Fred Morrison - piper of the world
Fred Morrison is going over some Breton tunes when the Herald catches up with him. The Glasgow-born piper is a busy man right now and that’s set to continue as he follows performances in Belgium and Brittany with an album launch at the Piping Live! festival in Glasgow, after which he crosses the Atlantic to play in Seattle and Lake Tahoe and at the massive Celtic Colors celebration of traditional music in Cape Breton.
The Breton tunes are just for Morrison’s own enjoyment, although he likes to have them under his fingers when he heads over to Lorient, where he’s been a regular at the town’s Festival Interceltique since he first visited it with fellow pipers, Allan MacDonald, of the Glenuig piping fraternity, and the late Gordon Duncan in the early 1980s.
“There’s something about Breton tunes that gets right under your skin,” he says. “They remind me of our own pibroch, in a way, because they’re quite repetitive and just as you can get caught up in that swirling repetition that pibroch has, that heady effect almost, Breton tunes can lure you in in a similar way. It’s very soulful music, for me, and I love going back to play over there.”
The feeling appears to be reciprocated as Morrison has won the Macallan Trophy – now known again as the MacCrimmon Trophy – for solo piping no fewer than seven times in Lorient.
Solo piping – he has never played in a pipe band – was the tradition that Morrison’s father, a Uist man, insisted he grow up in and although he has played with many other musicians, including folk-rock band Capercaillie and the bluegrass virtuosi who appeared on his transatlantic album, Outlands in 2009, it’s a style of performance that he still favours.
“The album we’re launching at Piping Live! and which was actually recorded at the festival in 2011 and got delayed for various reasons, features my trio with Matheu Watson on guitar and Martin O’Neill on bodhran, and I really enjoy playing with them. They’re great guys to work with and travel with, which is obviously important,” he says. “But I also love just being alone with my pipes and an audience.”
Competing as a youngster on the Highland Games circuit – he and the maverick genius Gordon Duncan were friendly, very successful rivals – gave Morrison the technique and discipline that he has applied to other musical situations but has been especially useful in continuing what’s now become an annual tour. Later this year, he’ll pack his various sets of pipes and whistles in the car and drive round twenty-five venues across Scotland.
“People ask me, D’you not get lonely touring round by yourself? And of course I miss my wife and kids when I’m away but being on your own makes you focus on that couple of hours at the end of the journey, that special time when you have a room full of people, hopefully, and it’s all about the music,” he says. “I generally know what I’m going to play because I suppose it’s what I’ve been working up to ever since I started playing and I’ve built up a repertoire, but sometimes something’ll come to me and the concentration level that developed through competing kicks in and I can alter the running order quite smoothly. I like to keep a feeling of spontaneity in the music anyway and if you express how you’re feeling in the moment, then the music stays fresh.”
For Piping Live!, where he features on the ‘After Worlds Shindig’ with Anglo-Irish band Flook and Breton duo, Patrick Molard & Yves Berthou, Morrison will revert to trio mode, with Steve Byrne of Malinky deputising for the much in-demand Matheu Watson.
“I’m really pleased to be part of Piping Live! because I think it’s been a great event for piping generally over the past twelve years,” he says. “I love how it brings everyone together - pipe bands, solo competitors, the folk group players – and lets the public hear the quality of musicianship that’s involved in the piping scene generally. I’m not a pipe band player but I keep my ear to the ground and get to hear who’s on form. I also don’t compete any more and I’m not sure I could because these solo pipers who go in for the Glenfiddich Championships and such like, they put an incredible amount of work into their playing to get it at a pitch that’s brilliantly virtuosic, and you’ve really got to admire the standard of musicianship they achieve.”
The Fred Morrison Trio appears at Glasgow School of Art on Saturday, August 15.
From The Herald, August 5, 2015.