From his earliest music-making in folk sessions before graduating to youthful punk and heavy metal, guitarist Joe Williamson has evolved into a creative and catalytic presence within Glasgow’s seething young jazz scene.
The 28-year-old guitarist, voted Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year in 2018, is associated with some powerful “prog jazz” outfits, leading the five-piece Animal Society (it’s been described as Pat Metheny meets Rage Against the Machine) and the now defunct quartet Square One, which collected a Peter Whittingham Jazz Award in 2015. He also plays in drummer Graham Costello’s monumental STRATA. On 12 December, however, at Edinburgh’s Scottish Jazz Weekend, Williamson unveils what he describes as “a nearly acoustic quartet”.
His co-members are all musicians with whom he’s well used to playing – pianist and Animal Society bandmate Alan Benzie, bassist Brodie Jarvie and drummer Stephen Henderson. “I describe it as a ‘nearly acoustic’ quartet,” says Williamson, “although I’ll still be playing electric guitar. But it’ll be nice to get back to a double bass and grand piano again.”
The quartet’s sound, he adds, “will certainly be different from the likes of Animal Society or STRATA. When I’m writing music for Animal Society, for instance, it’s almost like writing for a band I want to be in and having this idea of combining the heavy rock stuff I like with jazz and with synthesisers. With this new band, I thought of the musicians before I thought of the music; I thought of Brodie and Alan and Stephen then sat down to write, with more thoughtful compositions rather than long epics. It’s more stripped down, melodic – quite folky in some ways, which is something in my musical upbringing that I keep coming back to.”
That upbringing, in Darlington, County Durham, saw him frequenting sessions and festivals with his accordionist mother, who used to run a ceilidh band. “Then as a teenager I got into rock and punk and metal.” His jump to jazz was a radical one when he was 16: “I’d been playing guitar very keenly for a number of years and was looking for a challenge,” he recalls. That challenge materialised in no uncertain manner when he was studying for an AS Level Music exam and a set work was Miles Davis’s So What: “I’d never heard it before, we studied it in a lot of depth and it was a real turning point, because I was looking for something new on guitar as well. So I very quickly went down the rabbit hole …”
The rabbit hole led to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where he emerged in 2016 with first class honours. That year he was commissioned to compose a piece celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Glasgow Jazz Festival. Since then, apart from his various electric jazz-rock ventures he’s performed with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and with rising singer Georgia Cécile, among others.
Returning to the forthcoming Scottish Jazz Weekend, which is organised by Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, the bassist with Williamson’s former Square One (and another award-winning RCS graduate), David Bowden, who leads the acclaimed world-jazz outfit Mezcla, crops up at the Edinburgh weekend as part of Criss Cross Europe, a collaboration led and mentored by US drummer Jim Black.
On the more traditional side, the Edinburgh event, staging both live and streamed events at Assembly Roxy, will also present vintage jazz and blues from Edinburgh-based singer and historic jazz specialist Ali Affleck and her band. Also saluting jazz elders will be trumpeter Colin Steele and reedsman Martin Kershaw with their celebration of the Adderley brothers, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.
Well known Edinburgh guitarist Aki Remally will lead a specially assembled funk and soul band, while upcoming talent will include Glasgow songwriter-guitarist Nathan Somevi, who emerged during Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival’s “Introducing” concert series, while further new names will take the “Open Call” stage.
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