Folk, Jazz, etc review 2012: A raft of festivals celebrated homegrown talent

ABOVE: It's been a good year for Konrad Wiszniewski. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
ABOVE: It's been a good year for Konrad Wiszniewski. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT MAY not quite have fulfilled the dire apocalyptic predictions attributed to the Mayan calendar (touching wood, that is, with a day still to go), but 2012 does seem to have hurtled past at a terrifying rate.

Considering the current financial climate and the meltdown at Creative Scotland during the second half of what, with hilarious irony, had been designated the Year of Creative Scotland, one might be surprised that so much genuinely creative music making went on at all. But music, as ever, will out, regardless.

The year kicked off with Glasgow’s immense and eclectic Celtic Connections festival, its compendious programme containing such fusion highlights as banjo maestro Béla Fleck reuniting with his Flecktones band, fiddle and harp duo extraordinaire Chris Stout and Catriona McKay joining with the Scottish Ensemble to premiere a fine new concerto by Sally Beamish, supertrio Lau collaborating with veteran jazz-rock bassist Jack Bruce and much cross-cultural billing that had Donegal fiddlers playing with Senegalese kora virtuosi and French guitarists teaming up with Pakistani Qawwali singers.

Around the same time, there were interesting developments which seemed to counterbalance these high-profile exercises with a move back to the essential roots of our music. These were the advent of two new regular gatherings, the Inverness Bothy and The World’s Room in Edinburgh, at which the emphasis was firmly on largely unaccompanied traditional song in Scots, Gaelic or English.

There was also a degree of back-to-basics, but with academic hindsight, at the Innerleithen Folk Festival, which as well as featuring high-profile names as Battlefield Band and Mànran, hosted a group of Border singers at St Ronan’s Well to perform, unaccompanied, some of the centuries-old Border ballads, in the light of fresh scrutiny being brought to bear on them by the Walter Scott Minstrelsy Project – an international academic collaboration to produce a critical edition of Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, in which so many of these powerful ballads were brought to wider public notice.

So far as recordings were concerned, two albums which captivated me once again exemplified contrasting aspects of a multifaceted “folk scene”. One was singer-songwriter Karine Polwart’s Traces (Hegri Music), as fine a collection as you’ll find of impeccably crafted songs of conscience, humanity and wonder, couched in at times near-orchestral settings; the other was the instrumental album Wooden Flute & Fiddle (Make Believe Records), which does exactly what it says on the tin, with flautist Calum Stewart and fiddler Lauren MacColl, with the sparest of accompaniments, playing music of unadorned finesse. An interesting debut album, Light in the Darkest Corners (own label) came from singer-songwriter Lorraine McCauley and her Borderlands band, her material, somewhere between folk and indie pop, delivered with passion and powered by shadowy reeds and strings.

On the Scottish jazz front some fine albums also emerged, not least one exploring the potentially queasy amalgam of jazz with strings, although in this instance, saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski and pianist Euan Stevenson pulled it off with real panache in their New Focus album (Whirlwind Recordings), with the help of bassist Michael Janisch, drummer Alyn Cosker and the Glasgow String Quartet. There was an impressive recording excursion, too, by drummer Tom Bancroft with his Trio Red, featuring pianist Tom Cawley and Norwegian bassist Per Zanussi in From First Hello to Last Goodbye (Interrupto), while his saxophonist twin Phil enlisted a sizeable band, the internet and a tin-foil space ship to take his multimedia extravaganza, Home, Small as the World, on the road.

Other welcome recordings came in the form of busy bassist (and Emerging Artist in this year’s Scottish Jazz Awards) Euan Burton’s carefully crafted Occurrences and his frequent playing partner, pianist Tom Gibbs’s Fear of Flying (both on Whirlwind Recordings). The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra also kept busy, consolidating its international reputation with the Best Big Band prize at the British Jazz Awards, mounting some notable tours performing the music of Weather Report (with the band’s former drummer Peter Erskine) and Duke Ellington, among others, as well as appearing on an acclaimed album, Celebration (ECM) with Norwegian double bassist Arild Anderson.

It was a celebratory year, too, for the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, who marked their tenth anniversary at the beginning of this month with their suitably uproarious GIO Fest at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, joined by such international free-improv luminaries as Evan Parker and George Lewis.

In August pianist Peter Johnstone from Milngavie became BBC Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year, chosen from what once again proved to be an impressive clutch of young players. Meanwhile, last year’s winner, saxophonist Ruaridh Pattison, has been making a name for himself, among other things guesting with the SNJO as well as playing a persuasive Fringe gig with his powerful Scots-Norwegian sextet at Edinburgh’s ever-busy Jazz Bar during the Fringe.

And as ever more impressively talented youngsters emerge, there have been the usual regretted departures – among them two fiddlers from the near-legendary Jock Tamson’s Bairns, Ian Hardie and Derek Hoy, who succumbed to cancer within a month of each other; and a sad farewell, also, to the much-loved Michael Marra, inspired Dundee bard and surrealist.

On a brighter note, 2012 was a year in which the Scottish traditional music scene gained further mass-media exposure, with January’s Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award (taken by Oban fiddler Rona Wilkie) broadcast live on BBC Alba; and similarly with the (sold-out) Scots Trad Awards at Forth William earlier this month. What about the same TV exposure for the now annual Scottish Jazz Awards and the BBC Young Scottish Jazz Musician event?

Finally, there were the kind of unlooked-for, quirky occurrences which make life interesting. For me these included the oyster dredging songs, once the unique repertoire of the Firth of Forth fishermen, being aired, for the first time in a century, on Portobello beach; then there was the murmuration of saxophonists – hundreds of ’em – which descended on St Andrews for the 16th World Saxophone Congress in August, spanning classical, jazz and even Celtic music and making the ancient stones of the town resound with unboundedly creative reed power.