Arts review of 2019: Jim Gilchrist on the year in folk & jazz

The year opened with the shrill piping of the Galician gaita, as wielded by Celtic music superstar Carlos Nuñez, who played the McEwan Hall on 1 January as part of Edinburgh’s New Year celebrations. There were exuberant Galicians, too, the folk orchestra SonDeSeu, amid some hundred performers in the cross-generational Syne of the Times concert which opened Glasgow’s massive Celtic Connections jamboree later in the month.

Brighde Chaimbeul
Brighde Chaimbeul

If Celtic Connections was in its 26th year, Edinburgh’s much loved Queen’s Hall, formerly a church, celebrated its 40th as a music venue with a year-long, wide-ranging programme which opened with January’s “Southside of the Tracks” concert, directed by fiddler John McCusker to celebrate four decades of traditional music at the hall. Saxophonist and Scottish National Jazz Orchestra director Tommy Smith similarly curated a jazz programme which included re-visiting his excellent Beasts of Scotland suite, inspired by the poetry of Edwin Morgan.

The celebrations also saw an emotive revival of Mackay’s Memoirs, the late Martyn Bennet’s fine piece for pipes, strings and percussion, given stirring new life by pupils and alumni of the City of Edinburgh Music School.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Among new releases, the young Skye-born piper Brighde Chaimbeul fulfilled expectations with her fine album on smallpipes, The Reeling. It was produced by fiddler Aidan O’Rourke who was busy, both with power trio Lau, who opened the year with their most sophisticated album yet, Midnight and Closedown, and releasing the second volume of 365, his response, with pianist Kit Downes, to writer James Robertson’s daily short story project.

There was great playing, too, on two albums from Norwegian-based Scot Sarah-Jane Summers, with both her salute to Highland fiddling, Solo, and the North Sea-spanning ensemble of Owersett. The industrious Mike Vass released an album of his Four Pillars celebration of the fiddler’s art, commissioned for the previous year’s Scots Fiddle Festival, and also ventured into singer-songwriting with Save His Calm. A highlight of this year’s Scots Fiddle Festival, meanwhile, was the celebrated Irish-American fiddler Liz Carroll in sublime duo with guitarist Jenn Butterworth.
Two “lost” recordings of longstanding Scottish folk heroes appeared, one of Dick Gaughan, the other of the Glasgow band Clutha – both, oddly enough, recorded live at Harvard, Massachusetts, during the early 1980s.

The phenomenally popular wildlife picture book, The Lost Words, by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris, took wings, as it were, in the beguiling package of The Lost Words: Spell Songs, a CD and book featuring Karine Polwart, Rachel Newton, Kris Drever and others. Folk took to stage as well as page, in English singer-songwriter Rowan Rheingan’s spellbinding Fringe show Dispatches on the Red Dress, and Gary West’s theatre piece Jock’s Jocks, based on accounts collected by Jock Duncan, often in rich Doric, from First World War veterans.

August saw much jubilation on Glasgow Green as Inveraray & District Pipe Band, at just 13 years old, became World Champions for the second time, knocking the all-powerful Field Marshall Montgomery band from Northern Ireland into second place.

A blow to the traditional music scene came with the passing, within a matter of weeks of each other, of two powerful and influential ballad singers, Gordeanna McCulloch and Anne Neilson. Another loss was that of Colin Ross, Northumbrian pipemaker and member of the legendary High Level Ranters, whose contribution to the flourishing “cauld wind pipes” revival in Scotland was immeasurable due to his part in developing Scottish smallpipes.

It was another busy year for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, including tours of the USA and Japan. January saw them release an album of their inspired re-working of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and they ended the year on a high, teaming up with superb young American singer, the ever so aptly named Jazzmeia Horn.

It proved a heady year, too, for the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland’s Jazz Orchestra, who toured with the British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, which took them from Skye to the Sligo Jazz Festival.

A memorable interlude was Edinburgh’s Jazz from Brussels weekend when, following an excursion by young Scottish players to the Belgian capital, their opposite numbers descended on Edinburgh for some gratifying performances. Also looking to Europe, an East Neuk Festival concert saw pianist Euan Stevenson adeptly putting his stamp on the music of Erik Satie, while the gypsy-jazz-meets-baroque trio of violinist Tim Kliphuis with guitarist Nigel Clark and bassist Roy Percy fairly sizzled.

A new event was October’s Gallus weekend showcase of Scottish jazz curated by pianist Fergus McCreadie who, at just 22, is busily collecting awards, not least this month when his self-released debut album, Turas, was Album of the Year at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards. Another award winner this month, also from Glasgow’s hotbed of youthful jazz talent, was saxophonist Matt Carmichael, who landed a development grant in the 2019 Whittingham Awards.

The centenary of the birth of Hamish Henderson, poet and folklorist and a key figure in the Scottish folk revival, saw commemorative events throughout the year, closing with this month’s heady “Voice of the People” night at the Queen’s Hall. Perhaps the most extraordinary tribute, however, unfolded under the corrugated iron roof of a Nissen hut at Cultybraggan Camp, outside Comrie, where Henderson had taught Nazi prisoners in 1947. A “camp concert” featured some long-established names, and to hear Margaret Bennett sing the mysterious Uamh an Oir – The Cave of Gold – and Alison McMorland declaim Henderson’s triumphant Flyting o’ Life and Daith, in this resonantly stark setting as a Perthshire autumn flared outside, was nothing short of life-affirming.