In the great catechism of cliché, jazz musicians are generally regarded as creatures of the night, inhabiting dim cellars, who might just crumble away, vampire-like, if enticed out too early in the bright light of day. Singer Sophie Bancroft, however, is as likely to be found striding across the Scottish landscape – and taking photographs as she goes – if her latest project is anything to go by.
Her new album, entitled simply Songs, sees her furthering the musical partnership she struck up two years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe with the Berlin-based American pianist Louis Durra. It’s tempting to describe much of the album, which combines Bancroft’s own new compositions and back-catalogue choices with some interesting covers, as “jazz pastoral”, as she blends her mellifluously jazz-informed vocals with a certain folk sensibility (including her own acoustic guitar accompaniments) in numbers which are often love songs, but as often as not declaring her affection for the landscapes which inspire her as much as for any individual.
The album is arranged and produced with great clarity by Durra, who also accompanies Bancroft, along with her husband Tom Lyne on double bass and Stuart Brown on drums. Songs such as I Carried Your Heart in Mine, inspired, she says, by the big tree country around Birnam, and leading into a brief reprise of Burns’s enduring testament of long-lived affection, John Anderson My Jo, or the yearning of Calgary Bay, already attracting cover versions from the likes of Liane Carroll, blend a jazzy languor with rootsy warm-heartedness.
Field of Poppies, with its gently insistent tom-toms and woody rumble of bass, further slides into echoing soporific sensuousness, while Friday Morning in Ardkinglass sees Bancroft’s wordless vocalising evoking the estate at the head of Loch Fyne where Bancroft and other members of the Pathhead Collective enjoyed a week-long residency last year as part of their Creative Places award which recognised her Midlothian home village as a hotbed of music-making.
From a rather different inspirational source comes the opening number on the album, an unlikely sounding but affectingly plaintive cover of the Dolly Parton hit Jolene. “Certain songs just grab me,” Bancroft says. “I come across a lot of songs because I do a lot of teaching and I find that if I’m working on a song with someone, it’ll suddenly grab me. I like taking songs like that which are very heavy, very moving, and finding my own way with them.” Then there’s a version of Killing the Blues which sees Durra, normally an inspired deconstructor of songs which don’t often find their way into the jazz repertoire, sounding wonderfully down-homey on piano, while his one instrumental excursion is a ruminative take on Bancroft’s Bird of Paradise.
The folk element, says Bancroft, has informed her writing for a long time, not just from living amid the musical melting pot of “The Heid”, as Pathhead is known locally, but from growing up in the multifarious music scenes of Edinburgh and being part of the formidable jazz family which also produced her twin brothers, the musicians Phil and Tom Bancroft. She was also involved in some of Jim Sutherland’s early folk-fusion work.
The rural rambles which inform the songs have become an important strand of her creativity. “I walk every day and a lot of my recent writing is drawing on what I see on my walks,” she says, adding that a further extension of this interest has been her landscape photography – examples of which adorn the album sleeve.
“It was a real treat working with Louis because he’s meticulous, takes absolute care,” says Bancroft. The pair’s initial Fringe collaboration found its way into the festival’s Made In Scotland showcase, and the new recording has been enabled by Creative Scotland’s Quality Production funding, which is also assisting her in developing her images for back projection during concerts, while the end of this month will see her launch her own series of landscape greeting cards, each of which will carry a QR code, accessing lines from an appropriate song and streaming the song itself.
Cards that sing to you? “Absolutely. I find it very exciting, and when I’m out walking now, I find using the camera really focuses my attention more than ever before on what I’m seeing. So, overall, it’s a very interesting creative process.”
Bancroft is still arranging gigs with the Songs band, but can confirm that Durra, Lyne and Brown will all be with her at Pathhead Village Hall to launch the album on 6 June.