Ross Ainslie – Sanctuary

Album Review | Great White Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5

Ross Ainslie is an accomplished musician and composer, clearly always looking outwards and onwards.  After years of playing with Salsa Celtica, India Alba, Treacherous Orchestra and alongside musicians like Jarlath Henderson and Charlie Mckerron, there are clearly a lot of elements and threads running through all aspects of his work.  Sanctuary is a landmark album, it is Ross Ainslie’s third release and it represents the fruition of a dream to put together an album designed to be listened to as a continuous piece like a journey.  Sanctuary also represents a physical journey with music influenced by travels and ever widening experiences of the world’s music and a personal journey through five years of sobriety.  Ainslie reflects that the life of the journeyman, travelling musician, involves a lot of social drinking.  Reacting to this he found himself spending time on the road by himself.  With track titles like “Inner Sanctuary”, “Protect Yourself” and “Beautiful Mysteries”, on a collection titled Sanctuary, it is clear there is a cathartic or therapeutic process here.  Ross himself states that the title is a description of the role music played in being a refuge and a creative pick me up.  But it is a mistake to overstate just that part of the process, what makes this album so arresting is the quality of the music and playing that this refocused creativity and new journey has uncovered.  “Inner Sanctuary” opens with some expansive road noise atmospherics and cinematic marimba like keyboards.  Influenced by travels in India a decidedly eastern violin and the wonderfully expansive Bansuri, a Hindustani side blown bamboo flute begin this album of travels.  The soothing lilt on such a rich opening track and the hypnotic sounds of that flute and exotic violin put me in mind of Zakir Hussain’s seminal 1986 ECM album Making Music, a milestone in telepathic fusion between genres and styles of music.  Interestingly Hussain plays on this album.  “Happy Place” while on more traditional instrumental ground is no less beautiful with its captivating stuttering whistle and banjo refrain.  It serves as a kind of sonic palette cleanser before the stately beauty of “Sense of Family”.  Ainslie is at his most lyrical and most emotional when he slows right down and just smoulders, which he does perfectly here.  An aching fiddle melody over atmospherics of rain or water, accompanied by Steven Byrne’s perfect guitar, along with “Inner Sanctuary” represents some of the albums most beautiful moments.  When the Pipes join the melody then superlatives run out.  At its most beautiful on the slow and fleeter footed numbers this album also reminds me strongly of Donal Lunny’s superb 1987 self-titled live album, one of the finest instrumental Celtic music albums every recorded.  One of Ross Ainslie’s stated reference points was Mike Oldfield’s minimal inspired opus Tubular Bells and at times, like on “Protect Yourself” the whistles and pipes spiral like widdly prog guitar.  Similarly musically interesting are the keyboard textures on “Surroundings”, another example of the wide reach of this album.  “Home in Another Dimension” features the Indian master musician Zakir Hussain on Tabla, the track as a whole is a wonderful mix of fast tempo and contemplative with a fine sense of the east provided by the percussion and Soumir Datta’s Sarod.  “Home in Another Dimension” and “Cloud Surfing” are well paced high points on this excellent album finely balancing break neck fast finger runs with slower passages.  “Escaping Gravity” is a loopy sounding tune with some truly uplifting poetic words delivered by Jock Urquhart.  The metaphorical examination of escaping the strong pull of the expected is a profound mission statement of intent.  This is an album that dexterously mixes stunning deft and lively traditional playing with some truly enlightened passages, inspired and touched by travels and experience.  That the music describes a physical and spiritual journey gives an album that is never less than interesting an extra sense of depth and added beauty.