Arts review of 2023: Jim Gilchrist on the year in folk & jazz

Scotland’s thriving folk and jazz scenes produced a wealth of great gigs and notable albums, writes Jim Gilchrist

The year started, as ever, with the 30th iteration of Glasgow’s mammoth Celtic Connections, notable, among much else, for the numerous album launches it hosted among its 300-plus events, a reflection of the current burgeoning creativity of Scotland’s traditional music scene.

Releases launched in concert included fiddler Duncan Chisholm’s Black Cuillin; other fiddlers showcasing albums were Shetland’s Jenna Reid and Orcadian Catriona Price, the latter with her intriguing aural collage of Orcadian words and music, Hert, which she went on to reprise at August’s Edinburgh International Festival.

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Another well-known fiddler, John McCusker, launched a “best of” collection marking his three decades of music-making, while newcomer cellist Juliette Lemoine unveiled her debut, Soaring, a cross-genre convergence with fiddler Charlie Stewart, jazz pianist Fergus McCreadie and saxophonist Matt Carmichael.

Skipinnish co-founder and fisherman Angus MacPhail wrote the protest song The Clearances Again PIC: Stephen KearneySkipinnish co-founder and fisherman Angus MacPhail wrote the protest song The Clearances Again PIC: Stephen Kearney
Skipinnish co-founder and fisherman Angus MacPhail wrote the protest song The Clearances Again PIC: Stephen Kearney

On a less positive note, despite widespread protest, BBC Radio Scotland axed its sole programme covering Scotland’s thriving jazz scene, Jazz Nights, while, perhaps counter-intuitively, continuing its Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition, with 19-year-old pianist Ben Shankland scooping the award last month.

International Women’s Day in March saw the ever industrious Hands Up for Trad organisation publish a notable Women and Music in Culture List of 15 individuals “contributing towards Scotland’s rich cultural landscape”. These included musician and Radio Scotland presenter Anna Massie, singer Christine Kydd, Soundhouse promoter Jane-Ann Purdy, singer-songwriter Karine Polwart , cellist Su-a Lee and folklorist and singer Margaret Bennett, to name but a few.

April saw a double folk whammy as the North Atlantic Song Convention converged on Edinburgh, bolstering the first weekend of the capital’s 11-day Tradfest, which opened with a memorable set from singer, banjoist and activist Rhiannon Giddens and her partner, multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi.

Spring also saw Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival mount one of its European partnership SPARK weekend mini-fests, presenting some of Luxembourg’s brightest talents in partnership with Scottish players. The full-blown Edinburgh Jazz Festival in July also featured a SPARK strand, on this occasion presenting some young luminaries we rarely get a chance to hear on this side of the North Sea, teaming up with Scottish musicians.

Elsewhere, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, directed by Tommy Smith, continued to produce big, adventurous music, with guests ranging from award-winning pianist Gwilym Simcock to the rather louder Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers and, in the orchestra’s acclaimed Ellington programme, rising young vocalist Lucy-Anne Daniels.

The SNJO’s regular pianist, Pete Johnstone, unveiled his dynamic International Organ Quartet, featuring Smith on saxophone, US vibraphone virtuoso Joe Locke and SNJO drummer Alyn Cosker.

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August’s Edinburgh lnternational Festival, in its first year under the broad vision of Nicola Benedetti, hosted some memorable jazz, folk and world music performances, including the stunningly pliant voice of Cécile McLorin Salvant and sassy singer-bassist Endea Owens, the glittering Silk Road amalgam of the Aga Khan Master Musicians and a shot of vintage Scots trad in the irrepressible form of Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham. On the Fringe, meanwhile, the Soundhouse Organisation took a punt and mounted an adventurous, month-long Scottish music showcase in the sadly underused Rose Theatre.

That other festival in the west, Glasgow’s Piping Live!, celebrated its 20th anniversary, with piping from Highland and Lowland to Irish, Estonian and beyond, while the World Pipe Band Championships climaxing the week saw a jubilant Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia crowned 2023 World Champions.

September saw one of Scotland’s longest-running weekly venues, Edinburgh Folk Club, mark its 50th anniversary with a programme running into next year featuring esteemed veteran and new-generation performers.

Autumn, however, brought widely voiced concerns about the precariousness of arts funding in the current economic climate. Singer and Scots language campaigner Iona Fyfe (who would take Scots Singer of the year prize at December’s Scots Trad Awards) warned the Scottish Government not to lose sight of the fundamental importance of culture to Scotland’s identity

As the year drew to a close it became clear that the protest song is far from dead, as folk-rock band Skipinnish’s anthem The Clearances Again, written by co-founder Angus MacPhail in collaboration with fellow fisherman Donald Francis MacNeil, was deemed Best Original Work at this month’s MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards. The song gained wide circulation in protest at Scottish Government proposals for highly protected marine areas (HPMA’s), which were eventually withdrawn with further consultation promised.

The awards bash, in Dundee’s Caird Hall, proved a propitious night for MacPhail, who also gleaned the Sue Wilson New Writer Award for his music column in the Oban Times, the prize established in memory of music journalist Wilson, a frequent contributor to The Scotsman, who died in September. Also commemorated at the event was the inimitable broadcaster and Doric champion, Robbie Shepherd, who passed away in August.

And in the Scottish Jazz Awards earlier this month, recipients included singer and multi-instrumentalist Kimberly Tessa (Rising Star Award), saxophonist Matt Carmichael (Best Album), vocalist Rachel Lightbody (Critics’ Choice Award) while the Best Band gong went to corto.alto (who issued their genre-defying debut album in October).

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On a positive closing note, I recall piper and whistle virtuoso Fraser Fifield’s October collaboration with fiddle-harp duo Chris Stout and Catriona McKay working magic in the oval auditorium of Edinburgh’s St Cecilia’s Hall. Inspired by archive recordings of the late, inimitable tradition bearer Stanley Robertson in the School of Scottish Studies (where Fifield is resident musician), the show’s title, One Great Circle, reflected­ Robertson’s view of life and beyond, but might almost hint at the perennial vigour of our music, which rolls on, regardless.