Jazz duo Norman & Corrie on exploring Shetland's traditional music archives
The Auld Foula and Sleep Soond in da Mornin’ are reels from the fabled Shetland fiddle repertoire. Hearing them from a contemporary jazz duo playing saxophone, drums, organ pedals and electronic effects, while something of a culture shock, can shed intriguing new light on their essentially resilient nature.
For London-based, Glasgow-born drummer Corrie Dick, who has studied with Ghanaian, Congolese and Moroccan drummers, and similarly eclectically minded Shetland-raised, Glasgow-based saxophonist Norman Willmore, the aim of their recently formed duo, while also composing new material, is to “reimagine ancient melodies for the modern era”, using contemporary instruments and production techniques.
Norman & Corrie head south of the Border shortly for their first tour as a duo, starting in Marsden on 26 November. However, they embark on their big project early in the new year when, thanks to Creative Scotland funding, they head for Willmore’s home turf of Shetland to spend two periods of a week or more learning from fiddlers – “master keepers of the tradition” – delving into the islands’ musical archives, then recording for an album.
“We’re trying to learn into melodies that have meaning and power, then represent them in a way that keeps that magic,” says Dick, acknowledging that “we do play weird instruments for that repertoire.”
Weird but beguiling: Willmore’s sax flows over pulsing organ pedals (he played organ in his local kirk, growing up in the hamlet of Clousta) while Dick’s drumming creates inventive soundworlds, all complemented by looping and other effects.
A former BBC Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year, Dick’s interest in percussion ranges way beyond just rhythm – witness his album of last year, Sun Swells, featuring such notables as guitarist Rob Luft and trumpeter Laura Jurd (who, with Dick, played in the Mercury-nominated Dinosaur).
He and Willmore first met the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s jazz big band, although they didn’t really play together until a few years ago when Willmore enlisted Dick for a band put together for the Islay Jazz Festival.
Both are drawn to their present project by a need to redefine their relationship to music and culture. “In my time,” says Dick, “I’ve learned African and other music from around the world. Jazz is universal, of course, but with a very important element which is African-American music, so here I am at 32, realising I’ve spent all this time on music that is not my own.”
Willmore, who became fascinated with the saxophone as a youngster by listening to Motown music on the radio, was well aware of Shetland fiddle traditions. Now 28, having studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and spent time in London where saxophone heroes such as Parker, Lovano or Coltrane tended to be the exemplars, he imbues his jazz with folk influences from Scotland and elsewhere, also playing with the Skye-based “acid croft” outfit the Peatbog Faeries. Such influences are evident in his debut album of 2021, Alive and Well at the Muckle Roe Hall or in the band he assembled for the Edinburgh & Jazz Blues Festival, which included Dick, the aforementioned Jurd, as well as fiddler Harry Gorski-Brown and Willmore’s niece, pianist Amy Laurenson, this year’s Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year.
“The older I’ve got,” says Willmore, “the more I’ve realised that what makes you individual as a musician is your own personal experience. Researching this music has helped me get much more where I’m from. I think our music is more unique because of that.”
He has already sounded out fiddlers he feels have done much for Shetland music and adds that the culture has been well archived: “Accessing all that material, I don’t know what we’ll find yet but I know there will be something there worth exploring.”
Willmore, by the way, has been a past nominee for the Scottish Jazz Awards, which are with us again, with public voting open until 29 November and the awards announced on 7 December.