2018: The Year in Folk & Jazz

The year began with the overwhelming cornucopia of Celtic Connections, opening in triumphant form with its 25th anniversary concert. A crammed concert bill included celebrated names from Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, India and America, but also two strikingly different reactions to the blight of war, with Syrian Maya Youssef's delicate plucking of her Arabic zither lamenting the destruction of her country, while Ian McCalman and the Far, Far from Ypres choir '“ of which more later '“anticipated the Armistice Centenary to come '“ moments of solemn reflection in an otherwise upbeat evening.

Hannah Rarity PIC: Beth Chalmers

New albums launched at Celtic Connections included piper and multi-instrumentalist Ross Ainslie’s elegantly flowing Sanctuary, as well as the compilation Nead nan Ceòladair – “The Musicians’ Nest”, featuring students, alumni and staff of the highly productive music courses which Lews Castle College and the University of the Highlands and Islands are delivering from the Uists. Two other Uist alumni, fiddler Jamie MacDonald and piper Christian Gamauf, also made their presence felt later in the year with a spirited debut album, The Pipe Slang.

The year saw fine albums, too, from the emerging Hannah Rarity and Borderer Lori Watson’s magical Yarrow Sessions project, while fiddler Aidan O’Rourke released the first volume of his daunting project to write a tune every day of the year, in correspondence with author James Robertson’s similarly wrought short story collection.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Other folk albums of note included The Railway, Hamish Napier’s warm evocation of the long-lost Speyside line; Mike Vass, as ever, preferred to take to the water with his engaging Notes from the Boat, while John Mulhearn’s Pipes proved an extraordinary sonic exploration of the great Highland bagpipe. And as the year approached its close, the Kinnaris Quintet hit the ground running with their debut, Free One.

Returning to piping, Glasgow’s Piping Live! festival in August hosted, among other things, Standard Habbie, an intriguing show reviving the reputation of an oft-neglected figure – Habbie Simpson, once town piper of Kilbarchan, an elegy for whom set a metrical trend that would influence the poetry of Burns and Fergusson.

Outwith the drone zone, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra continued to chalk up memorable performances, not least when they cast transformative brilliance over two well-loved classical pieces, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (with a Scots translation by Liz Lochhead, narrated by the inimitable Tam Dean Burn) and Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, both arranged with inventive wit by SNJO director Tommy Smith and guest pianist Makoto Ozone. The SNJO also brought vigorous new life to their recording of the Sweet Sister Suite, commissioned from the late Kenny Wheeler some 20 years earlier, with guest trumpeter Laura Jurd and vocalist Irini Arabatzi.

July’s Glasgow Jazz Festival included two terrific celebrations of departed jazz heroes. Harpist Alina Bzhezhinska with her superb quartet reprised the under-acknowledged music of Alice Coltrane, while guitarist Nigel Clark and trumpeter Tom MacNiven led a powerful and warm-hearted salute to the music of the influential Scots saxophonist Bobby Wellins.

Edinburgh Jazz Festival celebrated its 40th anniversary with the mandatory gala bash, but a couple of its other outstanding gigs were the Scottish debut of New York trumpeter Keyon Harrold and his fusion quintet, cooking up a simmering counterblast to the racism scarring US society, and the stellar trio of saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Dave Holland and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain.

It was a good year for another Edinburgh Jazz Festival guest, pianist Fergus McCreadie, just turned 21, whose eloquently Scots-accented jazz informed a stunning debut album, Turas. Another notable recording was the compelling In House Science from Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen’s trio with drummer Paolo Vinaccia and Scots saxophonist (and SNJO director) Tommy Smith.

Sad losses included trumpeter Hugh Masakela – South African jazz pioneer and anti-apartheid campaigner – and three Irish folk icons as influential in Scotland as at home, piper Liam O’Flynn, bouzouki virtuoso Alec Finn and pianist and composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. And the closing weeks of the year brought two more much-lamented passings – those of Professor Frank Bechhofer, Edinburgh University academic and tireless folk music promoter, and Mike Hart MBE, musician and founder-director of the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival.

And as the countless dead of the First World War were numbered yet again, November’s Armistice centenary drew responses from musicians such as ex-Bellowhead fiddler Sam Sweeney’s whose The Unfinished Violin featured a fiddle whose maker didn’t survive to play it, and jazz singer Jessica Radcliffe’s righteously angry Remembrance, while the multi-media stage show Far, Far from Ypres, directed by Ian McCalman and featuring many folk luminaries, played various venues, culminating in a packed and emotional Usher Hall show on Armistice Day itself, which went on to win Event of the Year category in this month’s Scots Trad Music Awards. - Jim Gilchrist