There’s no small irony in that lutenist Ronn McFarlane and viola da gamba player Carolyn Surrick’s new album Fermi’s Paradox – streaming at Spotify – may be closer to the original source of its centuries-old British folk music than anything released by generations of guitar fingerpickers. Many times throughout history, the most ancient becomes avant garde again and this charmingly rustic, nimbly performed mix of classic folk, baroque and original themes is a vivid example.
The duo open with the title cut, an original with echoes of a popular early 60s Bob Dylan acoustic hit, the lute’s plucky, banjo-like tone contrasting with the dark bass washes of the gamba. The two give She Moves Through the Fair an aptly ethereal spaciousness before picking up with a jaunty clip-clop beat.
The album’s third track is a mashup of an ancient Swedish processional of sorts, a spare, elegant Surrick waltz and a briskly strolling Marin Marais work, a contrast the musicians revisit later in the album with another Swedish traditional piece and a 18th century Robert Robinson miniature. Their take of Blackwaterside has unusual syncopation and lively ornamentation, while Dave Shepherd’s The Rose of Raby is much more straightforward, with a clog-dance beat and stark resonance from the gamba.
Daniel’s Chaconne, a solo lute piece by McFarlane, has somber harmonies just off-center enough to make the song’s origin in time a mystery. Trinity Grove, another McFarlane number, is more warmly lilting, yet could easily pass for a traditional tune.
The two musicians parse the baroque repertoire for a pensive Telemann triptych and then a gently elegaic version of John Dowland’s Adew For Master Oliver Cromwell. A Bach transcription of a brief, stately Hans Leo Hassler work offers the duo a launching pad for striking textural contrasts.
Their bluegrassy version of the Allman Brothers’ Little Martha is a hoot. They close the record with a stark Turlough O’Carolan diptych and then a wry blend of Bach and Ave Maria.
The only track which really shouldn’t be on this album – or any other album – is a famous hymn written by a mass murderer. It never ceases to be amazing that the slave trader who wrote it – and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of kidnapped Africans – continues to enjoy the posthumous grace of having his song performed. This blog says enough is enough.