out of the labyrinth

by Carol Feineman/The Union - April 28, 2000

Skyedance, under the direction of fiddler Alasdair Fraser (second from right) performs Celtic music in Grass Valley Tuesday

"Labyrinth" is the name of Skyedance's new CD, and it describes the journey of Alasdair Fraser, the band's founder, in just one word. Like a maze, Fraser had to find which path was right for him.

Fifteen years ago, Fraser was a 30-year-old physicist from Clackmannan, Scotland, who analyzed data for oil-exploration wells off Norway and Alaska. One day, he was in San Francisco's financial district when he had what he calls "an amazing thought": "Every person on this planet is influenced by music. Music is not a luxury. It is essential."

He quit his job that day to work full time in music.

"I had to find out who I was. I like searching for answers. It took me a long time. My former way of life seems like ages ago," said the 10-year Nevada County resident.

Since embarking on his musical quest, Fraser has had little time to spare. He fiddles solo and with ensembles throughout the United States and in Europe. Fraser spends the rest of the year in California as a composer, teacher and co-owner with his wife, Sally Ashcraft, of Culburnie Records, which releases Celtic music recordings.

Fraser has eight albums, which have won critical acclaim from publications such as Pulse magazine, The Boston Globe and The Scotsman, Scotland's national daily paper. Fraser plays traditional Scottish music and originals, which combine baroque, traditional Celtic, jazz, world beat and rock 'n' roll. He also has played on nearly 50 releases by other Celtic musicians.

Fraser has performed and been interviewed for more than 100 television and radio programs in the United Kingdom and for several nationally broadcast programs in the United States. On Dec. 5, Fraser performed at the 1999 Kennedy Center Honors Gala in a tribute to actor Sean Connery, a fellow Scotsman.

He directs the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers and has performed with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, The Waterboys and The Chieftains, and as a featured soloist. Fraser performed with violinist ltzhak Perlman a few years ago at Lincoln Center in New York. He also represents Scotland with performances sponsored by the British Council outside of the United Kingdom.

Moviegoers have heard his music on the soundtracks of 'Titanic," "The Last of the Mohicans," "Wyatt Earp and "The Spitfire Grill."

In 1996, his "Dawn Dance" CD received an Indie award for Celtic album of the year from the National Association for Independent Record Distributors. Some of the same folks who participated on that CD would join the lineup for Skyedance a year later.

The group represents a departure for Fraser, who went from playing traditional work to originals with an ensemble in which all members take turns in playing the melody. The fiddle player or piper traditionally plays the melody in most Celtic bands.

Skyedance features contemporary Celtic music arranged for fiddle, bagpipes, flute, keyboards, percussion and bass. Its originals combine jazz, rock, world-beat, traditional and classical genres.

The band plays Tuesday in Grass Valley on its "Labyrinth" tour after shows in Los Angeles and Santa Cruz. Skyedance will then travel on to Minneapolis, Wisconsin and Toronto.

Later this year, Skyedance will tour in Spain and France. In Scotland, the band will play at the Edinburgh International Festival and the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow.

Fraser came up with the CD's name when he was looking for a symbol that would encompass the band's philosophy.

"Labyrinths are grass-roots, international, (and) non-denominational and have to do with the search for truth and for life," Fraser said. "It's a symbol of the artistic journey the band is undertaking. I like to think our band is searching for the center, which is about finding the truth and being renewed."

To achieve this goal, Fraser said, "I don't want the band to take an old tune and simply put a new groove to it. We add to the Celtic sound, for example, by... borrowing from classical music or by borrowing Middle Eastern percussion ideas."

Fraser believes adding the different styles will help show the commonality between all cultures. He points to traditional Scottish bagpipe bands, which have used Brazilian rhythms for 100 years.

"Everyone talks about the new ideas and how people are incorporating this and that, but these ideas are not so new," Fraser said. "We're now becoming aware of each other's cultures today and seeing it's all one big mixing bowl."

"Labyrinth" is Skyedance's second CD; "Way Out to Hope Street," was released in 1997.

Skyedance also is on the soundtrack of Warner Bros. futuristic, action movie, "Soldier."