Put together one of the English folk scene’s most sophisticated musicians and one of the folk scene’s most lyrical singers, let them mature together for a decade or two, and their stunning new album Unearthing is the much anticipated result.
James Patterson (Crows, Silas) and John Dipper (fiddler on The Hobbit and TV Series Poldark) have deep roots in the folk revival and their sound is anchored in that tradition but it is in no way restricted by it. Their choice of material has roots in traditional song and the English classical song repertoires, including settings by Finzi, Somervell, Gurney and Butterworth, that greatly influence the duos approach. Independent of the source, thoughtfulness and a deep seated musicality is brought to each arrangement. It is then presented with Patterson’s fabulously smooth baritone floating gracefully, giving the words and narrative the space that they truly deserve, over the accompaniment of guitar and Dipper’s sublime viola d’amore.
Dipper’s use of the 14 stringed viola d’amore is indicative of the way in which he pushes the boundaries of the tradition, respecting the beauty and depth of the heirlooms that we have inherited, while breaking convention. His viola d’amore is tuned in a specific way, echoing the tuning systems used by the Moraharpa - an early version of the Nyckelharpa - which enables him to play harmonies and chords simply not possible on a standard instrument. His playing is exquisite and his approach both to tunes and accompaniment absolutely unique. James’ voice was at the forefront of the band Crows, with Mick Ryan, Ralph Jordan and John Burge. His approach to the lyrics and his ability to phrase and judge each line, to deliver the narrative in an entrancing and mesmerising style, never obscuring the timeless sentiment, is legendary. Combined, these musicians react to each other’s performance in the most effortless, yet spontaneous and dynamic way possible. Their music truly is precision with a soul.
Largely recorded in the final week before the first coronavirus lockdown, the album has been a long time in completion but has finally broken the surface. While the duo’s music is exquisite, there are also wonderful musical contributions from superb multi-instrumentalist Adrian Lever (Alma and Arhai) and the wonderful cello playing of Emily Askew (the Askew Sisters, Alma and The Emily Askew Band).
In making this album Patterson Dipper have performed an almost impossible task. With the lightest and most delicate of touches, they have brought the creations of composers of Western art music into the folk music performance tradition. This was always going to be a very delicate operation, it being all too easy to lose the beauty that is inherent in classical music. Patterson Dipper have skilfully managed to preserve and celebrate the music’s origins whilst creating new music that is beautiful and sublime. Each arrangement has been refined to perfection, letting the lyrics have room for maximum impact, yet many delicate and exquisite nuances that become apparent on repeated listenings make this album elegant, refined and deeply powerful.
Biography: James has been singing on the English folk music scene since the early 1970s when he was introduced to a London folk club and became a regular floor singer there. In 1975 he met his long term musical partner, the late Ralph Jordan, with whom he worked as the duo Silas. He was part of the popular band Crows from 1978 until 1986. James and Ralph were joined in 2000 by John Dipper to form Patterson Jordan Dipper and John and James have continued their collaboration since Ralph’s departure and subsequent tragic death. Until 2018 James also enjoyed a couple of years with a revived line up of Crows. Now retired, James was one of the UK’s leading film archivists. John has worked full time on the folk scene for the past 20 years in a variety of respected combinations including The English Acoustic Collective with Chris Wood and Robert Harbron, the string quartet Methera, Alma, The Emily Askew Band, and Dipper Malkin. He was solo fiddler on The Hobbit Soundtrack and has appeared in the TV series Poldark. His most recent TV work was playing on the soundtrack of the Channel 4 documentary Surviving Covid. Throughout the period he has worked with James as part of PJD and as a duo. John, a composer and teacher as well as player also makes wonderful Dipper concertinas alongside his parents Colin and Rosalie. John’s playing is widely regarded as amongst the finest on the scene and his use of the Viola d’Amore is indicative of his desire to explore and expand the musical potential of the English tradition.
The Music: Although folk song sources have supplied most of our raw material, we have, over the past few years, explored the possibility and embraced the challenge of arranging songs from the English classical tradition in an English revival folk idiom. The idea of ‘unearthing’ is not just a matter of looking in different sources, printed and recorded, to discover material to perform, though that is how it begins. It is more about the journey we take in discovering the musical possibilities of the material in the context of our performance. The musical complexity of the classical tradition stands in stark contrast to the oral tradition in its glorious simplicity. Our musical thinking and approach are, inevitably, impacted by the material, but in the end words and melodies are our starting point wherever they come from and we would never want to stop exploring and developing ideas. We hope the resulting work is both true to our musical roots and respectful of its source and continuing journey.
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Patterson Dipper (unknown/website).