“Reflections (For Paul Horn)” by Bill McBirnie

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If and when Bill McBirnie reads this review, I hesitate to say whether he will laugh, be disheartened, or possibly both when he sees my knowledge of flute playing begins and ends with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. 

From such inauspicious beginnings, we launch into this review. 

I don’t think it disqualifies me from writing a review about Bill McBirnie’s new album Reflections (For Paul Horn). I bring the perspective of an earnest novice, well-versed in music but able to impose a fresh perspective on my evaluation of McBirnie’s art. The album opens with its title song, and “Reflections” is a near-ideal way to introduce his ambition to listeners. The contrast of languid melodies along with brief, frantic passages makes for a winning formula.

The pauses remind me of playwright Harold Pinter’s use of such moments as a dramatic device. It’s all about imbuing the cuts with an increased dynamic range that they perhaps couldn’t achieve without such lulls in the playing. “Wind & Sky” is an especially effective look at those pauses in the action. McBirnie draws a stark contrast between the relative dearth of such moments during the song’s first half against a sharper use of space during the track’s second half. It is an able invocation of the natural world that other instruments are seldom equipped to mimic. 

 He finds great elasticity in the instrument. I would not assume, offhand, that solo or alto flute can create diverse textures without added accompaniment. Tracks such as “Masada Sunrise”, however, prove me wrong. The desert is never far from this cut, anyone who understands the source of the song title will attest to McBirnie’s near-filmic grasp of place, and his merger of technique and improvisation reaches one of its zeniths with this performance. 

“Kitten & Moth” is another cut that makes exceptionally artful use of space. McBirnie deserves fulsome credit for his capacity to conjure imagery with his song titles that the performance fleshes out for listeners. It isn’t difficult to hear this tune and imagine a small kitten pawing after a lone moth forever flying just out of its reach and the song’s procession from the song’s first hesitating seconds into a much more assured direction brings this scenario to vivid life for me. 

He recalls some of the spirituality of “Masada Sunrise” with the late cut “Coral Garden”. His ability to summon tactile sensations through his music comes to the fore once again, and the song is redolent with the smells and sounds implied by its song title. I am particularly taken, however, by the vibrant improvisations of the seventh cut “Monk’s Strut” and loved on first listen how McBirnie engages with his instrument in such a direct and forceful manner. It’s the one track on this album that I’d point to as an ideal introduction for listeners perhaps put off by the idea of a single flute carrying eight tracks. McBirnie proves, beyond any doubt, that he’s up to that seemingly daunting task. His album honoring Paul Horn’s influence, Reflections (For Paul Horn), can satisfy all but the most closed-minded listeners. 

Trace Whittaker