of the 20 or so albums that they brought in less than 5 minutes. As an early Swayne convert, I had hounded him at early Pipers' Gathering events to play some of his compositions with me (I play guitar) until actually one year he had me play the concert with him (very proud). So when he came to the Gathering this year it was much of the same except this time he had Becky playing accordion and I was in love with the whole thing. What I didn't know was that they had a recording out. They had been telling me that they plan to record some French music and Jon's waltzes (my personal favorites) but they didn't tell me that they already had an album of English tunes (including compositions by the two of them). So when the concert was over I found out about the album and also found out that I had missed out on them. They were all gone. I was horrified. Thankfully, Jon saw it in his heart to send one off to me anyway when he got home and from the time I put it in the stereo I was thrown back to that Sunday night. Now I could close my eyes and see, hear and feel every bit of that concert just as it happened.

There are 13 tracks on the album and while I certainly have my favorites, there isn't a single "space filler" in this whole lot. You know what I mean, the songs that are usually included to fill out an albums' overall play time yet just aren't that good. Yeah, there are none of those and I really, really, looked. I really tried to find something wrong with this album so that I could say "see, I'm fair and objective" and so that folks would take me seriously but I just can't report on what I can't find. Now I do have my favorites and this time I had to pick my favorites differently than on other albums. On this album there were 4 tracks that again made the goose-bumps come out and made me miss them when the cd player was off (ever have that happen before? It was like a friend had left me for a long trip away...).

Track 3, A Lankeshire Hornpipe and Hogsdon Square was performed that Sunday, in fact it may have been the first piece. Could I have told you what the other performers played? Not to knock them but no, all pipe tunes sound alike... except in the hands of Swayne and Price who just have a knack for picking memorable tunes and putting them into creative and exciting arrangements. Price's rhythmic introduction helps to build the tension that is inherent in Lankeshire Hornpipe and its minor/modal setting. This tension is completely broken letting the listener ride on a cloud of glee and happiness when the duo transition into Hogsdon Square. This may be the most accessible track to those who aren't used to the instrumentation and the genre in general. It was also first to get the hair up on the arms in concert and as I sat down to listen to the CD.

Track 4, The Boston Ruby is a composition that I believe Becky started and Jon finished (if I remember correctly from their introduction of it in the concert). I don't know where Becky's part stops and Jon's part starts, maybe it's when his pipes come in on the track (this one also starts with accordion) but it doesn't really matter. What a beautiful tune. In fact, when I talk about stopping the CD and later finding myself "missing" it, it's this tune that is going through my head.

Track 7, the Broken Bed and Wednesday Express just shows how alive and well the English "tradition" is. These are compositions of Jon's own hand and require some Olympic style feats to be performed on the pipes. The only thing that will probably keep these out of the English Tradition is that fact that Jon may be the only person who is capable of playing them. Thank god he recorded them for us. You'll have to hear them to believe them. My favorite part here is when Becky takes a slight break from the accompaniment at the end to play in harmony with Jon's melody and then kicks it back in to the big finish which... doesn't end. You'll see what I mean.

Track 13, Interlude is the shortest piece on the album and yet has the most instrumentation from Rob Stevens on Trombone to Becky Price, in her element, playing an old 1868 pipe organ. I say in her element because when Becky is not playing amazing music with world renowned folk musicians, she plays organ in her local church (how many times have you wanted to strap into one of those church organs and let loose Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor?). This one starts with a stating of the main tune and harmonic progression on the accordion. You can just hear the air going through Jon's chanter reed as the accordion nears the end as foreshadowing to what's about to happen. What comes out is a short but sweet mix of accordion, pipe organ, trombone counter parts and the beautiful timbre of Swayne Pipes played by the master himself.

In short, if you don't have this album, get it. If you think you won't like it, get it anyway. If I'm wrong I'll even buy it off of you in order to have some to give to my friends who have much better musical taste than you do. ;--)

Thanks for the music Jon and Becky, and for sharing it with me that weekend and now forever

Interested in getting your album reviewed? It probably won't go as well as this one but you can send an e-mail to