Sax man Ben Bryden on getting into a Harris state of mind for his new album

Ben Bryden PIC: Erika Kapin
Ben Bryden PIC: Erika Kapin
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The video for Scarista, a standout track from Dumfries-born, New York-based saxophonist Ben Bryden’s new album, splices his music with artwork by his father, the printmaker Hugh Bryden. The result is a grainy, flickering sequence of shifting seas and skies, with New York waterfront and rocky Hebridean shore pulsing and merging with the music.

The cyclic imagery echoes both the convolutions suggested by the album title, Figure of Eight, and the electronic looping that creates a strange, elemental-sounding backdrop to the tune’s stately, Scottish-tinged saxophone figure, those alternating land- and townscapes reflecting the ebb and flow of the Atlantic and the tugging of his two worlds.

“That video is basically a representation of what the whole album is about,” says Bryden, speaking from his home in West Harlem. Figure of Eight, he explains, marks his tenth year in New York, and he describes it rather wonderfully, as “a palindromic story arc … an expression of musical wanderlust,” evoking his decade in the Big Apple, where he graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 2011.

The album took shape during a spell of “green card purgatory” when bureaucracy was frustrating his attempts to travel. “It was a kind of requiem for the lost ability to travel home, which I was used to doing regularly. Also, after a decade, you notice changes in yourself and the way you view the world, even the way you talk a bit.

“I still feel a little bit like an outsider in New York, and I think that’s true for most people who move here, but I also feel a growing distance between myself and Scotland, despite my best efforts. It’s not a traumatic thing; it’s part of growing up. You kind of lose connection to people and places from your past and acquire new ones.”

Among other things, he has acquired an American wife, Lucretia, and Scarista is more than just a stirring evocation of place – Scarista is the west Harris beach where he proposed to her in the summer of 2017, during a holiday. “I had this vision of proposing on a beach, on the western edge of Scotland, beside the sea so there would be a physical connection to the US. On that stretch of Harris there are a number of golden beaches and as we drove down I was scoping them, deciding which would be the best one and plucking up the courage to pull in.”

Hence the litany of other Harris beach names – Luskentyre, Sielebost, Horgabost, Bostadh – which intersperse the longer tracks on the album, brief distillates of studio sound, which he describes as “like background radiation, like a little bit of your universe that’s always there no matter where you go and which show through no matter what’s going on.”

The tightly empathetic quartet for the recording features bassist (and Bryden’s longstanding bandmate since their days at the Manhattan School together) Desmond White, the award-winning New York-based British guitarist Phil Robson and drummer Raj Jayaweera, with another tenor saxophonist, Steven Delannoye, from Bryden’s UK touring band Bright Noise, guesting on two tracks.

Material ranges divertingly in style, from the gritty urban rock of The Art of Fielding to the lyrical folk-inflected tones of Scarista, or Goodbye Lullaby with its drowsily drifting twin saxes. “I was very careful about how I put the album together, so it would be diverse in its genres and influences but still have flow,” says Bryden, who actually wrote several of the tunes on guitar, an instrument he has long played for pleasure. “They started out with words, then I reverse-engineered them to make them more applicable to instrumental jazz.”

There’s a splendid moment of unabashed nostalgia when the gutsy swagger of one particularly drum and guitar-driven track gives way to the gentle cadences of the Burns song Flow Gently Sweet Afton, suggesting that, despite everything, Bryden manages to straddle old and new worlds with some panache. Jim Gilchrist

Figure of Eight is out now on Circavision Productions, see