The website of multi-instrumentalist Mary Vanhoozer proclaims her mission of ‘restoring beauty one note at a time.’ She accomplishes this mission equally in the crystalline clarity of Bach’s partitas, in which her classical training can be clearly heard, as well as in the earthy authenticity of her folk albums. September 2020 marked the release of Vanhoozer’s third original folk album, Jubilate. While Jubilate may be distinct from the style expected of a conservatory trained pianist, it perpetuates and proclaims her mission of restoring beauty though music-making in an intimate and authentic manner that is urgently needed in our disoriented, digitalised society. Living up to its title, Jubilate offers an effusive celebration of life in all its manifestations, from intimate familial moments to the splendours of nature. Like Vanhoozer’s previous releases, Songs of Day and Night and Bard and Ceilidh, this album draws richly upon her Scottish roots, offering a sense of homecoming and simplicity to its listeners, wherever they may be.
As inspiration for this album, Vanhoozer quotes John 1:5 (‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’) and Samwise Gamgee from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings (‘There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for’). ‘It’s worth playing music for too,’ Vanhoozer adds. Accordingly, each of the fourteen original tunes offers a touchstone for the lonely or disheartened listener, aiding him or her in remembering homelands abandoned, dance partners distanced, and songs stifled, as well as in returning to jubilant song. The first song, ‘Joyful Noise,’ begins with unabashed delight and becomes something of a battle cry, a fierce refusal to succumb to fear and, instead, to churn out such worries in the rollicking cycles of a folk tune. This is followed by ‘The Seahorse,’ which is initially more introverted, shimmering in and out of focus like its scintillating subject. This, too, though, grows from a soft, swimming tune into a full gallop, charging forward in purposeful rejoicing.
Coupling the raw acoustics of the hurdy gurdy, hammered dulcimer, djembe, tambourine, and fiddle with the more polished timbres of the piano and cello, Vanhoozer conjures an ensemble-of-one that is alternately vivacious and visceral, as well as introspective and introverted. The scraping of double-stops, the grinding of the hurdy-gurdy, and the percussiveness of the dulcimer renew in the listener a sense of embodiment and placedness, despite our pandemic-induced exodus to the digital realm. In the midst of isolation and internet interactions, Jubilate is evocative of simpler times when, although not free from trials, we could at least endure them together, joining hands in a reel without fear of contagion. ‘The Troubadours,’ for instance, is a toe-tapping anthem that suggests impending revelry and transitions well into ‘Glowing Embers,’ which is evocative of a fading fire after a night of fellowship. Similarly, the percussion and strings of ‘The Whiskered Owl’ give way to the thrill of ‘Turkish Delight,’ which appears to draw upon the music of Turkish bands even amidst the album’s heavily Scottish influences. There is perhaps a glimmer of Narnian enchantment in these tunes as well, offering hope to the listener who, like the Pevensie children and mournful Narnians, has endured a near-hopeless winter and yearns for a return to the warmth of dancing and community. Likewise, ‘Harvest Moon’ and ‘Brisk Morning’ capture the crispening delight of an autumn morning and whisper together of the changing of seasons, which I imagine most listeners crave in the wake of an altogether too-long and solitary year.
In the midst of isolation and internet interactions, Jubilate is evocative of simpler times when, although not free from trials, we could at least endure them together, joining hands in a reel without fear of contagion.
Even as Jubilate reflects and renews a sense of unbridled rejoicing, it also contains a sense of quiet intimacy. ‘Mama in the Mornin,’ for example, calls to mind the familiar, often underappreciated scenes we all hold dear. Now disconnected from loved ones, this tune provides a glimpse of what life used to be and ought to be, whether in childhood or simply in ordinary moments taken for granted before the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘A Missing Piece’ takes up this strain of loss, keening softly in a manner that is at once particular and general, personal and universal. The overall feeling of this album is not one of naïve happiness, then, but rather of a deep and determined joy in remembering how things should be and looking toward their restoration. Even the breathiness of Vanhoozer’s voice attests to this hope, for it reassures listeners of their own breath, their life and spirit that endure even in an age of despair and disease. It reminds us that our created purpose is to sing and to rejoice together, even in a world of choked lungs.
The title piece, ‘Jubilate Deo,’ is perhaps more reserved than expected. It feels tremulous, hopeful but not yet brazen as the trumpets of jubilee. In this, ‘Jubilate Deo’ feels deeply personal, for it echoes of the small, still voice in the silence, the divine voice which compels ‘those who have ears to hear’ to rejoice in even the darkest of times and the most sombre of silences. Taking up this resilient joy, the final tune, ‘Water Nymphs,’ sends its listeners onward and upward in the hopeful spirit of a ceilidh, serving as a light-hearted benediction that begs listeners to remember that there is beauty to be found and appreciated, that adventures will come again, and that the old enchantment shall be restored. While listening to Jubilate is a delight in itself, it is worth noting that Vanhoozer also invites listeners to actively participate in her jubilation. Printed music is available for purchase, complete with Vanhoozer’s pedagogical notes, so that even amateurs can join in the restorative act of music-making. As live music struggles to adapt and return amidst pandemic restrictions, Jubilate preserves the resilient joy of a community engaged in singing and dancing, in praising and hoping amidst the darkest of times.
Cover art, Venita Oberholster