Arts review of 2020: Jim Gilchrist on the year in folk & jazz

The live performances may have dried up in March, but there were still some very notable album releases in 2020, writes Jim Gilchrist

The Grit Orchestra in action at the opening concert of Celtic Connections PIC: Gaelle Beri
The Grit Orchestra in action at the opening concert of Celtic Connections PIC: Gaelle Beri

We got as far as March. January’s Celtic Connections seemed a propitious start, opening with Greg Lawson putting his formidable GRIT orchestra through a series of commissions responding to this year’s 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. February saw another big beast, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, perform Planet Wave, a vivid celebration of Makar Edwin Morgan’s centenary. Morgan’s cosmic chronicler opens the proceedings: “It was a bang and it was big…” It was too, although the rest was silence, on live stages at least, as March saw the country go into lockdown.

The Edinburgh International Harp Festival was the first event of any size to cancel, then promptly became the first Scottish music festival to transfer to online streaming (and there was jubilation later in the year when its artistic director, Isobel Mieras, was awarded an MBE for her services to Scottish music and the clarsach revival). The wired world was soon buzzing with music and song of all genres. Glasgow and Edinburgh jazz festivals both put live and pre-recorded performances online, the former with some lonely looking solo performances by pianists Brian Kellock, Fergus McCreadie and Euan Stevenson in a dark and deserted Blue Arrow Club. The Edinburgh event also featured solo home performances from pianists Dave Milligan and Steve Hamilton (both of whom released fine solo downloadable albums during the year) while the ever-inventive Playtime collective of saxophonist Martin Kershaw, guitarist Graeme Stephen, bassist Mario Caribe and drummer Tom Bancroft gave socially distanced but still rumbustious performances from Pathhead Village Hall.

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Similarly, folk festivals such as last month’s Highland celebration, Blas, and the Scots Fiddle Festival followed suit, while Stornoway’s mighty HebCelt was cancelled, although presenting online commissions. As home studios, phones and webcams came into their own, there were regular sessions from the likes of Highland fiddler Duncan Chisholm’s Covid Ceilidh and Perthshire fiddler Pete Clark’s tunes “from the shed”, while in Edinburgh singer-violist Mairi Campbell hosted Campbell’s Ceilidh.

Suzanne Bonnar performing for The Scotsman Sessions

This newspaper, seeking to fill the gap normally occupied by gig reviews, introduced its innovative and now British Journalism Award-winning Scotsman Sessions, featuring artists performing in locations all around Scotland, ranging from Glasgow jazz singer Suzanne Bonnar to Robert Robertson of Highland folk rockers Tide Lines.

As backroom noodling expanded into judicious video editing, increasingly ambitious projects included Glasgow trumpeter Joshua Elcock’s funky 17-piece big band – stitched together from individual phone videos – while Edinburgh’s spring TradFest heralded its online programme with a 36-artist rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra took up the challenge, among other things marking Nelson Mandela Day with an online performance of Sam Cooke’s still all-too-relevant Change Is Gonna Come, director Tommy Smith assembling the audio-visual recordings from SNJO players before digitally dispatching the mix across the Atlantic for singer Kenny Washington and vibraphonist Joe Locke to add their parts.

The SNJO also live-streamed a superb concert from an otherwise empty Perth Concert Hall earlier this month, marking the band’s 25th anniversary in considerable style, while also marking a birthday, Edinburgh’s sadly locked up Jazz Bar still managed to produce an impressive celebratory digital album compiled by jazz chanteuse Ali Affleck and featuring many notable guests.

Lizabett Russo PIC: Vicki Rose Evans

The enterprising Sound House organisation also ran online concerts, raising funds for artists it would normally have hosted live, while, also responding to the grim Covid-engendered financial situation, Edinburgh Folk Club introduced its wonderfully titled Carry On Streamin’ newsletters and YouTube sessions, which to date have raised more than £13,000 to assist 60-plus musicians – which the organisers regard, nevertheless, as less than half of those in need of assistance.

Whatever the virus did to silence live gigs and put musicians, sound engineers and related parties out of work, there seemed little abating in the stream of new albums. A few notables included emerging young jazz Glasgow drummer Richard Glassby’s impressive debut and another first album from the exuberant and similarly Royal Conservatoire of Scotland rooted band Mezcla, while Edinburgh trumpeter Colin Steele released his lovely Joni Mitchell tribute album.

There were environmental signallings: Jenny Sturgeon’s haunting tribute to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, was inspired by Nan Shepherd’s classic book while Edinburgh-based Romanian singer Lizabett Russo sounded her own strikingly vocalised plea for the natural world. Hamish Napier released the third in his “Strathspey pentalogy”, The Woods. Not to be outdone, meanwhile, his brother Findlay, along with Gillian Frame and Mike Vass, delivered The Ledger, based on a scrapbook of classic songs his grandfather had clipped from a famous series in the pages of The Scotsman, contributed by song-collecting MP Norman Buchan during the Fifties and Sixties.

Harpist Catriona McKay issued Love In Secret, a virtuosic contemporary take on old music, while fiddle player Lauren MacColl’s Landskein also tapped into the old tune manuscripts in a heartfelt evocation of place, while fellow fiddler Aidan O’Rourke hosted an eclectic session as part of the Edinburgh International Festival’s online programme, and released his Best of 365 double CD, inspired by James Robertson’s short story marathon. His Lau colleagues, Kris Drever and Martin Green produced, respectively, a fine song collection, Where the World Is Thin, and a darkly spooky album and podcast, Portal.This article went to press just before the annual MG Alba Scots Trad Awards were due to be televised, without a live audience but also reflecting these strange times by including new categories for “Trad Video of the Year” and “Online Performance of 2020”. Another innovation was presentation in Scots, as well as the usual Gaelic and English, by Mary Ann Kennedy and Alistair Heather.

Also championing the Scots leid is north-east singer and Scots language campaigner Iona Fyfe who has released her Scots rendition of In the Bleak Midwinter – a winsome, year’s-end counterblast to bleak times.

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