The Scotsman Sessions #310: Savourna Stevenson and Steve Kettley

Welcome to the Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts sector still impacted by the pandemic, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, Savourna Stevenson and Steve Kettley perform Stevenson’s tune, Silverado Squatters

Savourna Stevenson and Steve Kettley let rip in a lively harp-saxophone hoedown for this week’s Scotsman Sesion, with Kettley switching to that hoary old twang of the jawharp. The tune, Silverado Squatters, was originally composed by Stevenson the best part of three decades ago for her suite, Clyde to California, commissioned by the River Tweed Festival and inspired by the travels of Robert Louis Stevenson (no relation), whose memoir The Silverado Squatters described his stay in an abandoned Californian miner’s shack with his new wife, Fanny.

This and two other pieces from the RLS project are re-imagined, along with new compositions, by Stevenson and Kettley in their duo album The Wine of Life (is ours), due out later this year on the Cooking Vinyl label. The pair will preview it as the opening concert of the Edinburgh International Harp Festival on 8 April.

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The contrasting yet complementary timbres of harp (Stevenson uses both clarsach and pedal harp) and saxophone make for a striking combination of ringing strings and sustained reediness and the pair’s playing relationship goes back many years. “Steve is fantastically impetuous,” says Stevenson. “He’s never lost his enthusiasm for music.”

Savourna Stevenson and Steve Kettley

She points to the lyricism of his playing in another Stevenson-related track on the album, La Solitude, which also reflects her own classical influences, with its quotation from Ravel; another piece on the album, Gamelan, echoes that other French impressionist, Debussy. Stevenson’s output in fact spans traditional, classical, jazz and beyond: as well as collaborating with the poet and songwriter Les Barker, she writes for orchestras, chamber groups and particularly for the Scottish early and contemporary vocal group Capella Nova. Last year saw her setting of Psalm 121 performed by St Giles’ Cathedral choir.

Kettley’s activities are similarly eclectic. A founder member of such vigorously genre-defying outfits as the Cauld Blast Orchestra and Salsa Celtica, he also led his own quartet Odd Times, plays with Omar Afif in the Moroccan fusion group Gnawa Transfusion and recently launched the second album by his Captain Beefheart tribute band, Orange Claw Hammer. His theatre work includes collaborations with the former Makar, Liz Lochhead.

Kettley describes himself as “incredibly pleased” with how the forthcoming album sounds, paying tribute to the small Washoose Studio near Biggar where it was recorded. He anticipates a further festival appearance for the duo in August at the Noia Harp Festival in Galicia, Spain, and other Scottish dates including some through the recently announced Scottish Government subsidised Scotland On tour scheme aiming to give a post-pandemic kick-start to the music scene.

The pair embarked on the album just before lockdown, but the hiatus, says Stevenson, has given them “time for the music to mature and develop. It was so important to hang on to positive stuff during lockdown.”

That maturation, along with the duo’s recognition of advancing years, is reflected in the album title, taken from a celebratory line in one of Les Barker’s poems arranged by Stevenson: “Here and now let’s drink the wine of life while life is ours.”

See www.stevekettley.com and www.savournastevenson.uk. For details of this year’s Edinburgh International Harp Festival, visit https://www.harpfestival.co.uk/

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