Jim Gilchrist: The year in folk and jazz in Scotland

Fiddler Jenna Reid
Fiddler Jenna Reid
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The first event of the year was just about the best in a collection of spectacular musical moments

The year kicked off with violinist Greg Lawson’s improbably ambitious but ultimately triumphant orchestration of the late Martyn Bennett’s Grit, to open January’s Celtic Connections, and as 2015 drew towards its close, the project was voted Event of the Year at this month’s Scots Trad Music Awards in Dundee.

January also saw singer Clare Hastings, from Dumfries, become BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of 2015 while her counterpart in the Radio Scotland Young Jazz Musician competition was saxophonist Helena Kay from Perth. Interestingly, two former Young Scottish Jazz Musicians, pianist Allan Benzie, who won the first competition, back in 2007, and the 2012 winner drummer Corrie Dick, both waited until this year to release excellent debut albums.

Apart from the behemoth of Celtic Connections, the early year saw the Soundhouse folk and jazz gigs at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, introduced in December 2014 by house concert supremos Douglas Robertson and Jane Anne Purdy, developing with notable guests including such English folk giants as Martin Simpson and Chris Wood.

The spring saw Edinburgh’s TradFest consolidate into a significant cross-disciplinary celebration of traditional arts, this year embracing everything from geological walks to high-profile folk stars such as Mary Black and Sweden’s Väsen.

Some notable folk albums included Malinky’s traditionally-orientated Far Better Days, the delicately voiced Gaelic song of Maírí MacInnes in Gràs, while Lau’s The Bell That Never Rang was characteristically inventive, with the trio joining forces with the Elysian String Quartet. There was also a fine Live in Shetland recording from fiddler Jenna Reid, and, inclining between Shetland and Ireland, a welcome first studio album in ten years from the Boys of the Lough. An important release from Greentrax was Cruinneachadh Chaluim, a double-CD of field recordings of Gaelic music and song made by the late Calum Maclean and archived in Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies.

August saw Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia triumph on Glasgow Green, to become the first Scottish pipe band to win the World Championship in a decade. The same month saw a memorable night at Perth’s Southern Fried festival, with the Punch Brothers – in fine fettle despite PA problems – and the mighty-voiced Rhiannon Giddens.

The Edinburgh International Festival, meanwhile, brought together viol virtuoso Jordi Savall and harpist Andrew Lawrence- King with bodhran player Frank McGuire and the renowned Irish duo of fiddler Martyn Hayes and guitarist Dennis Cahill on the stage of the Usher Hall. The result, however, was sadly less than the sum of its parts, with the only real spark coming from Hayes and Cahill’s longstanding combination. An imaginative try, however.

On the jazz side of things, a welcome return after quite a hiatus was trumpeter Colin Steele’s Quintet, while busy pianist Paul Harrison, as well as replacing the longstanding Tom Finlay as pianist with the Ken Mathieson Classic Jazz Orchestra introduced his new electronic jazz fusion band Sugarwork. Its debut was at the Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues festival, whose 2015 programme poster boy, the New York-based trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, made quite an impression.

A welcome Scottish jazz album release was Edinburgh pianist David Patrick’s superb jazz setting of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Also engaging imaginatively with the classical world was the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, whose 20th anniversary year included another exuberant collaboration with singer Kurt Elling and the release of a superb live recording of their audacious arrangement, with Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone, of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 (Jeunehomme).

Twentieth anniversaries, too, for July’s HebCelt festival in Stornoway, which marked the event with a commission from Battlefield Band fiddler Alasdair White, and in November for the ubiquitous Mr McFall’s Chamber, an outfit which can engage with tango or bagpipe music as easily as with Purcell or contemporary Baltic minimalism.

There were the inevitable farewells as well as celebrations. The much loved and respected English (and Borders-based) guitarist John Renbourn passed away, as did highly influential Scottish radio producer Stewart Cruickshank and the renowned Gorbals-born jazz singer Mary McGowan, while Gaeldom lost the magisterial presence of singer and tradition-bearer Flora MacNeil.

Which brings us back to this month and the Scots Trad Music Awards concert at the Caird Hall, Dundee, which saw a heartfelt musical tribute to Flora by her daughter, Maggie MacInnes and Cathy-Ann MacPhee.

The awards night also – quite apart from spotlighting indefatigable organiser Simon Thoumire’s famously sparkly shoes – saw tributes to two figures who have played vital roles in the Scottish folk revival. The ever industrious Ewan McVicar, singer-songwriter, storyteller, educator and author, whose credentials extend back to the earliest days of the Scottish folk revival, received the Hamish Henderson Award for Services to Traditional Music. The award for Services to Gaelic went, very deservedly, to Dr John MacInnes, the foremost living authority on Gaelic oral traditions – someone, as Dr Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart put it in his introduction, “who who has dedicated his life to his own people and culture”.