Su-a Lee / Dialogues

(Sky Child Records)

Fiddler, and founder of the Elias String Quarter, Donald Grant hits the nail squarely on the head in his contribution to the booklet with cellist Su-a Lee’s debut album: “The first time I met Su-a it felt like we’d been pals for years. Perhaps everyone feels the same way?”

That straightforward observation would undoubtedly be echoed by all the musicians who have contributed to the musical partnerships that are recorded here – only the final track (the Burns song Ae Fond Kiss) features the cellist on her own. But those 14 collaborators are just the tip of the iceberg. As a long-serving member of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as a founder of the ground-breaking spin-off group Mr McFall’s Chamber, and in innumerable other contexts, she has been a supremely approachable and generous player, always happy to find time to speak to members of the audience. From South Korea, by way of New York, Su-a Lee has become a crucial part of the Scottish musical infrastructure.

This lockdown project sees her teaming up with a few of those she has worked with in the past – singers Karine Polwart and Julie Fowlis, fiddlers Duncan Chisholm and Pekka Kuusisto, pianists Donald Shaw and James Ross among them – on very carefully chosen repertoire, all quite immaculately recorded and presented as thoughtfully in a visually handsome package.

The three tracks described as “The SetUp” (followed by sections called “The Development” and “The Resolution”) make for a very strong opening, with Shaw’s Baroque Suite followed by duos with bandoneonist Carel Kraayenhof and cellist Natalie Haas. Which excursions are highlights after that will be entirely a matter of personal taste, but Su-a’s collaboration with her husband Hamish Napier is certainly a standout, and his Strathspey and Reel two of the loveliest melodies on the album.

If there is a reservation to be made about Dialogues, it is that the diversity of those opening tracks is not sustained over the whole album, which – not excepting Kuusisto’s contribution – is mainly folk and traditional music-flavoured. Very fine though all the conversations here are, those who have followed Su-a’s eclectic practice over the past three decades know that she is as fluent a player alongside those who work in the jazz and rock fields, and in contemporary classical and so-called “world” music.

Ultimately, then, this volume of Dialogues offers the listener a rich serving of one facet of the versatile Su-a Lee. It therefore makes an eloquent case for further volumes.

Keith Bruce