Arts review of 2017: Jim Gilchrist on the year in folk & jazz

Karine Polwart
Karine Polwart
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Glasgow’s mammoth Celtic Connections tends to tilt any survey of the past year’s music inevitably January-wards. This year’s behemoth of roots music saw the welcome reformation of Jim Sutherland’s pan-European folk orchestra, La Banda Europa, in a mighty musical riposte to the wan spirits of xenophobia invoked by political events of the previous months. The festival saw further heartening cross-cultural interaction in some explosive exchanges between Scots percussionist Evelyn Glennie and Indian drumming star Trilok Gurtu, while another highlight was the “Night for Angus”, with Shooglenifty leading a celebration of their sadly departed fiddler, Angus R Grant, which would win “Event of the Year” category at last month’s Scots Trad Awards.

It was once more a year of anniversaries, not least with folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention chalking up their 50th in rumbustious form at Celtic Connections. Another veteran, singer-songwriter Rab Noakes had multiple reasons to be cheerful, marking his 70th birthday, 50th year as a performer, and his emergence from cancer by touring songs from his neatly-titled EP, The Treatment Tapes.

Tommy Smith PIC: Derek Clark

Tommy Smith PIC: Derek Clark

The Clarsach Society, having witnessed an astonishing revival of the Scottish harp, celebrated its 85th birthday last year, but this spring it published a meticulously researched history, In Good Hands, whose author, Dr Stuart Eydmann, described the renaissance as “one of the nation’s most significant musical achievements of the past century”. Also looking back was the Edinburgh International Festival with Very Cellular Songs, an engaging and unashamedly nostalgic tribute to the inimitable Incredible String Band.

Amid the year’s hairst of folk albums, Karine Polwart transposed her extraordinary stage show, Wind Resistance, into a surprisingly effective recording, award-winning young fiddler Ryan Young’s debut album came well up to expectation, while another fiddle player, Lauren MacColl, looked to the dark lore of her native Black Isle for her suite The Seer.

Last month’s Scottish Fiddle Festival produced further string-driven magic, not least during a memorable recital from Argyllshire veteran Archie McAllister and, from the other side of the Atlantic, the mercurial young Jeremy Kittel Trio.

The folk scene was shocked in February by the sudden death of Eberhard “Paddy” Bort, whose ebullient presiding over Edinburgh and Royal Oak Folk clubs belied his seriousness of purpose as a cultural activist and advocate of local democracy reform. His life was suitably celebrated by a June concert in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow jazz festivals marked the centenary of the first jazz recording, Edinburgh particularly laying it on with a centenary gala concert led by the New Orleans Classic Big Band and MC’d by Louis Armstrong sound-alike James Williams, whose Swamp Donkeys group added to the high spirits. It wasn’t all trad, however: the same festival hosted a high-octane concert featuring fusion guitar heroes John Scofield and Mike Stern.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra went from strength to strength, with projects including a chance for long-serving member Tom MacNiven to take the spotlight along with guest trumpeter Laura Jurd in revisiting Miles Davis classics Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess, while it was joined by guitarist Martin Taylor for a tribute to Django Reinhardt.

Saxophonist Tommy Smith, the SNJO’s director, was also in anniversary mode, observing both his own half-century and the 50th anniversary of the death of John Coltrane, with a masterly quartet album, Embodying the Light. Other fine recordings included two from trumpeter Colin Steele, making a welcome return to the studio with his quintet production Even in the Darkest Places and a melodious tribute to the Pearlfishers, Fishing for Pearls, while Glasgow saxophonist Brian Molloy released the appropriately vivid Colour and Movement.

With an anniversary of its own, the irrepressibly anarchic Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra last month celebrated its tenth with GIOfest X, joined by stars from the international free-improvising community such as George Lewis and Marilyn Crispell.

Switching genres but still in Glasgow, the city’s Piping Live! festival in August saw solemn commemoration transcended by exuberance at the launch of Mac Ìle, an album of music by the late Fraser Shaw, while the piping week ended

in ecstatic mood as Inveraray & District Pipe Band wrested the coveted World Pipe Band Championship from Northern Ireland’s seemingly unstoppable Field Marshal Montgomery, 11 times previous winners. For Pipe Major Stuart Liddell and the band he formed just 14 years ago, 2017 was a year to remember.