Arts review of 2021: Jim Gilchrist on the year in folk & jazz

Covid restrictions may have prevented live performances at some of Scotland’s biggest festivals, writes Jim Gilchrist, but over on the internet the bands played on

Celtic Connections artistic director Donald Shaw on stage with the Celtic Connections Big Band at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall PIC: Gaelle Beri
Celtic Connections artistic director Donald Shaw on stage with the Celtic Connections Big Band at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall PIC: Gaelle Beri

Still constrained by the shadow of Covid-19, this past year nevertheless saw much spirited and inventive online music-making that transcended pandemic strictures, eventually heralding a tentative return of real, live, if reduced audiences.

January’s online Celtic Connections opened with the stirring sight of The Tryst piping collective converging on Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, launching an eclectic programme that ranged from jigs and reels to music from the Gambia, Sudan and further afield. One of the festival’s most indelible images was of the Womanly Voices of Jodhpur, from a community hard hit by the virus, their microtonal singing ushering in the dawn above the Rajasthani city, leaving a profoundly moving impression.

The paradox was that the confinement to online streaming brought the festival wider audiences than ever before, with a reported 10,000 tickets sold internationally.

Tommy Smith: PIC: Aldo Ferrarello

Also staying online was June’s Glasgow Jazz Festival, downscaled but providing a global window for such notable Scottish jazz talents as saxophonist (and, earlier in the year, BBC MasterChef finalist) Laura MacDonald, pianist Fergus McCreadie and singer Georgia Cécile.

The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival also featured MacDonald, in fruitful collaboration with the Anglo-Bengali pianist Zoe Rahman and London-based Scots saxophonist Helena Kay. Other highlights included saxophonist-rapper Soweto Kinch joining Edinburgh’s energetic Playtime collective while Jacqui Dankworth MBE and her husband, pianist Charlie Wood, re-invigorated classics with style.

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Towards the year’s ending, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra staged a jubilant reunion with audiences and with Grammy-award-winning singer Kurt Elling. Back in the summer, under director Tommy Smith, the SNJO also pulled off a memorable live-streamed collaboration (still downloadable as Where Rivers Meet), free jazz explorations echoing through St Giles’ Cathedral as painter Maria Rud responded vividly to their music.

Karine Polwart, meanwhile, broadcast during Edinburgh’s springtime TradFest, singing Burns’ much-loved Now Westlin’ Winds to introduce her lecture on our destructive interaction with nature. And as the world converged on Glasgow for November’s COP 26, Polwart joined Oi Musica and the Soundhouse Choir for Enough Is Enough, a feisty multimedia riposte to environmental despoliation.

Georgia Cecile

Sir Walter Scott’s influence on folk music and well beyond came under the spotlight for his 250th anniversary, examining how his writing not only brought balladry (albeit without the music) to the notice of a vast public, but also inspired operas and popular song.

Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies also celebrated an anniversary – its 70th – marked by, among other things, two concerts saluting the “cultural jewel box” of the School’s archives during August’s Edinburgh International Festival. The Festival’s welcome traditional music strand, in the Old College Quad, opened with a memorably heart-lifting set (before a real, live, if socially distanced audience) from Highland fiddler Duncan Chisholm. The venue also hosted fellow-fiddler Aidan O’Rourke’s excellent Great Disordered Heart series, acknowledging the nearby Cowgate’s Irish immigrant roots.

Among welcome album releases, fast-rising young jazzers pianist Fergus McCreadie and saxophonist Matt Carmichael both opened the year, the former with his second trio album, Cairn, and Carmichael with his first, Where Will the River Flow. Another notable debut was Georgia Cécile’s remarkably timeless-sounding Only the Lover Sings, co-written with pianist Euan Stevenson.

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On the folk side, came a lovely recording from the Scots-Finnish duo of fiddler Sarah-Jane Summers and guitarist Juhani Silvola, The Smoky Smirr o Rain, piper-saxophonist Fraser Fifield’s vivid Piobaireachd re-imagining and a fusion gem from Polwart and jazz pianist Dave Milligan, Still As Your Sleeping.

Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan

Sadly, Glasgow Green remained silent for a second year’s cancellation of the World Pipe Band Championships. It proved a triumphant October, however, for Jack Lee from British Columbia, overall winner of the prestigious Glenfiddich Solo Piping Championship at Blair Atholl – the third time he has scooped the trophy since 2003.

Among those we lost along the way, Scottish traditional music was dealt a sair blow by the sudden passing in October of the indefatigable Robin Morton, musician, producer and promoter, co-founder of the internationally famous Boys of the Loch and for 40 years manager of the similarly renowned Battlefield Band, as well as proprietor of Temple Records.

Another sad autumn passing was that of Irish piper Paddy Moloney, leader of The Chieftains, whose irrepressible musicality and showmanship ensured that the sound of the uilleann pipes and wider Irish music was known globally, influencing innumerable musicians – not least in Scotland.

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