Jim Gilchrist: The Year in Folk & Jazz

Joyously celebrated landmark anniversaries and uplifting new work made it a year for song and dance

Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain

Thanks to the power of music, rather than of any astrological hokum, 2016 came up with some auspicious conjunctions. In Glasgow one Sunday in February, for instance, it was possible to catch both an international bagpipe conference that ranged from Highland piobaireachd to Bulgarian kaba gaida, and the rather different blast of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with the formidable US jazz-rock guitarist Mike Stern.

Later in the year you could enjoy the happy convergence of ten Scots and English women musicians on the Isle of Eigg in their Songs of Separation project, or debate whether Scots, Scandinavians and Cajuns really are at their happiest when miserable, a conundrum raised by Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham during their “Grande Anniversaire” concert, celebrating not only not only 30 years of playing together but also Cunningham’s 40th year as a professional musician and Bain’s 70th birthday.

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Other anniversaries kicked off with the Traditional Music & Song Association marking its 50th at a major concert opening Celtic Connections, while Glasgow Jazz Festival celebrated its 30th birthday. It was also a 30th anniversary for the folk label Greentrax, while Edinburgh International Harp Festival chalked up 35 years and its parent Clarsach Society, the organisation behind much of the now burgeoning Scottish harping revival, celebrated 85. Stornoway’s HebCelt came of age, its 21st bill headlined by Gaelic rockers Runrig, touring with what they declared would be their last studio album, 43 years after the ground-breaking band’s formation.

Some established folk figures took to the theatrical stage – not least Karine Polwart with her beguiling show Wind Resistance, at the same Edinburgh International Festival that mounted a warmly received re-run of Greg Lawson’s orchestration of the late Martyn Bennett’s Grit – signalling possible future collaborations between the festival and Glasgow’s Celtic Connections.

There were intriguing juxtapositions, too, in harpist and composer Ailie Robertson’s Echoes & Traces, which saw an ancient fragment of Orcadian plainchant provide a basis for new choral commissions from composers as diverse as Sally Beamish, Lau fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and Robertson herself, performed in such resonant settings as St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, and Stirling Castle.

It was a year when Scots jazz musicians embraced strings in a big way, with Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson returning stylishly to their New Focus format with string quartet in their album On Song, saxophonist Tommy Smith finding time away from other commitments to record his mighty Modern Jacobite suite with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, while gypsy-jazzers Rose Room also teamed up with a string quartet. There were echoes from Scandinavian counterparts, with Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset’s engaging Snowmelt with the London Sinfonietta and the music of the late Esbjörn Svensson being reprised to powerful effect by bandmates Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström with the Royal Stockholm Symphony Orchestra.

Scandinavian visits included a memorable gig from pianist Tord Gustavsen with German-Afghan singer Simin Tander, ranging startlingly between Lutheran hymns and Sufi poetry; while the unmistakable tones of saxophonist Jan Garbarek combined once again with the pyrotechnics of Indian master percussionist Trilok Gurtu during the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival – which also saw legendary guitarist John McLaughlin demonstrate that, at 74, he can still raise a storm with his 4th Dimension quartet.

Drummer Stu Brown released a second volume of his Twisted Toons re-working of classic cartoon music, trumpeter Ryan Quigley launched a powerful new quintet album, What Doesn’t Kill You, amid the jams and drams of Islay Jazz Festival, and drummer Tom Bancroft’s Trio Red hit the road with their acclaimed Lucid Dreamers release. The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra drew yet more plaudits with their collaborations with such international figures as the aforementioned Stern, vibes star Mike Mainieri, and Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen.

On the traditional music side, two notable collective acts – and subsequent albums – were the Songs of Separation project, while Edinburgh’s TradFest featured artists from Dumfries and Galloway in MacMath: The Silent Page, giving exposure to a long-neglected collection of songs from the area. There were welcome recordings from the likes of fiddler Iain MacFarlane, singer-songwriter Adam Holmes, fiddle quartet Rant and Scots-Scandinavian quartet Boreas, while Reclaimed, a compilation of Lowland and Border piping, demonstrated the vigorous health of the “cauld wind pipes” revival.

Glasgow’s Piping Live! festival once again hosted a diverting miscellany of piping cultures, from Skye to Slovakia, although it was Northern Ireland’s seemingly unstoppable Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band who ultimately scooped the coveted World Pipe Band Championship Grade One title on Glasgow Green, the 11th time they have done so.

Still in Glasgow, an Evening for Alasdair Gray saw the city’s renowned Glasgow polymath celebrated under his spectacular ceiling frescoes at Òran Mór last month, in a spirited concert presented by Songs of Scotland and featuring numerous folk luminaries, but which also saw the inaugural £500 award from the Alasdair Gray Musical Scholarship Trust go to Orcadian musician and illustrator Jennifer Austin.

Much sadness marked the passing of Shooglenifty fiddler Angus Grant, while the jazz scene lost the Scots saxophonist Bobby Wellins, Glasgow bassist and free improviser George Lyle, and Bill Kyle, drummer, proprietor of Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar and a tireless promoter of music and nurturer of emerging talent.

But to end on a more cheerful if intriguingly time-travelling note, those folk-baroque specialists Concerto Caledonia, inhabiting their alter-ego of Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band, are reeling their way into the new year with ceilidh nights at Glasgow’s Glad Café and Òran Mór (next on 23 January, 23 February and 27 March), at which they “re-imagine the 18th century ceilidh”. Best foot forward, then, for 2017. ■