Arts review of 2022: Jim Gilchrist on the year in folk & jazz

As the shadow of Covid retreated, it was wonderful to see music venues and festivals coming back to life, writes Jim Gilchrist
Beth Malcolm PIC: Graeme RogersBeth Malcolm PIC: Graeme Rogers
Beth Malcolm PIC: Graeme Rogers

Who knows where the time goes? as the old Sandy Denny song goes. It hardly seems a twalmonth since Celtic Connections, Glasgow’s roots music juggernaut, was casting off from Covid-related online-only performances to return to live if still restricted audiences. Its opening concert, ‘Neath the Gloamin’ Star, was a suitably forward-looking showcase of some of the younger generation of traditional singers such as Paul McKenna, Hannah Rarity and Kim Carnie.

Other aspects of the festival returning to something like full strength marked the 550th anniversary of Shetland’s annexing from Norway to Scotland – prompting the boisterous presence of some 30 fully garbed Vikings (and Vikingesses). The festival’s extensive international guest list included, memorably, sitar star Anoushka Shankar teaming up with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to play a concerto by her late, illustrious father, Ravi.

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Celtic Connections also marked the start of Scotland’s Year of Stories, strands of which threaded through the calendar. During September’s Blas Festival, for instance, fiddler and singer Chlöe Bryce’s show The Summer Walkers combined live music with archive material to highlight the vital role of Gaelic speaking Travellers in maintaining Highland traditions.

Alastair Savage PIC: Simon ButterworthAlastair Savage PIC: Simon Butterworth
Alastair Savage PIC: Simon Butterworth

As the shadow of Covid retreated – to a degree at any rate – it was good to see institutions such as Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar and Whigham’s jazz club operating again on a regular footing, although October brought the sad news that Glasgow’s popular Blue Arrow Club was closing for good, a victim of hard times.

The news was happier for Stornoway’s HebCelt festival, which gave a £4.2 million boost to the Hebridean economy. It was also voted Event of the Year and its founder, Caroline MacLennan, presented with the Hamish Henderson Award for Services to Traditional Music at the MG Alba Scots Trad Awards in Dundee earlier this month.

Edinburgh’s spring Tradfest was another welcome return, with a heartening opening concert from Highland fiddler Duncan Chisholm and rising singer-songwriter Beth Malcolm.

Also back with a vengeance were the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, with shows including their ebullient Pop! Rock! Soul! collaboration with US guests singer Kenny Washington and vibraphonist Joe Locke, as well as their imaginatively genre-spanning exploration of Scottish folklore and poetry, Tales of the Tribe.

Fergus McCreadieFergus McCreadie
Fergus McCreadie

Album-wise, the year started with a fine tune collection by Highland fiddler and broadcaster Bruce MacGregor which, despite its ominous title of The Road to Tyranny, enjoyed a warm-hearted launch at Celtic Connections. Other fiddle-led albums included Strathspey Queens – Patsy Reid and Alice Allen’s affectionate celebration of “Strathspey King” James Scott Skinner, Alastair Savage’s tribute to the Clyde and to his fellow musicians, Tunes from the River, and Orcadian band Fara’s spirited Energy Islands.

Breabach fiddler and singer Megan Henderson released a gorgeous album of her own music, Pilgrim Souls, while Gaelic singer Fiona J Mackenzie’s Tac’ an Teine vividly evoked folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw and the invaluable archive she amassed at Canna House. Then there was Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl’s memorial to victims of Scotland’s witch-hunting mania, Heal & Harrow, while Su-a Lee, cellist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, McFall’s and innumerable other musicians in folk beyond, launched her own generous-spirited collaborative album, Dialogues.

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Notable jazz releases included singer Louise Dodds’s cathartic The Story Needs an Ending and Brian Molloy’s happy collaboration with Indian percussionist Krishna Kishor, while swing violinist Seonaid Aitken transcended serious injury with her beautiful chamber work Chasing Sakura with saxophonist Helena Kay and string ensemble.

Pianist Fergus McCreadie added to his award-laden CV with a beguiling third album, Forest Floor, voted Scottish Album of the Year – a first for any jazz recording – as well as being shortlisted for a Mercury Prize. McCreadie’s frequent collaborator, saxophonist Matt Carmichael, released a welcome second album, Marram.

Colin Steele PIC: Archie MacFarlaneColin Steele PIC: Archie MacFarlane
Colin Steele PIC: Archie MacFarlane

Both musicians featured in July’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival as well as such popular bill-headers as Jools Holland and Curtis Stigers. The festival also saw a memorable opening concert by “psychedelic Arabic jazz” trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and some notable new compositions by stalwarts of the Scottish scene: saxophonist Martin Kershaw combined his musical and literary interests in Poets, while trumpeter Colin Steele finally premiered his pandemically postponed Arbroath Suite, commissioned to mark 2020’s 700th anniversary of That Declaration.

The Edinburgh International Festival maintained its non-classical strand with outstanding appearances by still spry jazz legend Herbie Hancock and acclaimed Irish fiddler Martin Hayes. On the Fringe, meanwhile, the remarkable Village and the Road combined poet Tom Pow’s eloquent concern at rural decline with emotive musicianship from the Galloway Agreement.

December’s 20th anniversary of the MG Alba Scots Trad Awards saw the folk jamboree return to Dundee’s Caird Hall with, among the many awards, Skerryvore winning Live Act, Beth Malcolm Scots Singer and Breabach Folk Band of the Year.

“Na Trads” were followed by the Scottish Jazz Awards in Glasgow, with winners including young historic jazzers the Tenement Jazz Band (Best Band), saxophonist Helena Kay (Best Instrumentalist) and Rising Star singer Cara Rose, while McCreadie gained a further gong with Best Album for Forest Floor. A Lifetime Achievement Award went to veteran jazz promoter and broadcaster (and voice of the Speaking Clock) Alan Steadman.

Casting a shadow over the event, however, was the death a few days before of Fionna Duncan, singer, teacher and a long renowned figure on the Scottish jazz scene and beyond.

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The folk world too was greatly saddened by November’s passing of the much-loved Glasgow-based singer-songwriter Rab Noakes, while across the Atlantic, a hugely influential figure in Irish-American music, singer, instrumentalist, activist and educator Mick Moloney, died suddenly in July.