Oliver Schroer & the Stewed Tomatoes
Freedom Row (Borealis Records BCD201, 2010)
Freedom Row was released a few months ago and deserves special attention as it is the last work recorded by renowned Canadian fiddler Oliver Schroer. A beloved figure in the Ontario folk music scene, Schroer was known for crossing musical boundaries, ranging from Celtic music and folk rock to folk-rooted jazz and world music.
The album, which features Schroer and his band the Stewed Tomatoes, was originally started in 1997. Schroer was busy with other projects and put it on hold for 10 years. Freedom Row includes some of the original 1997 material and new pieces recorded as Schroer was dying from leukemia. Despite the difficulties he was able to complete the sessions.
On Freedom Row you’ll find Celtic inspired pieces, Malian influences, the sing along tune ‘All the little Children of the world’, a special reel titled “The Blue Rel’ that includes throat singer Tanya Tagaq, operatic singer Christine Duncan and Basque percussionists Felipe Ugarte and Imanol Ugarte on the chalaparta; two lively pieces composed during Schroer’s stay in Mexico, a bit of funk and folk-jazz pieces.
Oliver Schroer (June 18, 1956 – July 3, 2008) was a prolific composer, recording ten CDs in 14 years. He performed in Europe and North America in clubs, cathedrals, and New York’s Lincoln Center. Altogether, he produced or performed on over 100 albums of new traditional, acoustic, and popular music, and wrote more than 1,000 pieces of music.
He recorded with artists such as Jimmy Webb and Barry Mann, Canadian singers James Keelaghan, Loreena McKennitt and Sylvia Tyson, acoustic guitar musicians Jesse Cook and Don Ross, East Coast rockers Great Big Sea, and West Coast rockers Spirit of the West.
Schroer’s music frequently employed violin harmonic and double stop techniques to create distinctly modern sounds. Schroer taught and mentored intensively in Smithers, British Columbia, in the Canadian Pacific Northwest over the last seven years of his life. He wrote a tune for each of the young people he taught – 59 in total – and recorded the tunes with Emilyn Stam, a young pianist from Smithers. His album Smithers is a thank-you album recorded for Smithers.
As a music educator, Schroer developed The Twisted String, a series of squads of young fiddlers and other musicians. Schroer composed the music for these groups.
His album Camino was recorded in churches along the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail in northern Spain. Schroer walked 1,000 km of the trail in 2004 with his wife and two friends, carrying a portable recording studio. To save weight, he did not bring a violin case. He carried his instrument wrapped in a sleeping bag in his backpack, “like my own precious relic, carefully packed in its reliquary of socks and underwear.” The album features solo playing, occasionally against a background of local sounds such as church bells, birds, and monastic voices.
In 2007, Schroer was diagnosed with leukemia, which proved to be untreatable. A tribute concert for Schroer was held on February 19, 2008 at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. It featured the Twisted String Project, seventeen kids, aged 9 through 18, led by two of Oliver’s students. They raised the money through private donations to fly to Toronto from the B.C. coast, just so they could take part in the concerts. CBC recorded the concert and it was broadcast on CBC Radio 2’s Canada Live on April 7, 2008.
Schroer’s last concert was performed on June 5, 2008. In a letter to his fans on April 30 when he first announced his intention to do this concert, he called it Oliver’s Last Concert on his Tour of this Planet. He asked that his sold-out audience clap, not cry, and apologized for not being his normal glad-handing self; the risk of infection from personal contact would have been much too great.
During his final illness, Schroer said of his compositions, “I used to write a lot of jigs, reels and waltzes – as a matter of fact I still do. But over the years new kinds of melodies emerged – more rarefied, harder to pin down. There were prayers, incantations, whimsies, melismas, mysteriosos, heisenbergs, fractal reels, forest blues, blessings… They are not so much entertainment tunes, but music that expresses other important things about my relationship to life. This music is, dare I say, more spiritual.”
Schroer composed his final piece of music, Poise, on July 2, 2008. He died the following morning as a result of his leukemia. His last words were, “Well, I guess no excursions today.”
Some four months after his death, Schroer’s CD Hymns and Hers was awarded two Canadian Folk Music Awards for “instrumental Solo Artist Of The Year” and “Pushing The Boundaries.”
Freedom Row is the final work of an excellent fiddler who crossed musical boundaries with ease, creating insightful Celtic pieces as well as genre-defying compositions.
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