What The Reviewers Say

VRCD 336, VRCS 336

VIVIAN WILLIAMS, PHIL WILLIAMS, HARLEY BRAY: WINTER MOON

Vivian Williams' "Winter Moon" offers the listener a delightful collection of mainly self-penned numbers. Assisted and complimented here by Phil Williams (guitar and bass) and Harley Bray (banjo), Ms. Williams gives us fourteen of her own compositions, five traditional pieces and two tunes from other composers. Williams and company have taken great care with these recordings. The ensemble works smoothly and effortless together with Phil Williams and Bray giving Williams tasteful support to her fiddle playing. One can hear and feel the pure pleasure these musicians must receive from playing fine tunes well. All of the "T's" - taste, tone, time, technique, touch - abound. Students of traditional music, American tunes and bluegrass as a melodic style will find "Winter Moon" a thoroughly engaging listening experience. Highly recommended. (Bluegrass Unlimited)

*****

"Winter Moon" is a treat to listen to for many reasons. There is the pleasure of discovery, as 14 of the 21 tunes here were composed by Vivian Williams. There's the rare experience of Harley Bray's elegant, seldom-recorded melodic banjo playing, so completely appropriate to the music, complemented by Phil Williams, who provides a textbook in imaginative backup guitar work. This is not a "hot licks" tape, but rather an attempt at a musical narrative. The original tunes have titles relating to places and events in the Northwest, and seem to flow from one to another as though we had been lucky enough to stumble upon a really good picking session late one night. (Bluegrass Gazette)

*****

I had become convinced that old-time music (the Southern-white fiddle and banjo music out of which evolved modern bluegrass) was incapable of growth. It seemed that the whole definition of the form lay in its preservation as a museum piece -- a kind of preserve or last resting place for stuffy academics and witless music reactionaries.

I am glad to say that "Winter Moon" proves me abundantly wrong. Fiddler Vivian Williams has composed (yes, composed!) a number of striking tunes that combine singularly original melodies with the rhythmic and stylistic requirements of the form. She is a prize-winning fiddler with long experience playing for dances around her native Seattle, so her playing has the lift and drive needed for good barn-dancing.

Williams is well complemented by the melodic banjo playing of Harley Bray, a veteran of the '60's era bluegrass pioneers the Bray Brothers and the Bluegrass Gentlemen. Bray's playing is restrained and tasteful at all times, never cluttering the lean, hollow arrangements with extra notes or virtuosity for its own sake. It could be argued that "Winter Moon" is not old-time music as such because the banjo is not played clawhammer style. While it is true that Bray's modified Scruggs picking is not as dusty with age as a purist might like, his understanding of the melodies and the sparkling variations he is able to create in his solos make this album a masterpiece of progressive old-time music. Now there's an oxymoron! (The Trenton Times)

*****

This is another album that came out early and then defied all comers to top it. It may be a paradox to call it "new" old-time music, but Vivian Williams' original fiddle tunes are an important addition to the repertory, and Harley Bray's lyrical banjo-picking supports them admirably. (The Trenton Times)

[Selected by this reviewer as one of "the very best recordings, to be found anywhere, of 1990".]

*****

Remember Harley Bray? with the Bluegrass Gentlemen & or Bray Brothers. That doesn't seem like so long ago, but looking back it's been around 25 years. My how time flies. Anyway here is Harley teamed up with the Williams, great West coast fiddle & guitar duo. They are still going strong, doing those great sounds of an earlier era. This is fine material and no bluegrass fiddle fan should pass it up. (Disc Collector)

*****

Vivian Williams has been a "fiddling fixture" in the Northwest for the past thirty years. For the past few years she has performed in a band which includes Phil Williams, her husband, who ably backs her on guitar and bass, and Harley Bray on banjo. Ms. Williams is a very good fiddler with a strong resonant tone, plenty of drive, and an abundance of double stops. Her breakdowns are delightfully fluid with a Kenny Baker flavor while her slow tunes, mostly written by her, are hauntingly beautiful. This cassette, with a generous twenty-one tunes, is a bargain. It's chock full of fine fiddling and is highly recommended. (Devil's Box)

*****

This attractively packaged and well-recorded tape on the Voyager label is an excellent collection of fiddle music by three well-seasoned musicians. The tightness of their instrumentation, and their attention to the melodies create a close band sound that is outstanding. Their music can best be described as traditional music with elements of both old-time and bluegrass included.

My favorite bluegrass groups are the ones that approach the music from an old-time standpoint. All the early practitioners of bluegrass music sprang from old-time music. The cultural "feel" and the understanding of timing and melody are necessary for the proper foundation. This group of Williams, Bray, and Williams have that foundation.

Vivian Williams, from the Pacific Northwest, has been playing traditional music for over 30 years. Her fiddle style is a pleasing blend of old-time and bluegrass, and she's won many fiddle contests in the West and in Canada. On some tunes, like her own "Sand Hill", she reminds me of the legendary bluegrass fiddler, Kenny Baker. Others like "Mississippi Sawyer" and "Dance Around Molly" are more reminiscent of the Galax, Virginia fiddle sound. My other favorites are "Squire Creek" and "North Trunk Highway", two more original tunes. In all Vivian contributes 14 original selections, and her inclusion of waltzes and blues pieces are added highpoints.

Harley Bray performed in the Midwest with the Bray Brothers and the Bluegrass Gentlemen in the late 1950's and early 1960's. His picking is rock solid on tune after tune, and seldom do you hear a banjo player capable of such smooth melody work. Harley trades lead with Vivian on most tunes and provides flawless backup while always conscious of the traditional sound.

Phil Williams, Vivian's husband, is also a Pacific Northwest native. He and Vivian were long-term members of the Seattle-based bluegrass band, Tall Timber. Phil provides the guitar and bass sounds on this recording. His use of bass line runs on the guitar tastefully round out the band's tight sound.

I have played this tape more than any recording I've reviewed in the last two years. First of all, I enjoy good dance music, but more importantly, the collection of 21 instrumentals is excellent. I would very much like to meet and to hear Vivian Williams, Harley Bray, and Phil Williams in person. (Old Time Herald)

*****

Harley Bray created quite a stir during the 1960's as banjoist of the Bray Brothers or Bluegrass Gentlemen, who released an album on Liberty, but whose best work appeared later on Rounder. Here he teams with champion fiddler Vivian Williams and guitarist Phil Williams on a set that features bluegrass banjo, yet definitely has an old time feel. (International Bluegrass Music Association)

*****

Vivian is a strong fiddler with wonderful tone. She varies the tempo with slow mood pieces, full throttle breakdowns, waltzes, a hornpipe, all with the magic banjo of Harley Bray trading leads and providing surprising backup licks. Phil Williams' solid guitar provides the steady underpinning that allows Harley and Vivian to stretch out. Especially nice are the two banjo/fiddle duets, "Gobblers Knob" and "Cluck Old Hen", which sound particularly "old timey". (Victory Review)

*****

If I told you that this was a tape of 14 original fiddle tunes, with five traditional ones, and one Bill Monroe number thrown in for good measure, you probably would put it on your "tapes I'm going to get one of these days" list. That would be your first mistake. The second would be to assume that Vivian Williams uses the traditional tunes as a springboard to go off in a new and strange direction in fiddle music. Usually, it's not hard to recognize which tunes are original and which are traditional on a tape, but on "Winter Moon", all 21 tunes blend together so consistently that it's difficult to tell which ones are new and which are old.

One thing which contributes to this fine collection of new traditional music is the instrumentation. The most obvious is Vivian Williams' fiddling. She plays with a very expressive, lyrical style which reminds me of Kevin Burke's approach to Irish fiddling. I should point out, however, that Vivian Williams' fiddle style is distinctly American, from the key and structure of the melodies to the ornamentation. Phil Williams plays guitar and bass back-up, though he never takes the lead, his presence is always the framework for the tunes. Harley Bray plays banjo throughout the tape, sometimes changing up the sound by taking the melody solo for a while. He plays a basic three-finger style that is, like everything else on "Winter Moon", simple, and beautiful because of it simplicity.

This is a tape with no frills, nothing fancy or surprising, just a bunch of good fiddle tunes that I haven't gotten tired of listening to yet. (Dirty Linen)

*****

I reviewed the cassette release of this recording in May '89 and nothing has changed from the high opinion I held then. Vivian is a champion fiddler, equally at ease with bluegrass, Texas, old-time and contra styles. She's a dandy composer, too, having penned two-thirds of these 21 tunes. Harley, late of the Bray Brothers, helped define and refine bluegrass banjo in the '60's. Phil's rhythm guitar is the anchor whence the others inventively roam, though he never lets them stray beyond the tune frameworks. This is a delectable romp through many moods of traditional fiddle and banjo music. (Victory Review)

*****

If you're convinced that old-time music is incapable of growth, that the whole definition of the form lies in its preservation as a museum piece, this album will prove you abundantly wrong. Fiddler Vivian Williams' strikingly original tunes combine singularly original melodies with the rhythmic and stylistic requirements of the form. Williams is well-complemented by the melodic banjo playing of Harley Bray. Bray's playing is restrained and tasteful at all times, never cluttering the lean arrangements with extra notes or virtuosity for its own sake. Bray's understanding of the melodies and the sparkling variations he creates make this album a masterpiece of progressive old-time music. (Sing Out)

*****

There have yet to be many CDs of fiddle music, but this is a good one and a welcome addition to the library. There are 21 tunes here, totaling almost 60 minutes, nicely played by Vivian Williams with solid banjo, guitar and acoustic bass backup. (County Sales Newsletter)

*****

The fiddle and banjo are truly a part of Americana, and this collection is a down-home musical journey through the backwoods of Washington and the characters and people who inhabit them. (Option)

*****

Though not terribly well known outside of the Pacific Northwest, fiddler Vivian WIlliams is legendary in that region for the beauty of both her fiddling and of her compositions, which are among the finest fiddle tunes - traditional or modern - in the American repertoire. Winter Moon, originally recorded in the late 1980s and reissued on CD in 2001, consists primarily of her own tunes, along with such traditional favorites as "Mississippi Sawyer" and "Cluck Old Hen." Williams is accompanied by her husband, guitarist Phil Williams, and banjoist Harley Bray, who plays in a melodic bluegrass style that perfectly complements Williams' elegant and sweet-toned fiddling. The quality of the music on this album is consistently very high and highlights are a little difficult to identify, but the fiddling on Williams' rather unusual composition "Redstone" is particularly nice, as is her rendition of the traditional "Jean Latippe." Any lover of traditional music who tends to gravitate more towards Capte Breton than Appalachian fiddle music will find much to love here. (All-Music Guide)

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