Among the snippets of information I didn’t imagine gleaning from Bruce Lindsay’s book about Norfolk folk singers Sam Larner and Harry Cox is that, at the beginning of the 1960s, Harry took on the job of coypu control in the local marshland.
In the grand scheme of things, this is possibly trivia and the South American, beaver-like rodents, which, it turns out, once proliferated in the Norfolk broads to the point of nuisance, don’t seem to have played any significant role in Mr Cox’s story beyond this, probably brief, job.
But it illustrates the sort of research that Lindsay has put into capturing the lives of two men who never achieved household name status but who possibly played crucial parts in the lives of others who did. As bearers of traditional songs, they can quite likely be credited with passing on – via Ewan MacColl - The Black Velvet Band, a 1967 chart success for the Dubliners, and The Wild Rover, with which everyone with even the slightest knowledge of folksong is familiar.
Lindsay does a great job of putting flesh on the bones of Larner and Cox’s characters. His research has been assiduous and he takes the reader right into the homes the two men created, and where they worked up their songs and later held court, and into the village pubs. There they took part in sessions, singing, step dancing (Larner on the tables, Cox more discreetly) and, in Harry’s case, played fiddle and melodeon and operated his jig dolls.
If his coypu ridding shows a minor side of Cox’s resourcefulness and practicality, the jig dolls are more central to this. Wooden dolls that could be made to dance on a plank of wood held under the operator’s buttocks while he or she sang or diddled, jig dolls were popular in different parts of the UK, and possibly further afield. Anyone who saw the great Scottish folk group Jock Tamson’s Bairns in their pomp will have encountered their concertina-player-whistle-player-percussionist Norman Chalmers’ dancing wooden figures.
The two singers, despite being close contemporaries (Larner born in 1878, Cox in 1885) and living only a few miles apart, never met. They seem to have had quite different natures, as their step dancing preferences show. Larner was a fisherman who followed the shoals of herring from Yarmouth round Britain to the Atlantic and who revelled in the sailor’s girl in every port reputation. His wife, who went blind, may have paid the price of his unfaithfulness.
Cox, on the other hand, was more stolid, a farm worker who was astute enough to negotiate his own terms as a self-employed man, a bit better off than most rural workers.
Both men survived from the Victorian era, served their country in the First World and lived to see the 1960s, along the way encountering song collectors and without becoming rich through their music, coming into contact with music promoters and recorders of varying degrees of scrupulousness.
Among happier associations Lindsay details were the “man who recorded the world” American Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. MacColl based his classic song The Shoals of Herring on Larner’s memories (Peggy enlarged upon his “twinkle eyed” demeanour by describing him as ”randy”) and both Larner and Cox had an input in MacColl and Seeger’s radio ballads series.
Sam and Harry’s influence extended into inspiring some of the outstanding singers of the folk revival. Shirley Collins, Frankie Armstrong, Martin Carthy and the late Peter Bellamy all learned from the techniques the Norfolk men developed naturally that make singing – or “telling” – narrative songs as much of an art form as opera or lieder.
The book works as a very readable and often fascinating source of both folk music lore and social history and while its subjects’ lives were largely based in a small part of East Anglia, its reach extends to some legendary London folk pubs and Shetland, where Sam won singing competitions while on shore leave from herring fishing. Recommended reading for anyone interested in folk song, folk singing and where folk singers got their songs from.
Published by Equinox
Fancy going down to Ronnie's?
At one point during Ronnie’s – the new documentary about Ronnie Scott’s jazz club - the singer Barbara Jay opines that people going to the club these days have no idea who Ronnie Scott was.
Almost twenty-five years after Scott’s death, should the current clientele know the club’s history? Well, if they’re interested in jazz at all – and even if they aren’t – they’ll get a lot from Oliver Murray’s film.
Murray has taken the biographical approach. With period footage he tells the story of Scott, born in the east end of London, discovering the saxophone through learning that his estranged father played in a dance band. Scott’s infamous humour – fondly remembered from his emceeing at the club - is there from the start. Older patrons will be familiar with the tale of the young Scott being so poor that all his clothes had to be bought from a military surplus store.
It wasn’t much fun, he says, as a nine-year-old Jewish kid, going to school dressed in a Japanese admiral’s uniform.
Scott had a fund of such lines. Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the club he started in Soho with his business partner and fellow saxophonist, Pete King (not to be confused with the recently departed alto master Peter King), he says, “Twenty years? That’s more than the Great Train Robbers got.”
And in some ways, he and King gave themselves a life sentence when they started the club. Scott had worked his way up through the London band scene as a much better than average jobbing saxophonist and avid jazz fan when he got to hear about the possibility of going to New York to hear the music in its natural habitat. He joined a host of others, including John Dankworth and Stan Tracey, in Geraldo’s Navy, the musicians who played to entertain the passengers on the transatlantic liners, or boats, as they called them.
During time off in New York, the musicians could spend their evenings in the jazz clubs on Fifty-Second Street, listening to their idols at close quarters. At some stage during this nocturnal music school, Scott decided that it would great to get some of these Americans over to London. It took some time. First, in 1959, he and King opened what became known as the old place in Gerrard Street - the aforementioned Peter King played on the opening night – and created a hang-out that musicians and jazz fans alike gravitated towards enthusiastically.
Bringing American musicians to the UK was hindered by the British Musicians’ Union effectively banning Americans from playing over here following legislation issued by the Ministry of Labour in 1935. The effects of this rumbled on into – at least – the late 1980s, with musician exchanges (your reviewer once traded dates on a Simple Minds tour to bring in the great alto saxophonist Bobby Watson). Pete King got round it by visiting the American Federation of Musicians in New York and winning their support, and in 1961, Zoot Sims, one of the legendary Four Brothers in King of Swing Woody Herman’s saxophone section, became the first of an almost complete Who’s Who of jazz who would play at Ronnie’s.
Monk, Miles, Ella, Oscar Peterson, Roland Kirk, Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich – they all came, and somehow Scott and King, with the latter trying heroically to balance the books, kept the club going.
Murray’s film does a great job of taking the viewer into the heart of the club and capturing Scott’s personality. Behind the one-liners (“What time do we open, sir? What time can you make it?” he’s seen asking a caller to the club on the phone) Scott was a troubled soul. His depression is handled sensitively but with frankness also and his dedication to the saxophone and the music shines through in every frame.
It’s an extraordinary rich canvas with an extraordinary cast (spotting legends such as Phil Seamen and Tubby Hayes is just one of the side benefits) and the cultural value of Scott and King’s enterprise can be gauged by the variety of their benefactors, who included notorious gangsters and some of rock music’s prime movers and shakers alike. Into the walls of the “new place” in Frith Street has seeped music by everyone from Sonny Rollins to Nina Simone to Chet Baker to Jimi Hendrix, whose appearance in a jam with funk-rock band War at the club the night before he died in 1970 features through a fan’s surreptitious recording.
This really is essential viewing, invaluable cultural and social history and quite the emotional roller coaster. It’s due for release on 22nd October through Everyman Cinemas. For more information, log onto http://olliemurray.com/portfolio/ronnies
Dave Milligan: man of versatility
The term versatile might have been coined with Dave Milligan in mind. Although restricted to largely private music-making, like musicians the world over in recent months, in normal times Milligan might have been out and about as the director of Perth Concert Hall's youth folk orchestra the Gordon Duncan Experience, named in tribute to the innovative bagpiper from Pitlochry.
He has also worked closely with the massive Love Music community choir in Edinburgh, has been the pianist and musical director behind Scottish trumpeter Colin Steele's award-winning international success over the past twenty years, and recently acted as musical supervisor with former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler on the stage musical version of Local Hero.
On top of that, Milligan has a gig diary that has included dates with ace session guitarist Larry Carlton (best known for his work with Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and the Crusaders). Then there’s his concerts with Nashville-based gospel music legends the McCrary Sisters, Indian percussion master Trilok Gurtu, singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, Fringe cabaret favourite Camille O’Sullivan and jazz greats Joe Temperley, Art Farmer and Carol Kidd. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
While in lockdown Milligan decided that it might be time to concentrate on his own music. In the noughties he released two very well received albums, Late Show and Shops, with his trio. Veteran jazz reviewer John Fordham, writing in The Guardian, rated both releases as among the very best European jazz has to offer, and leading magazine Jazzwise was similarly enthusiastic.
“I’d been thinking it was getting on for ten years since the second of those two albums, Shops, came out,” says Milligan. “Then someone pointed out that Shops was actually released in 2008 and that seemed like an awfully long time ago.”
In 2015, somewhere in between a series of albums and projects with Colin Steele, theatre work with storyteller Mike Maran, an album and touring with international fiddle band String Sisters and concerts with the Unusual Suspects, the orchestra he co-leads with his partner, harpist and singer Corrina Hewat, Milligan took time out for some personal development.
“Creative Scotland gave me a bursary to enable me to go and study with the Soviet-Norwegian pianist Misha Alperin just outside Oslo for a few days,” he says. “That was fantastic because I love Misha’s playing and I learned a lot during that trip. With the rest of the bursary I decided to get together with two Italian musicians I’d met during an international collaboration I’d been involved in at Edinburgh Jazz Festival with Colin Steele. Danilo Gallo and U. T. Gandhi were the bassist and drummer on that project and I’d been struck by the energy and understanding the three of us created together as a rhythm section.”
Gallo and Gandhi had told Milligan about a studio in northern Italy, ArteSuono in Udine, which sounded idyllic in its location – it’s surrounded by the Italian Alps. It seemed perfect for the experiment that Milligan had in mind.
“The guys were very enthusiastic about the piano in the studio and when they told me about the engineer who owns it, Stefano Amerio, I thought, I have to work with this guy,” says Milligan. “Stefano has worked on more than forty albums for the ECM Records label, which might not mean very much to the lay person but to most jazz musicians and jazz listeners this is quite significant. The ECM label is renowned for its sound quality and I knew a lot of the records Stefano had worked on.”
Despite the high quality of everyone and everything involved, Milligan wasn’t expecting to bring anything tangible back from the two days he booked in ArteSuono.
“Before we started playing,” he says, “I told Danilo and U.T. that if we didn’t even record one complete track, that was fine. This was really just about me letting go and being in the moment. I really just wanted to play some music with them. Then, of course, as soon as we started playing everything felt great.”
Never mind one complete track, over the two days, the trio recorded twenty tunes. Nothing happened with them, though, until Milligan started going through the recordings he had stockpiled while working on other people’s projects.
“When I listened to the Udine sessions, I thought they were too good to be languishing on the shelf,” says Milligan. “I chose seven tracks and was really taken with how they flowed together. So they became Momento, the first of what I think could be two or maybe three albums from those same two days.”
As well as being the product of a really enjoyable session, Momento brings two of Milligan’s main musical interests – folk music and jazz - together on one disc.
Growing up in the Borders, he began playing piano at the age of seven. By the time he left school he had only one profession in mind – pianist – and studying at the City of Leeds College of Music gave him the ideal preparation. When he returned to Scotland, he slipped easily into the jazz scene. As well as playing with local personalities he was soon being hired to accompany top visitors from the U.S. and London, often with minimal rehearsal.
The cool accomplishment apparent on Momento was present on gigs with demanding soloists including saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Peter King, trumpeters Art Farmer and Valery Ponomarev and singers Carol Kidd and Tina May. May, who toured Scotland just before lockdown came into force, remembers a concert with Milligan at Dundee Rep many years ago when, she says, “he knew all the songs I wanted to sing and it felt like we’d been working together forever.”
As well as playing jazz, with his partner, Corrina Hewat, Milligan began exploring traditional ballads and imaginately rearranged Robert Burns songs. Instrumental versions of two Scottish folk songs, Parcel of Rogues and Freedom Come All Ye, feature on Momento, which is released on 28th August, and Milligan's folk connections now extend across both the North Sea and the Atlantic.
In the late 1990s, the Shetland fiddler Catriona Macdonald asked Milligan to form the core of a new quartet. This led to work with a bigger band, String Sisters, which features Macdonald and Milligan with musicians from the U.S., Scandinavia, Ireland, and Scotland. It doesn’t take too much of a leap to imagine String Sisters’ six-strong fiddle frontline cruising over the grooves Milligan creates with Gallo and Gandhi on Momento.
String Sisters made their debut in 2000 at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, a festival at which Milligan has played every year since it began in 1994. All sorts of projects have resulted, from his commissioned piano duet, Lifting the Lid, with Andy Thorburn, through to the debut of the forty-strong Unusual Suspects, comprising folk musicians, jazz instrumentalists and singers including Karine Polwart and Kris Drever. The late multi-instrumentalist and maverick techno-folk experimentalist Martyn Bennett attended the orchestra's first performance and ventured afterwards that he had just heard “a marvellous racket.”
Milligan, ever laid back, takes the corralling of forty such talents in the same unassuming stride as he does when talking about sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in the business, including Larry Carlton, whose guitar playing almost defines classic recordings such as Steely Dan's Kid Charlemagne and Joni Mitchell's Help Me.
The pianist’s calm approach to organisation has also seen him compose Sylvander & Clarinda, a 90-minute suite based on the letters between Robert Burns and Agnes McLehose, for a cast of twenty, including international jazz orchestra, Scottish folk singers and featured soloist, Fife-born Duke Ellington alumnus Joe Temperley. Another project, the Stone Islands Big Band, found him overseeing an orchestra comprising Scottish, Italian and Sardinian musicians.
His apparent unflappability shouldn’t be misread as neutrality, however. Get him talking about the atmosphere and background story to Momento (and its possible successors) and he waxes lyrical.
“Something changed for me over those few days in Italy – not so much in terms of my musical vocabulary or technique, but in terms of where the music comes from in performance, and allowing it to flow,” he says. “As well as having great musicians and a great engineer to work with, the landscape around the studio is inspiring. When I arrived in Udine, I stood for a while on the balcony of my room and tried to take in the panoramic horizon that was the Alps. It was unexpected and breath-taking; particularly bathed as it was in the colours of a humid summer evening. A long way away - on so many levels - from the rolling hills of the Borders, where I grew up. But, for a moment at least, it felt like home.”
From The Courier, August 22, 2020
Pianist McCreadie shares good news amid the lockdown gloom
Fergus McCreadie (photo by Dave Stapleton)
Award-winning Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie has announced some good news to counter the list of cancelled concerts and postponed festival appearances that has become the musician’s lot during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Twenty-two-year-old McCreadie, who was due to make his American debut with his trio at Rochester Jazz Festival in New York next month, has signed to one of Europe’s leading jazz record labels, Edition Records. He joins top musicians including recent Edinburgh visitors, singer Kurt Elling, bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter in recording for the Cardiff-based company.
McCreadie reached an international audience with his first album, Turas, which was recorded with his long-time colleagues, bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson, and released while he was still a student on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s acclaimed jazz course.
The trio toured across northern Europe promoting the album and it went on to win the Album of the Year title at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards last year, having earlier taken the Best Album prize at the Scottish Jazz Awards 2019. It also made the shortlist of the Scottish Album of the Year Award, reaching the final ten in a field of over 290 entrants, a rare feat for a jazz album.
A full eighteen months of activity, which included appearances at Oslo and Stockholm jazz festivals and a headlining concert at jazz mecca, Ronnie Scott’s International Piano Trio Festival in London, was brought to a halt with the lockdown in mid-March.
“We’d just completed a UK tour that included really successful concerts in Sheffield and Southampton and our first gig at the fabled 606 Club in London,” says McCreadie, who financed and self-released Turas with the proceeds of the trio’s success in winning the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award for young jazz musicians in 2016. “As well as the Rochester Jazz Festival gig, we were also looking forward to playing at Love Supreme, the biggest outdoor jazz event in Europe, in July, but that’s been put back to 2021 now.”
On the plus side, however, the trio recorded one of its last concerts before the shutdown and has been earning enthusiastic responses for the resulting EP, Live at Black Mountain, which McCreadie personally produces and dispatches to order.
The official follow-up to Turas, Cairn, will be released by Edition in early 2021 and McCreadie is looking forward to being part of the label’s high-profile family.
“I’m really excited and honoured to be signing up to the Edition roster of artists, joining musicians I’ve respected and looked up to for many years,” he says. “Edition is known for having an eclectic and forward-looking catalogue and a strong presence on the European scene, and so to be part of the output of such great music is a real pleasure.”
In the meantime, with venues likely to be closed for some time yet, McCreadie is live-streaming solo concerts every Tuesday from his Facebook page to keep in touch with his audience during the lockdown.
“We managed to do a trio live-stream from Stephen’s house just before the stricter social distancing rules came into force but that seems like a long time ago now,” he says. “I miss playing with David and Stephen but I enjoy the solo concerts. They’re challenging in a way but also quite liberating. I just think of a key and see where my imagination takes me. It’s a bit strange playing to an audience you can’t see or hear but judging from the comments that come up on screen as I play, people seem to like what they’re hearing.”
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