Remaking old tunes with new ideas
Fraser Fifield (photo by Douglas Robertson)
From his home in Cupar multi-instrumentalist Fraser Fifield steps out into the musical world. He might be going to the other side of the country, as was the case recently when he joined his long-time musical partner, guitarist Graeme Stephen to film a video on the “whisky island” of Islay.
Or his travels might equally take Fifield to the other side of the planet, to Mumbai or Buenos Aires or to Eastern Europe, all of which have been locations for recordings and concerts with leading local musicians.
If you’d told Fifield, when he began learning to play the bagpipes as a schoolboy with his local GP in Aboyne, Aberdeenshire that this would open doors to working with musicians including the Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain, he’d likely have responded with an “aye, right” in the soft Doric accent that remains unchanged.
Over the years, however, Fifield has added various saxophones, clarinet, the Bulgarian kaval (or end-blown flute), and the low whistle to the bagpipes.
His expressive playing on the low whistle has proved particularly attractive to bands including Capercaillie, the Afro Celts and the mighty Grit Orchestra, which was formed to interpret the music of maverick musical alchemist, another piper-multi-instrumentalist, Martyn Bennett.
In lockdown last year, Fifield revisited the music that his GP, Jack Taylor, who just happened to be the champion piper and long-time chairman of the Piobaireachd Society, taught him. Piobaireachd literally means pipe music but is now used to describe the classical music of the Highland bagpipe, what the forty-five-year-old Fifield calls “that ancient, slightly mysterious music.”
The result of his return to his roots is Piobaireachd/Pipe Music, a startling new album that features centuries old tunes and new compositions by Fifield, seasoned by touches learned and developed in his travels.
“Piping never leaves you,” he says. “It’s kind of a blessing and a curse. You develop a way of hearing things totally through the bagpipe filter so that your training on the pipes informs everything. It’s the bedrock of everything I do and there’s a certain dexterity in the fingering that you can apply to the whistle especially. I’ve sometimes found myself teaching whistle workshops, wanting to tell students to go away and learn to play the pipes first. But you can’t say that to someone who’s only come to a class for an hour or two.”
During his enforced stay at home, Fifield explored and re-imagined ancient tunes, including The Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick, from the 17th century, and The Lament for the Old Sword. On the album, the former, which commemorates an act of terrible retribution, features soprano saxophone, clarinet and whistle embellishing the bagpipe melody. The latter tune finds Fifield’s whistle, alto and soprano saxophone vividly reinterpreting its traditional variations.
He didn’t set out to make an album but the more he experimented with the older pipe tunes, the more he realised he was creating a repertoire that had a certain flow. There were also musical responses to events such as the death of Fifield’s friend, bagpipe maker and fellow fearless cross-cultural experimenter, Nigel Richard, at the beginning of this year that chimed with the stories behind the old tunes.
“I wouldn’t want people to get the impression that the album is all doom and gloom,” he says. “It’s actually quite lively and has multi-instrumental choruses that were designed to be uplifting. There’s also a real soulfulness in the old music that I wanted to convey. The tune for Nigel, Being in Time, puts Border pipes together with saxophones, whistles and kaval in a bustling, slightly roguish way that he, I think, would have appreciated.”
Transferring the musical arrangements on the album to the stage might be a challenge. But Fifield wasn’t thinking of the recording-to-promotion steps that have sometimes been part of the plan with his previous seven albums.
“It was more about exploring a theory I have that improvisation is simply inherent to the human musical experience,” he says. “I also believe that improvisation once played a greater part in the music we now call piobaireachd. That might be impossible to prove today but it makes sense to me and I’m happiest when creating afresh – that interesting mix of being performer and composer at the same time.”
From The Courier, October 29, 2021
Robin Morton R.I.P.
Robin Morton (photo by Ewan MacGregor)
Robin Morton, who has died suddenly at the age of eighty-one, was a figure of enormous influence and inspiration in folk and traditional music in Scotland, Ireland and across the world.
A founding member of one long-running group, the Boys of the Lough, he went on to manage and guide another, Battlefield Band, to international success, and as a record producer and label owner he oversaw both the 1979 Melody Maker Folk Album of the Year by Cilla Fisher & Artie Trezise and Dick Gaughan’s classic A Handful of Earth album. He also recorded Scottish harp music and Gaelic singing long before these became a commonplace part of the Scottish music scene.
Morton’s love of traditional music actually developed through his teenage fascination for jazz, which he maintained to the end, and it’s a tantalising thought that his Temple Records label might have added a live album by the tenor saxophone legend George Coleman to its rich catalogue of Scottish and Irish music. Until recently, Robin and his wife, the internationally renowned harper and glass artist, Alison Kinnaird kept an apartment in New York. Coleman was a neighbour and Robin talked often of capturing one of the ageing saxophonist’s gigs for posterity.
It was Robin’s father who turned him onto jazz at home in Portadown. Robin took up the cornet in an attempt to emulate Louis Armstrong (he’d been disappointed to learn that Jelly Roll Morton wasn’t actually called Morton and so wasn’t related) and he discovered later that he bought records in the same specialist jazz and blues shop in Belfast that Van Morrison frequented. Seeking other authentic forms of music, Robin discovered blues through the 1950s skiffle boom and then realised that the roots of the Appalachian folk songs that skiffle had also led to him lay in Scotland and Ireland.
On leaving school, Robin taught mentally handicapped children, training in Manchester, where he met and befriended the Spinners folk group and bought his first guitar. Back in Portadown, he discovered that his family, particularly his maternal uncle, Tom McCreery, had been interested in traditional songs all along. McCreery suggested that Robin go to the singing session at the Head of the Road pub, about ten miles out of town, and Robin’s appetite for song collecting was whetted.
In 1962, Robin began studying for a degree in Social Work at Queen’s University in Belfast where he attended folk clubs and became involved in the Glee Club, which was run by Phil Coulter, who later became a hugely successful songwriter. With some fellow students, Robin formed a folk music society, where he quickly developed his organisational skills. After a year he moved to London to study at the LSE and during this time he fell in with Ewan MacColl, who encouraged Robin’s musical interests and give him access to a vast collection of songs.
By now a qualified psychiatric social worker, Robin returned to Belfast. The university folk club was still going strong and Robin sang and organised concerts there before joining with other singers and musicians to form the Ulster Folk Music Society. Robin’s aim was to integrate songs and tunes, which thrived in separate sessions at the time, a sense of things to come. He also used his time in hospital following a rugby injury to begin collecting songs from fellow patients, one of whom bashfully sang into Robin’s tape recorder from behind the privacy screen.
Among the musicians who appeared for the Ulster Folk Music Society were a fiddler, Tommy Gunn and a whistle and flute virtuoso, Cathal McConnell. Robin began playing guitar, bodhran and concertina with them and in 1967, another pair of UFMS guests, Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger, for whom Robin had organised tours, invited them to tour England and Scotland. Gunn, McConnell and Morton became the first edition of the Boys of the Lough, named spontaneously after a reel they played.
At this point Robin decided to study for another degree, in Economic History, at Queen’s University. He paid his way through the course by doing freelance radio journalism, selling one version of a story to the BBC and another – as Robert Martin – to RTE. An old school friend, Gloria Hunniford sometimes took a third version for the BBC World Service. Cathal McConnell heard “Robert Martin” on the radio one day and told Robin that there was a chap on RTE who sounded just like him.
In 1970, Robin came to Edinburgh to study for a PhD, focusing on the treatment of madness. Before he left Belfast he published a book of the songs he’d collected, Folksongs Sung in Ulster and had begun producing records, although his pioneering enthusiasm for real-deal traditional music wasn’t always shared by record companies. His PhD was never finished due to his musical interests eating into study time. Tommy Gunn retired from the Boys of the Lough and Robin and Cathal invited Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and his then duo partner, guitarist, harmonica player and singer Mike Whellans, who was later replaced by Dick Gaughan, to form a quartet.
With Robin’s organisational skills, promotional flair and ability to make contacts, the group forged an international touring network, taking the traditional music of Ireland, Shetland and Scotland to huge audiences in the U.S. especially. Throughout the 1970s Robin was the Boys’ player-manager, somehow finding the time to turn an old church in Temple, Midlothian into a family home for Alison and their children.
It remained the family home and added another function – a recording studio and base for Temple Records – when Robin came off the road and turned his attention to recording music he felt was being neglected. He recorded Cilla Fisher & Artie Trezise and Dick Gaughan for leading folk label Topic Records and when Topic didn’t share his enthusiasm for Scottish harp music and Gaelic singing, Robin released his wife, Alison Kinnaird’s The Harp Key and albums by singers Flora MacNeil and Christine Primrose on Temple Records. More, including the revered first album by Edinburgh-based Jock Tamson’s Bairns, followed.
Among Robin’s production clients were Battlefield Band, whose overtures for him to manage them he initially declined but whom, from 1980, he went on to champion and guide with typical Robin-esque gusto from a folk club attraction to concert hall and festival stalwarts. He gave their music the strapline “Forward with Scotland’s Past” and established them internationally, keeping the band thriving through numerous personnel changes for forty years. His skills as an advocate for traditional music and music in general saw him spend a period as chairman of the Scottish Record Industry Association and from 1986 to 1988 he was director of Edinburgh Folk Festival.
As well as a house, studio and office, the old church in Temple also served as an exhibition venue for Alison’s glass work and Robin would share his pride in Alison’s creativity – and inevitably, a few stories – with visitors. He had an endless supply of anecdotes, often referencing well-known personalities who were long-standing friends. It’s not difficult to imagine how he accumulated these friends because Robin was a man whose enthusiasm for everything he embraced was only exceeded by his incredible energy and desire to get things done.
At the time of his death Robin was in the process of finishing another project, a collection of songs from Ulster that is just a couple of notes short of completion. Plans are afoot to see it through to publication, one more achievement completed by a man who achieved - and gave – so much. He’ll be missed immeasurably by Alison, his daughter, Ellen and son, John and by everyone who fell under his charms.
Robin Morton, musician, record producer, song collector, manager, born December 24, 1939; died October 1, 2021.
From The Herald, October 18, 2021
Wellington Jazz Festival sends new music to Europe
Jasmine Lovell-Smith (photo by Hayden Hockly)
Three musicians whose new albums were launched at this summer's Wellington Jazz Festival have combined to promote their own music in Europe while championing the current strengths of the New Zealand jazz scene.
Pianist Ben Wilcock, who released The River Tethys on August 13th, and saxophonists Jasmine Lovell-Smith and Jake Baxendale, whose Sanctuary followed on August 20th, have already received praise for their new recordings in the birthplace of the Count Basie Orchestra, Kansas City, Missouri. Radio presenter Joe Dimino, of KC’s Neon Jazz, interviewed Wilcock and Baxendale at length after being impressed by Wilcock’s sci-fi inspired album and Baxendale & Lovell-Smith’s debut as co-leaders of an eleven-piece ensemble.
“It was great to receive an endorsement of our music from somewhere with such strong historical links to jazz,” says Baxendale, whose other group, The Jac won the Best Jazz Artist title at this year’s Aotearoa [New Zealand] Music Awards. “It’s always good to win awards at home but to be recognised internationally is a particular boost and lets us see that we are creating music that can travel.”
New Zealand has produced a number of well-regarded jazz musicians in the past, among them pianists Mike Nock, Dave MacRae and Alan Broadbent. Mike Nock, who has recorded for ECM Records, lived and worked in New York for many years. Dave MacRae toured with Buddy Rich before becoming established on the European scene with Ian Carr’s Nucleus, and Alan Broadbent is now a Grammy-winning arranger and composer. Jasmine Lovell-Smith herself studied and played with saxophone master Anthony Braxton while living in the U.S. a few years ago.
“Having such examples definitely helps in giving musicians something to strive for,” says Baxendale, whose own CV includes two years in Germany where he played with the Berlin Big Band and composition studies with trumpeter Dave Douglas in New York. “It’s also significant that musicians like Ben and Jasmine have worked abroad – Ben in London; Jasmine in Mexico as well as New York and Connecticut – and brought the experience they’ve gained back to New Zealand to share with the next generation of players they’ve taught at the New Zealand School of Music.”
Wilcock, Baxendale and Lovell-Smith, whose compositions and arrangements on Sanctuary have been likened by reviewers to Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider’s work, are keen to highlight other recent releases from New Zealand that are making waves at home and are deserving of international attention.
Saxophonist Lucien Johnson’s Wax///Wane earned him the Best Jazz Composer title at the APRA AMCOS Awards 2021. Cory Champion, who played drums on Johnson’s album, has a recording with his own group, Clear Path Ensemble, and pianist Jonathan Crayford’s Dark Light and saxophonist Nathan Haines’ The Poet’s Embrace are others to look out for.
“We’d all love to be touring our music internationally or welcoming visitors to Wellington Jazz Festival next year,” says Baxendale. “It’s uncertain if that’s going to be possible but if people can make it to New Zealand, they’ll hear a lot of good homegrown jazz.”
Sci-fi and jazz produce bold new album
Ben Wilcock (photo by Riley Claxton)
The Hyperion Cantos series of science fiction novels by American author Dan Simmons is the inspiration for the bold, stylistically varied new album by New Zealand-born pianist Ben Wilcock.
In a professional career spanning more than twenty years, Wilcock has played venues ranging from Glastonbury Festival, with soul singer Bella Kalolo, to the Jazz Bar in Edinburgh, with his own group. He has also toured with R&B singer Aaradnha and blues artist Chris Cain and played concerts with former Herbie Hancock reeds master Bennie Maupin and the hugely experienced American drummer Bob Moses.
Wilcock grew up in a musical family in Hamilton, NZ – his mother is a chorister, his father plays jazz and his brother Sam is a long-time session guitarist in London – and he was exposed to a wide variety of music throughout his childhood and teens.
The stylistic variation on The River Tethys is a result of this. Alongside the seven original pieces, Wilcock and his musicians reinvigorate the 1920s silent movie song La Rosita (later a favourite of Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins), jazz standards Groovin’ High and Star Eyes and the traditional Irish slip jig The Butterfly.
“Each track on the album is based on different unique worlds explored by the various protagonists within the Hyperion saga,” says Wilcock. “We recorded the music and then each track was assigned to characters and scenes in the novels. I knew that musically this was going to be a meeting of old and new worlds, which is where the connection to the books comes in; distant worlds connected by a commonality. As we put the tracks together for the album it became clear which track suited which character or world.”
The album features Wilcock with his partner in Thick Records, Wellington-based Scottish drummer John Rae, bassist Dan Yeabsley and violinist Tristan Carter.
“All of the tracks on the album are 'one takes' because we wanted the recording to really capture a true collaborative improvisation,” he says. “Jazz and sci-fi don’t typically mix so, conceptually, this album has taken me in a new direction, and I hope listeners will feel that they are listening to something fresh and innovative.”
Wilcock launched The River Tethys during Wellington Jazz Festival in June 11; the album is set for release on August 13, 2021.
Saxophonist Lucien Johnson wins major jazz award
Lucien Johnson (publicity photo)
New Zealand saxophonist Lucien Johnson has won the Best Jazz Composition prize in the APRA AMCOS Jazz Awards for Blue Rain from his Wax///Wane album.
The awards are New Zealand's premier jazz awards and Johnson was also shortlisted in the Best Jazz Artist category following international praise for Wax///Wane, which was released in Europe on April 1.
The saxophonist, who spent much of his twenties living and working in and out of Paris, put together a set of compositions that reflect the natural surroundings of his life by the sea but also contain the energy and urgency of city living.
Setting his tenor saxophone in an intriguing line-up – vibes, harp, bass, drums and percussion – enabled Johnson to capture the dream-like quality he wanted to convey. It also harks back to one of the many musical experiences – playing with Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulutu Astatke - that have come his way as a result of leaving New Zealand for Europe as a twenty-two-year-old with no contacts and just a smattering of high school French.
“If you come from New Zealand, when you’re young anywhere else seems extremely exciting and desirable,” he says. “I talked myself into an English teaching job in Paris and stayed with a friend of a friend for a few days, then was in some hostels before finding a flat in the 11th arrondissement. My French was really bad but after a year or so it got much better and before long I was fluent.”
As he started to meet people, Johnson, who grew up in a musical family, was able to find work as a musician. He played in brasseries and gravitated towards theatre work, including a clown troupe, with whom he toured India. Another theatre gig took him to Haiti, where he spent four months and contracted malaria but also got to play with voodoo drummers.
Back in Paris he started to mingle with American and Japanese musicians, hanging out with drumming legend and long-time Paris resident Sunny Murray, pianist Bobby Few and saxophonist Steve Potts and playing in drummer John Betsch’s band. The brilliant Japanese drummer Makoto Sato introduced Johnson to free jazz bass titan Alan Silva, of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler fame, and they formed a trio, going on to record the album Stinging Nettles.
“Playing and recording with a musician of Alan’s stature was a real honour for me and meeting and gaining the respect of these American players who were of the 1960s and 1970s generation who had settled in Paris was amazing,” he says. “But it was often a struggle to pay the rent and after six years, I decided to return home.”
In Wellington he joined a band that toured the U.S. and Europe every year and got a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. He then completed a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Victoria University and went on to compose music for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Dance Company while making music under his own name. His album West of the Sun, which was released on Japanese label Wonderful Noise, was shortlisted for New Zealand’s Jazz Album of the Year title in 2017.
Johnson’s travels and experiences led to him becoming the go-to musician for festival collaborations back home, which is how he came to work with pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Barre Phillips, and with Mulatu Astatke, both in Wellington and Addis Ababa.
Wax///Wane, he says, is the first album he has made in a really mature musical style and he’d like to think it marks the beginning of being able to concentrate exclusively on making his own music.
“I definitely chose the harp and the vibraphone for a reason,” he says. “For me, these instruments invoke, perhaps better than any other, the feeling of dreams. That's why composers like Debussy and Ravel liked the harp. The vibraphone can do that too when you use it with pedal and tremolo. The vibes give Mulatu's music a sense of mystery and one of my favourite Miles Davis albums, Blue Moods, gets this spacious, mysterious feeling with the vibes, as does Archie Shepp's New Thing at Newport with Bobby Hutcherson.”
The Wax/Wane instrumentation is one he would like to record with more and he feels there is more to explore in creating music that reflects the weather – winds and storms contrasting with blue skies – and the flora and fauna of the coast where he lives.
“It's a very different experience from, say, living in New York and going head-to-head with jazz virtuosos every night of the week,” he says. “My music probably doesn't have the same technical complexity as a lot of the music that is made in that context, but I do believe it has a certain level of emotional nuance nonetheless, and a feeling of mystique.”
Lucien Johnson’s Wax///Wane is available on Bandcamp and all major streaming services.
Thunderstruck helps take word of piping genius worldwide
When Gordon Duncan introduced his arrangement for bagpipes of the AC/DC song Thunderstruck at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1999, he was probably expecting to make mischievous ripples rather than waves that have washed up on four continents and inspired an international award-winning play.
An essentially shy, quiet man who had earned his own international reputation as a piper while holding down a job as a refuse collector in Pitlochry, Gordon was a self-effacing virtuoso. A journalist once described Gordon’s fluency on the pipes as akin to the great jazz musician Charlie Parker’s playing on the alto saxophone, only to be gently rebuffed by Gordon’s suggestion that the journalist stop being so daft.
It wasn’t such a daft comparison because Gordon took the pipes to a level of proficiency and expression up there with Dame Evelyn Glennie’ on percussion or Nicola Benedetti’s on violin. Not everyone valued Gordon’s ability to play on the pipes apparently any piece of music – or any musical scale – he could hear in his imagination.
His first album, Just for Seamus, was dedicated to a piping competition adjudicator who had responded to Gordon’s free-wheeling brilliance by saying that if this was where piping was heading, he wished he himself had taken up the fiddle instead.
Plenty of others did appreciate Gordon’s musicality and compositional flair, though. By the time he unleashed Thunderstruck, Gordon’s tunes such as Andy Renwick’s Ferret and The Sleeping Tune were so popular with other musicians and folk bands that they had virtually passed into the tradition, possibly the ultimate compliment for a composer in the traditional music style.
In terms of audacity, Thunderstruck arguably surpassed everything Gordon had produced to date, even his magnificent Pressed for Time. On first hearing, at that Edinburgh Festival concert in 1999, Thunderstruck appeared to encompass such staples of the electric guitarist’s art as feedback and whammy bar manipulation. Although signed off with a grin and a casual mopping of the brow, the performance itself was a tacit challenge to “follow that”.
And many have taken up the challenge. Go onto the internet and you will find Australian buskers playing Thunderstruck on bagpipes whose drones spit flames. There’s a version that marries dubstep and Indian traditions with Gordon’s inspiration and others that feature Spain’s Rondalla Santa Eulalia de Mos pipe band both taking it onto the streets and choreographing it extravagantly in a theatre.
And while the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, formed by a Gordon devotee, now retired, used Thunderstruck as a blueprint for taking rock music on bagpipes onto the international touring circuit with their bagrock schtick, possibly the ultimate tribute is to have the six times world champions, Canada’s Simon Fraser University Pipe Band playing Thunderstruck.
It was, after all, the pipe band arena where Gordon developed much of his boldness for musical arrangement. As the musical director of the vale of Atholl Pipe Band, while still in his teens, Gordon began to introduce the music and techniques he heard in Ireland, Brittany and Galicia into the Scottish piping lexicon.
Fife-born actor, and piper, David Colvin was a member of the Lochgelly High School Pipe Band when he first encountered Gordon. His admiration for his hero has led to him writing and performing in a play, Thunderstruck, that has now won major awards at the Edinburgh Fringe and at festivals in Adelaide and Perth in Australia.
David’s play, which was due to feature at this year’s Perth Festival of the Arts in Scotland before the current health crisis, tells the story of his own experiences in pipe bands (and contains language that, he concedes, follows the saying that “you can take the boy out of Ballingry but you can’t take Ballingry out of the boy”).
Gordon’s presence hovers throughout the piece, though, and David, who acted and played the pipes in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, is enough of a musician to play Thunderstruck towards the end.
“I’m not Gordon Duncan and wouldn’t claim to be,” he says. “The play wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t play the tune it’s named after but the reason the play came about was to try and spread the word more widely about this fantastic musician who was known around the world in piping and traditional music circles but is largely unappreciated by the general public.”
Winning a coveted Herald Angel at the Edinburgh Fringe last year for the play was a thrill for David as Gordon, who died in 2005, had been given the same recognition, as had Gordon’s father, the ballad singer Jock Duncan, and his brother, Ian, in his capacity as pipe major of the Vale of Atholl band.
“People who’ve been to see the play often say, Wow, an AC/DC tune on the pipes and it’s great that they appreciate what Gordon did with that arrangement,” says David. “What I hope they’ll go on to discover, though, is that Gordon’s audaciousness created a lot more truly fantastic music. He was an amazing composer and a real musical visionary. If Thunderstruck, the play, inspires people to investigate Gordon’s music, I’ll have done my job.”
From The Courier, Saturday, March 28, 2020