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Jennifer Cutting’s Song of Solstice: Celtic Holiday Fun for Everyone
Folk-Rock pioneer Jennifer Cutting, mastermind of The New St. George and The OCEAN Orchestra, has returned with a magical collection of holiday music for all generations and wisdom traditions. Her new full-length CD, Song of Solstice, combines brand-new winter songs with old favorites, folky authenticity with cutting-edge electronics, and rousing bagpipes and drums with gentle recorders and harps. It even puts legendary chanteuse Annie Haslam, the voice of the British 70s prog-rock band Renaissance, on the same album with music from the real, historical Renaissance!
Cutting started her project with a simple idea: to create music for the winter holidays that worked for everyone: Jew and Gentile, Christian and Pagan. Cutting lost her parents as a child; after her grandmother also passed away, she was raised by Indian swamis in a Hindu ashram in Florida. Partly due to this unusual childhood, she has long been a spiritual and musical seeker on many divergent paths. Song of Solstice celebrates the things all spiritual traditions share in their observance of wintertime: the blessing of human companionship in the cold times of the year, the endless round of the seasons, the return of warmth and light, and even the wisdom and strength to be found in the darkness.
Cutting’s original songs draw inspiration from these ideas. The title cut, “Song of Solstice,” is about giving thanks for both darkness and light, mixing contemplation with celebration. “Light the Winter’s Dark” celebrates the sages and deities of several religions, including Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and the pagan Goddess. “Summer Will Come Round Again” evokes with lush imagery the Celtic “wheel of the year,” while “Green Man” assures us of winter’s greatest promise: “all that falls will rise again…all will be reborn.”
The most challenging of the original songs is Cutting’s setting of “Fall, Leaves, Fall,” a poem by Emily Brontë (1818-1848). Brontë’s piece, according to Cutting’s liner notes, “celebrates the stark beauty found in the baring of the trees.” In other words, it revels in the death and decay of autumn and winter with a truly gothic glee. Cutting’s setting features a majestic melody and a powerful orchestral arrangement tinged with Celtic, early music, and art-rock influences. It obviously required a soaring voice to make it work, and Cutting knew just whom to ask: English vocalist Annie Haslam, known the world over for her work with the 1970s British art-rock ensemble Renaissance, as well as a subsequent globetrotting solo career. Haslam was one of the defining voices of the prog-folk and prog-rock genres, and sang on such classic Renaissance songs as “Northern Lights,” “Carpet of the Sun,” and “Ocean Gypsy.” Haslam and Cutting first met in 1990, when Cutting’s former band The New St. George opened for Renaissance at the now-defunct Washington, D.C., club The Bayou, and it had been their hope to work together ever since. “Fall, Leaves, Fall” brings that ambition to stunning fruition.
To these original songs, Cutting has added some little-known classics of Celtic and Christmas music: “Baloo, Lammy” and “Christmas Day in the Morning” from Scotland, “Voici la Noel” and “Quelle est cette odeur agréable” from France, and “Time to Remember the Poor” from the English folk tradition. Also from England come two more modern pieces, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a crystalline Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti set to a quietly regal tune by hymnodist Gustav Holst; and “People, Look East,” a medieval French melody fitted with English words by twentieth-century songwriter Eleanor Farjeon, who is best known for the Cat Stevens hit “Morning has Broken.”
Needless to say, Cutting’s musical influences are just as eclectic as her spiritual ones. Best known for playing electrified English folk music in the mold of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, she continues this tradition on Song of Solstice, inviting guests such as virtuoso English folk singers John Roberts and Tony Barrand, and the stunning northern English harmony group Coope Boyes & Simpson. She has always been a fan of medieval and Renaissance music, and Song of Solstice includes appearances by two leading woodwind players, John Guillory, founder of Musica Antiqua, and the late, great Scott Reiss, founding member of the Folger Consort. Irish and Scottish repertoire and playing styles were part of The New St. George, and with the Ocean Orchestra Cutting shifted her focus toward this Celtic element. Song of Solstice follows through with widespread use of Highland bagpipes, as well as appearances by some of the leading names in East Coast folk and Celtic music: Lisa Moscatiello (vocals, whistle), Zan McLeod (bouzouki, guitar), Sue Richards (Celtic Harp), John Jennings (guitar), Myron Bretholz (bodhran), Cheryl Hurwitz (fiddle), and Al Petteway (guitar). Finally, she combines her Celtic sounds with world-music touches and eastern/Arabic flourishes, a combination reminiscent of Loreena McKennitt. Cutting’s aesthetic is influenced by George Martin, whose complex textures on classic Beatles albums like Sgt. Pepper formed her benchmark for record production. She is also unapologetic in her love of prog-rock acts, including Renaissance of course, but also Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Mike Oldfield, all of whom informed her approach. While such acts may go in and out of style, the creativity and complexity of their musical thinking, and the high quality of their singing, playing, arranging, and producing, can be appreciated by true musicians in any era.
And Cutting is certainly a true musician. An award-winning composer, songwriter, bandleader and producer, she is best known for her work with The New St George and the OCEAN Orchestra. Her last album, OCEAN: Songs for the Night Sea Journey, won five Washington Area Music Awards, including Songwriter of the Year and Album of the Year. It also garnered international distribution with Allegro (US/Canada) and Witchwood (UK/France/Germany). Most exciting for Cutting, it got four stars from Mojo magazine’s notoriously tough “Mojo Filter.” Does similar success await Song of Solstice? Only time—in this case, wintertime—will tell.