Music interview: Ross Ainslie prepares to launch his new album at Celtic Connections

Ross Ainslie
Ross Ainslie
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Going with the flow is the best approach to the latest album from piper and multi-instrumentalist Ross Ainslie. A stern injunction printed across the sleeve declares: “This album is designed to be listened to continuously from beginning to end (NO SKIPPING TRACKS).” Those unequivocal capitals are his. It’s not an album tailored for shuffle mode, then, or for short attention spans. Fortunately Sanctuary (Great White Records) is a delight to listen to, the whole thing flowing seamlessly, sometimes in a limpid glide, sometimes like a burn in spate. It also elegantly incorporates influences ranging from Mike Oldfield to Indian music. And if Ainslie’s album of two years ago, Remembering, was a venture into songwriting that gave the impression of taking stock, the all-instrumental Sanctuary is a striking marker of where he finds himself now and the profound importance to him of music.

He launches the album tonight at Celtic Connections, with the album’s core band of guitarist Steven Byrnes, Hamish Napier on keyboards, bassist James Lindsay, violinist Greg Lawson and percussionist Cormac Byrne, joined on stage by Ainslie’s frequent playing partner, Ali Hutton.

Guesting on the album are Indian percussion star Zakir Hussein on tabla, as well as the steely whine of the sarod – the Indian slide guitar – from Soumik Datta, but Sanctuary’s origins go way back, explains Ainslie, to childhood listening to a cassette of Mike Oldfield’s epic Tubular Bells in the family car. “It’s my first musical memory,” he says. “When you’re young you don’t really know what these things are, but I really liked it. I didn’t actually get it for myself until there was a TV documentary about it a few years ago and I realised that was the album I used to listen to.”

Ainslie grew up in Perthshire, playing in the venturesome Vale of Atholl Pipe Band and mentored by the late, great Gordon Duncan. In recent years, he has played in partnership with fellow Vale piper Hutton, with Irish piper Jarlath Henderson, and with the power-folk juggernaut The Treacherous Orchestra. Over the past decade or two, however, an important input has been Indian music, with Ainslie playing in the fusion quartet India Alba, as well as making many visits to the subcontinent over the past 15 years, most recently at RIFF (Rajasthan International Folk Festival) held under the towers of the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur.

The eastern influences are apparent right away in the sublime opening track of Sanctuary, with Greg Lawson’s sinuous, Indian-style violin sounding with Ainslie’s mellifluous low whistle, as well as bansuri Indian flute. It reminded me immediately of the lyrical title track of the fusion album, Making Music, that Zakir Hussein made three decades ago with flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, Jan Garbarek and John McLaughlin. Ainslie concedes readily that the Hussein piece was a long-standing inspiration – “The whole album really came about from this one track.”

Ainslie found himself reprising Making Music when he was among Scots musicians who performed with Hussein at Celtic Connections in 2011. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘No way…’ So I feel it’s all tied in.”

Other sections of Sanctuary are more in contemporary Celtic mode, such as the chirpily Irish-sounding Happy Place or the gentle air Sense of Family, while Ainslie’s Highland pipes blaze out in a jubilant finale.

Sanctuary, however, is essentially informed by Ainslie’s feelings about music-making as his refuge – and also, having been on the dry this past five years, as his substitute for the alcohol which is such an occupational hazard for the touring musician: “If I didn’t have music, I don’t know what I’d do. That’s the sanctuary thing.”

Following an instrumental climax, the album’s conclusion and indeed summation, is a poem written and recited by Jock Urquhart, who fashioned it from the musician’s thoughts. It’s titled ‘Escaping Gravity’, and if this album is anything to go by, Ainslie has fairly achieved lift-off. n

Ross Ainslie and the Sanctuary Band play the Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, 20 January. For more details, see www.celticconnections.com