Celtic Connections to honour Martyn Bennett

HE WAS the ground-breaking Scottish musician forced to give up performing at the peak of his career and whose life was cut short by cancer at the age of just 33.

Festival will honour Martyn Bennett close to the 10th anniversary of his death. Picture: TSPL

Now the legacy of Martyn Bennett is to be honoured at one of the nation’s biggest music festivals after a live revival of his final album was chosen for its flagship opening gala.

A 75-piece orchestra, hand-picked for the occasion, will stage the tribute to Bennett – a hugely acclaimed performer, composer and producer – in January, shortly before the tenth anniversary of his death.

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Bennett is regarded as one of Scotland’s leading musical talents of the 1990s and fused dance music with traditional melodies and instruments.

His last album, Grit, made when he was seriously ill, is hailed by many critics as his best work for the way he combined renditions of largely forgotten traditional songs with his own ground-breaking sound.

The album was released less than two years before Bennett died, in 2005.

Now Celtic Connections, where Bennett performed a number of times during its early years, will open with a one-off performance, masterminded by leading violinist Greg Lawson.

Lawson, principal second violinist with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, told The Scotsman: “Grit was totally different from anything he had produced beforehand.

“It wasn’t an album that was made to please anyone. It was a statement about tradition and that it shouldn’t be seen as a black-and-white photograph.

“For him to take those songs and mix them with those great big dirty grooves was such a contrast. It was extraordinary, but it was only possible because he respected and understood both.

“I’m so excited, because I’ve been thinking about this show for around nine years, but I’m just so afraid. I just thought I had to do it next year or I was never going to do it.”

Donald Shaw, the festival’s artistic director, said: “I’ve known that this show was in Greg’s head and we’ve actually spoken about it a lot over the years.

“It’s going to be a bit like unstitching a jacket. It will all come down to a melody or a song, and it will build up from there. That’s really what Martyn himself did – he was always looking for those moments to create his records.

“Most of the time I was making music, there was always a sense of looking behind you to see what your parents, and other generations, thought about what you were doing.

“Martyn was one of the first people to discard those shackles. It was a brave thing to make music for an audience that didn’t necessarily exist. But I don’t think he saw himself as a maverick in the way other people did.”

Bennett, born in Canada but brought up in the Highlands from the age of six by his folk singer mother Margaret, was the first traditional musician to win a coveted place at the City of Edinburgh Music School and was also a gifted student at the RSAMD, in Glasgow, where – unknown to his tutors – he visited traditional music sessions.

He later developed an interest in electronic music and, after buying a keyboard, sampler and mixing desk, quickly began to make a name for himself with solo live performances.

The piper and fiddler recorded his acclaimed debut in just seven days and quickly landed headline slots at Celtic Connections and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay party. He also performed at the world premiere of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and had a piece played at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

However, towards the end of 2000 he was diagnosed with cancer for the second time and never toured again.

The Celtic Connections gala will be staged less than a year after the premiere of a new stage show inspired by the life and legacy of Bennett, which coincided with the re-release of Grit. It was also one of the flagship projects in the Commonwealth Games culture programme.

BJ Stewart, spokesman for the Martyn Bennett Trust, set up by Bennett’s friends and family to continue his musical legacy, said: “Other than Martyn playing himself, there’s never been a performance of his music on anything like this scale before. It’s going to be massive.”

The live performance of Grit will open Celtic Connections on 15 January.